When Billie and I were preparing to come to New Zealand, one of my friends asked me if I would be jumping off any high buildings while I was here. I have to say I was quite taken aback, because nothing could have been further from my mind. But apparently this is something New Zealanders and some foreign visitors enjoy doing here. They attach themselves to an oversized rubber band and hurl themselves off the nearest high building or bridge, smiling as they do it - here's the proof; an invitation I picked up in a local cafe to jump off the Sky Tower! I won't put you on the spot by asking for a show of hands, but I'm sure most of you have already completed this jump.
I will not be following your example, but I mention this pastime of bungy jumping as an illustration of faith. John Wimber, the charismatic founder of the Vineyard Church movement, used to say that faith is spelt R.I.S.K. No marks for spelling, John, but there is an element of truth in what Wimber said. Actions motivated by faith will often involve an element of risk, perhaps to one's reputation, comfort or safety. But an even better reason for choosing bungy jumping as an illustration of faith is that it is all about a relationship of trust. The bungy jumper entrusts his or her life in safety equipment and the people who maintain it and supervise the jump. The person of faith puts their trust in a God whom they cannot see, and for christians this is the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, who "reflects the brightness of God's glory and is the exact likeness of God's own being" (Hebrews 1:3).
It could be argued that it doesn't matter who or what you put your faith in, so long as you have faith in something or somebody. I have some sympathy with that point of view, perhaps most famously expressed by Prince Charles some years ago, when he said that if he becomes King he intends to be the Defender of faith, not the Defender of The Faith. History certainly shows all too clearly the dangers of the crusading attitude which has grown out of fear and ignorance of other faiths. But on the other hand I believe it does matter who or what our faith is in, just as the reliability of the bungy jump proprietor and his equipment matters. And the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ seems to me to be utterly reliable and trustworthy: someone we can put our faith in with confidence. Glynn might say I'm anthropomorphising God and he's probably right, but this kind of language is a way of making sense of faith and doing justice to the Bible's emphasis on relationship.
The question I want to get onto is how our faith should be expressed. In the churches I first attended after "coming to faith" in my mid twenties, the emphasis was on being able to agree intellectually with certain facts about oneself, about God and about Jesus. That was easy enough to comply with, but in comparison with the dramatic and emotional change I had undergone, it all seemed a bit lightweight and I suspected that more was required of Christians. Believing the "right" things was surely not enough.
Later I became aware of the importance of the liturgical and sacramental expression of faith, and the power it has to mould and shape us as we experience and participate in it. One of the things that is most noticeable for a newcomer to St Matthew's is the effort and care which has been taken to achieve consistency between what the Church stands for and the language which is used in its hymns and liturgy. This is a great step in the right direction, but of course it is not an end in itself. Believing the right things is not enough and neither is singing, saying or performing the right things in a Church service, however beautifully and sincerely it is done. There has to be a real connection between our faith and our actions, between what we sing on Sunday and what we do on Monday. I don't yet know any of you well enough to know how consistently you apply the values you profess here in your day to day lives. But I do know how thoughtlessly inconsistent I can be! As the letter of James puts it "What good is it for people to say that they have faith if their actions do not prove it?" (James 2:14).
The writer of Hebrews was also concerned about the connection between faith and action, as he or she wrote to encourage a group of believers who were being discriminated against, suffering hardship and persecution, as have many of you. In Hebrews 11 we are presented with a roll of honour of characters from the Hebrew bible who are commended for their exemplary faith. The historicity of some of these characters and their deeds may be debatable, but that's beside the point. The chapter reveals a great deal about the faith and aspirations of this New Testament writer and the early christian believers in general, and expresses fundamental human longings with timeless poignancy.
Abraham, we are told, "left his own country without knowing where he was going" (11:8), as so many refugees still do. We learn that "he lived in tents ... waiting for the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations" (11:9, 10). The writer tells us that all these ancient characters died in faith, without receiving "the things God had promised, but from a long way off they saw them and welcomed them, and admitted openly that they were foreigners and refugees on earth" (11:13). Projecting the struggle of their own generation back onto the ancients, the writer defiantly asserts "It was a better country they longed for, the heavenly country. And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them" (11:16). These words written almost 2000 years ago would not look out of place in the biographies or obituaries of some of our more recent heroes who have campaigned for justice, freedom and equality. I'd like my grandchildren to read words like those in my obituary. As Seamus Heaney reminds us "The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life."
The writer of Hebrews holds up characters like Abraham as role models not because they believed the right things, did the right things or worshipped in the right way but because they acted in anticipation of how the world should be, refusing to passively accept the way things were. To live like this is to be truly human and it requires faith: faith in God and in God's faith in humanity's ability to do right. Here is where despondency can creep in. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann warns "The temptation today is not so much that human beings want to play God. It is much more that they no longer have confidence in the humanity which God expects of them. It is the fearfulness fed by lack of faith which leads to capitulation before the power of evil.”
May we be strengthened in our faith, and newly determined to turn it into action, boldly, compassionately and consistently.
Seamus Heaney 'Elegy' from Field Work (London: Faber & Faber 1979)
Jurgen Moltmann In the End - the Beginning (London: SCM Press 2004)