Proper 14 (August 7-13)
Texts: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16;
Luke 12:32-40; Gen 15:1-6
“FAITH” MEANS STEADFAST LOVE — NOT A SYSTEM OF BELIEFS
Connie1 called to ask if she could meet me in my office. A couple hours later she sat across from me very uncomfortable. We had been studying Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins;2 and based on that I raised in sermons similar questions as Bell about the traditional view of hell. When the Gospel Readings come up where Jesus talks about hell, I point out that the word translated as “hell” is actually the name of a place outside Jerusalem that was infamous, especially from the prophet Jeremiah, for the people of Israel lapsing into the practice of ritual child sacrifice. So Jesus, in using that name, was talking not about the doctrine of hell we grew up with, where God punishes people for eternity, but instead was talking about times when the actions of human beings lead to terrible, sacrificial loss of life. The name of the place we translate as “hell” is Gehenna in Greek or ben Hinnom in Hebrew. I suggested in my sermon that instead of rendering that name as hell, it would be more accurate to use names of places we’re familiar with — like Auschwitz or Hiroshima.
Connie came to see me that week because she needed to hold onto the doctrine of hell that she had been taught. She actually told me that she sat in church during my sermon holding back tears, looking around her at others who might be persuaded by my view: for she knew they would be going to hell if they believed me. Connie was deeply invested in the version of Christianity that one had to believe certain things in order to go to heaven when you die, and avoid going to hell. One of those things is hell itself. If you didn’t believe familiar teachings about hell you would be destined for hell. God would send you to a place of eternal punishment. I have to admit to you that I’m not sure how I responded to Connie. I was rather gobsmacked. I think I first tried to share my own sorrow that she felt that way. But I also tried to at least reassure her that my questioning of the familiar doctrine was based on good, solid interpretation of Scripture. Connie eventually left the congregation, and that truly did make me sad.
I share my experience with Connie not so much concerning that specific belief about hell, but to raise the larger issue about how Christianity has become so focused on beliefs. Many versions of Christianity have become centered around huge edifices of belief systems. You typically choose which church you want to go to, based on whether that system of beliefs matches yours. I believe this version of Christianity, centered on belief systems as the key to one’s fate in the afterlife, is dying out because it comes up short in helping people to live their lives now.
Think about it. Couldn’t you be a mafia Godfather, or a brutal slave-owner, or even a Nazi supporter under this version? As long as you believe the right things about Jesus and the afterlife you could go to heaven, right? No matter what you did on earth? And, on the other hand, you could be Mahatma Gandhi following Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the letter and be destined to hell because you were following what Jesus did, instead of simply confessing to certain beliefs about Jesus. Gandhi, in fact, refused to be Christian because Christians did not seem compelled do what Jesus asks us to do. Can you see how this familiar version of Christianity has gone terribly wrong?
Or think of it this way. As Lutherans we have been taught to believe that it’s all about grace. That it’s not about what we do but about what God does. God saves us by sending Jesus to die for our sins and then raises him to new life as the promise of our own resurrection. The most radical forms of Lutheranism recognize that requiring people to believe certain things is itself something we do. Do you see? Requiring people to believe certain things just as certainly makes grace a quid pro quo, a this-for-that, based on what we believe. In other words, much of modern Protestantism is actually anti-grace. When we say to folks, “Believe this, this, and this about Jesus, and you’ll go to heaven when you die”, that’s a quid pro quo — a this for that. It’s a transaction. Believe these certain things, and then God will save you. It’s not grace. It’s the opposite.3
And we’ve already hinted at how impoverished a this-for-that it is, citing scenarios of people who live violent lives and might still claim to be saved by their beliefs. As long as we require people to do things to be saved, wouldn’t it be better to require them to do good things? Helpful, loving things? Like being in community with the poor? Requiring them to believe certain things might contribute to a person’s fate in the afterlife, according to this version of Christianity, but it doesn’t require them to behave and act in ways which contribute to God’s project in Jesus Christ of saving the whole creation. And that’s the crucial difference in what we’ve been talking about in revitalizing the basic Christian message itself. God didn’t send Jesus to simply save a few souls for the afterlife. God sent Jesus to save the whole creation so that part of the grace of God saving the world is that God invites us to join in.
Here’s the thing: Salvation is not principally about the afterlife, in the first place. The promise of the afterlife is only because this project of saving creation will take a long time, and God promises that we can someday be part of the finished product. But that means the afterlife is only a by-product of the main project. The principal part of grace is being invited into the mission of saving the whole creation, and that gives us something very definite to do with our lives in the here and now. Yes, grace is chiefly about what God is doing in the world to save God’s creation. But part of what God is doing is to invite us human beings, the creatures God made in God’s image, to be key players in that project. This revitalized message of the Gospel is about revitalized mission. God in Jesus Christ is doing something definite and life-saving in this world, and we are called to be part of it. Wow! Now that’s a mission! And what a gracious thing to be called to take part!
So why am I talking about all this today, given this particular set of readings? Because our First and Second Readings are about where this project all began, with the promise to Abraham and Sarah and their trusting in the promise. The key word in today’s Second Reading is that important Lutheran word “faith,” second only to “grace.” We are saved by grace through faith.
But especially in light of what we’ve talked about so far this morning, I want to propose that a key to revitalizing our Christian message and mission is to better understand the word faith. We have come to focus more on the aspect of “faith” in terms of belief. We’ve made faith to primarily be about the huge system of beliefs we develop. These beliefs have become “our faith.” I want to invite you to see this morning that “faith” as beliefs is really its secondary meaning, especially in the Bible. When our First Reading, for example, tells us that Abraham believed the LORD, a better word might actually be “trusted.” God was promising Abraham and Sarah many descendants, who would make a real difference in the world. The notion of having many descendants is a pretty straightforward belief. It’s easy to understand. But in their advanced age what was really hard to do was to trust it as a promise. Abraham didn’t just believe he would have many descendants. More importantly, he trusted the promise. He trusted God.
So the word faith can at least partly be about what we may or may not believe. But in the Bible it is more importantly a quality we have in our relationships. We trust one another. We have faith in one another. And that trust is built on something else: being faithful to one another. The word faith is also short for faithfulness.
Part of the job in understanding the New Testament, our Christian scriptures, is to understand the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures. There are big important words in the Hebrew scriptures that we assume are also important in the New Testament, since Jesus and all the early apostles were Jewish, and their first language was Hebrew (and its dialect of Aramaic). But one of the early challenges was how to translate those big important Hebrew words into the Greek of the New Testament. Greek was the common language, like English is today. So if early Christians were to effectively proclaim the message of this Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, they needed to translate his Aramaic and Hebrew to the Greek-speaking world.
The Greek word we translate as “faith” is pistis. But what big important Hebrew word is behind pistis, “faith”? My best guess is the Hebrew word hesed, which is sometimes translated as “faithfulness” but most often is translated as two English words: “steadfast love” — the kind of love needed to live faithfully together in covenant with others. Our Jewish forerunners in faith spoke increasingly about God as “abounding in steadfast love.” Hesed in Hebrew. I think it is pistis in Greek. Let me read portions of our First Reading again using the words “steadfast love” instead of “faith.”
1Now steadfast love is the substance of hope; the proof of events not seen. 2For in this our ancestors gave witness. 3By steadfast love we understand that the ages were being prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of what does not appear.
8By steadfast love Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By steadfast love he immigrated to the Promised Land, a foreigner, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
How does that sound? Doesn’t it make sense? That our faith is built not so much on a system of beliefs but more so on relationships of love and trust that we live out with one another and with God? Trust that God will eventually build a city, a place, here on earth, not just in the afterlife.
Much of Protestantism is based on St. Paul’s emphasis on faith. Paul was Jewish. I believe that what he has in mind with “faith” is the Hebrew word hesed, “steadfast love.” For Paul, then, the Christian message is based not so much on the law of Moses but on the steadfast love of Abraham and Sarah. Grace is God’s steadfast love for us and the whole creation which moved God to send a descendant of Abraham and Sarah — Jesus — to fully launch the project of saving the world from the powers of sin and death. It is God’s steadfast love that calls you and I to be participants in this project — which is the bringing together of the whole human family, Jew and Gentile, the family which the law tends to divide. It’s the united human family as represented by the heavenly city coming down to earth (as we read this Easter season from the Book of Revelation). The longed-for city and homeland for Abraham and Sarah, and home for the one human family, is finally coming true in the picture of the New Jerusalem we see in the Bible’s final two chapters (Rev 21-22).4 It is by steadfast love that God continues to bring about that new homeland, what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is by steadfast love that you and I say, “Yes! Here I am. Send me.” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, August 7, 2022
1. Not her real name to protect her identity.
2. Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011).
3. Douglas Campbell knows that he is arguing against centuries of Protestant theology in making the arguments presented simply in this paragraph. He takes more than 900 pages to more thoroughly present this case, with mountains of close scriptural readings as evidence, in his monumental, groundbreaking book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009).
4. Once again, it is worthwhile to be clear about the direction in Revelation: the heavenly city is coming down to earth. No one is going up to heaven.