Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Isaiah 56 v 1 & v 6-8 Ps 67 Romans 11:1-2 & 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28
Grace, Faith, and the Community where they come together
When our faith is tested, part of the test will be the questions. Not too many of our own, I hope – since the prospect of testing and difficulties is more than a possibility for Christians, it's pretty well guaranteed!
No – we live our faith in public as an act of witness, which means when we are in difficulties there will be people watching us to see how we deal with them. Some of these watchers will be hostile – looking for any signs that our faith is letting us down, But other watchers will be more thoughtful, people genuinely concerned that we are OK. And some will be spiritually hungry, looking to your experience to give them reasons to believe in God for themselves.
During a time when I was in a bad patch I lost count of how often people said: 'I'm sure your faith is a big help to you', usually with a question mark at the end, and before and since I've heard of plenty of others facing the same question. I found the answer quite difficult to put into words, mainly because I'm a bit suspicious of religious shorthand.
Today's Gospel reading, which is a puzzling passage at many levels, is an invitation to think about our faith and God's healing. The Canaanite woman wanting healing for her daughter keeps asking in the face of discouragement, until finally she hears what she needs – her great faith wins her the YES she needs to hear.
The problem with talking about our faith helping us is that it's a kind of chicken and egg situation: what comes first – God? Or our faith? As Christians we know the answer well enough: God comes first, and our faith second. But do the people who ask the question see reality the same way?
Don't bet on it!
It's all very well having faith, but faith in what? Does it matter – our world today thinks it doesn't! People say they have faith in people and institutions, whether it be our own doctor or in Donald Trump!
Or consider this, from a serious newspaper last year?
Iceland has been forced to bow to pressure from elves and uncover a supposedly enchanted elfin rock after highway workers accidentally buried it - infuriating the mythical creatures, reports said on Tuesday.
The angry elves were suspected of causing a series of mishaps after the rock was covered over when workers cleared away the debris from a landslide, a daily paper reported.
Iceland is no stranger to bending to the will of its elfin population. Construction sites have previously been moved so as not to disturb the creatures and fishermen have refused to go to sea because of their warnings: in Iceland, elves are part of every day life.
What's wrong with that – it's faith, isn't it? And it seems to work: the workers uncovered the rock and jet washed it, and all the problems ended. Faith is proved to work! Some of you look unconvinced.......?
Beware of those who treat faith as some kind of helpful or even heroic human quality in itself, no matter what that faith might be attached to. Before faith could help the woman in the Gospel she had to bring it, in fact bring the whole of herself, to Jesus, overcoming a whole heap of discouragements in order to get to Him.
She had to acknowledge Jesus as the only answer to her need, something people today find really difficult to do, it's a real sticking point for so many people. They want Christ as a helper, but don't want to commit themselves to accept Him as their only helper.
So God, God revealed in Jesus, comes first. So my answer to 'I'm sure your faith is a big help to you' is that in fact Jesus Christ himself is the source of any big help I get.
Why do I insist on saying that? I'm sure that some people would say that someone with so few hairs shouldn't waste so much time splitting hairs!
But try looking at it this way.... I hope it won't shock you if I say that actually my faith can be quite wobbly at times – I try to exercise and feed my faith to help it grow, but my own faith is far from perfect in trust, knowledge, or love.
But being a Christian means that God's love for me, God's goodwill towards me, isn't limited by how my faith is feeling today, I don't have to be like a French mobile phone, paying in faith to retain a positive balance, so that I can then spend some calling God for help any time if I need to.
If faith did work like that, I would be in trouble. You see, when everything is going well, that's when my faith feels strongest to me. But when my world starts to wobble around me, now THAT'S the moment I'm not sure my faith is strong enough. I SO identify with the man with a sick child in Mark 9, v23, when he cries out 'Lord, I believe: help my unbelief'! This reaching out is enough for Jesus to answer his prayer and heal his son.
If that's a scripture I love, then there's an old prayer that I love as well, that asks God to accept our prayers 'not according to the poverty of our imagination, but according to the riches of his creativity' – that God can bring about answers to prayer which aren't limited to or by my faith or understanding. I've seen him do this so often that I am not longer surprised that God can surprise me! (If you see what I mean....)
But if we're talking about how God wants us to live by faith in his healing grace, then we sell people short if we leave them thinking that's it – it's just a matter of how we as individuals relate personally to God, with each one of us bidden by Jesus to shine 'you in your small corner, and I in mine'.
Do you know, I once visited a church with a chapel designed to reflect that kind of theology? The only services where you could receive Communion were celebrated in a chapel where each person sat on their own personal seat and kneeling desk at least six feet away from the next person's seat and desk. The aim was obviously to minimise distraction by your fellow worshippers in such a holy service, but as a puzzled teenaged visitor it reminded me of school halls set up for exams, with lines of individual desks and chairs to discourage you from cheating.
How did they manage at the Peace? What? A church like that share the Peace? Now I know you're joking!
Jesus gave us the church for it to be our Community of Faith, and with every year that passes I become more convinced that we need to be part of a local Church, even if we don't feel like it. But I'm not using 'Community of Faith' as a synonym for the word Church, not while the word Church summons up an image of a building with a bell on it. A real Community of Faith is bound together by faith in Jesus as Saviour, and it's a setting where faith is nurtured and exercised. It's a spiritual gymnasium, where faith is brought for a regular exercise 'work out'. Some people will be spiritually fitter than others, but that doesn't matter. Whether you are a saint in the making, or someone whose faith is recovering after being run over by some disaster, a well led, wisely guided Community of Faith is what every Christian deserves and needs.
You see, in a Community of Faith your fellow Christians can work with you on a faith project, supplying not only practical love and care when needed, but also extra spiritual experience and muscle for those really heavy prayer challenges like asking God for healing, or help, or guidance in a really big decision.
Yes, 'take it to the Lord in prayer', but the Community of Faith isn't just there to support you as you bring your prayer to GOD, the Community of Faith is equally a tool in the hands of God by which He can answer your prayer. Sometimes that can be a matter of helping people to hear what God is saying, sometimes it can be a matter of encouragement to keep ON praying, even when answers seem slow in coming.
And a word of warning here – being part of a Community of Faith like this can be a risky business.
How? Well, sometimes when the person next to you is praying, God may give YOU the answer that they need to hear. Maybe they can't hear God direct themselves: they may be praying in real faith, but need us to be prepared to open our mouth to tell them what God is saying. That can take real faith on our part, passing on a message from God which makes no sense at all to us, believing that for them, that may be just what they need to hear.
If that sounds scary enough, what about those moments when we don't just GET the answer, we find that we ARE the answer to someone else's prayer? Because when we open our hearts to ask God to do something for us, we risk God turning round and asking US to do something for Him, by helping another of God's needy children, maybe the one sitting right next to us.
Our faith, and God's Saving grace, chicken and egg – we can argue about which come first, but what's really important is that faith and Grace are brought together.
And if faith and God's grace are together ingredients in God's recipe to heal and save us, then maybe we need to start thinking of the Church, the Community of Faith, as God's mixing bowl!Sure, things may sometimes seem mixed up and whirled around in a local Church, but that's OK as long as God is in charge of the outcome!
Yours in Him