As a parish priest people often say funny things to you, such as ‘I wish I had faith,’ or ‘I am not religious but...’. I always find this the most interesting statement. In fact I think that in many ways mission and evangelism is about speaking into, and hopefully erasing, the ‘but.’
Of course some people will always want to rubbish or ridicule faith but, and here is my but, one of the reasons they are able to do so is because they haven’t seen the consequences or outworking of faith enabling them to conflate faith, as an active and dynamic virtue, with mere cognitive belief. Belief is, for sure, an element of faith, but faith, real transformative faith, cannot and should not be reduced to straightforward belief. In terms of mission and evangelism dynamic, active, transformative faith is the answer to the wishes and the buts that so many people express to me.
So what does such faith look like and how does it differ from straightforward belief? Before I start to answer this I think that I would want to say something very important by stressing once again that faith, if it is to be convincing, if it is to answer the wishes and the buts, must be observable; it must look like something. If it isn’t observable, in some ways visible, it – faith – is hardly likely to be convincing. In many ways this is the entire point of the gospel reading; if our faith is to be judged as credible it must be an alert and active faith.
The gospel also makes something else abundantly clear: faith is an antidote to selfishness and individualism. If our faith is to be credible and transformative the one thing it must always do is to point away from us and towards God and neighbour. As Christians, especially rationally minded Western Christians, we need to make sure that our belief in Jesus captures not only our heads but our hearts and hands too; for this is the essence of an active, missional, evangelistic and transformative faith. Faith is in many ways belief made real in both feeling and doing.
So what should we feel? Again the Gospel reading gives the answer: trust and lack of fear, where trust is firmly grounded in the surety that Jesus is truly the Messiah. It is this level of trust, or surety, that allows us to move beyond the paralysis of fear and into action.
It is this trust, the trust that we are a part of a much larger picture, that allows us to move from self=centeredness and individualism, and a belief that we can be saved through the acquisition of things, into fellowship and communion. We need to develop such radical trust as the basis for an active faith, and the way we do this is through prayer, for it is through prayer that we become open to the transformative presence of God, for faith isn’t really about belief but about relationship. In some ways this shouldn’t be too hard to grasp, for many, perhaps most of us, will know that it is through relationships, loving relationships, that we are changed for the better and as we are changed for the better the nature of our desires changes and what we begin to crave is a new ‘homeland,’ ‘a better country, that is a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11 14 & 16): ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’
Faith is belief acting on desire. But I would want to go further and say that faith, I think, is belief acting on desire and leading to transformative and empirically observable action. This is Isaiah’s point: for Isaiah the fruit of an active faith is holiness, where holiness means that we ‘learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow,’ (Isaiah 1, 17).
Doing all of this looks like a tall order! But the good news is this: we are not called on to do it alone, instead we do it together as the Holy Communion of God’s people; we do it grounded in prayer and empowered by the Holy Spirit, for whereas belief is individual faith is corporate, or communal.
What I have sought to do today is to make explicit the link between faith, mission and evangelism. I have tried to show how faith transcends belief and suggested that faith is belief, acting on desire, made manifest and credible through transformative action.
Over the next few weeks and months we are going to consider, in some depth, various aspects of mission and evangelism, but as we do can I ask you to commit to deepening and enriching your own faith so that we can help fashion a new ‘homeland,’ and a ‘better country; that is a heavenly one,’ so that we can start to answer those wishes and erase those buts that I referred to at the beginning of this homily? Amen.