Faith - St Bride's: Reflection

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Faith

2 Timothy 1: 1-14

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1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus,

To Timothy, my dearly beloved son: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day;

Greatly desiring to see thee, being mindful of thy tears, that I may be filled with joy;

When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.

Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God;

Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,

10 But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel:

11 Whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.

12 For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.

13 Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.

14 That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.

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A schoolteacher once came up to me at the end of a school assembly that I had just taken, and said to me: 'I am so envious - you are so lucky having a religious faith - you are so lucky.' 

If I'm honest, I wasn't entirely sure how to reply to her remark, because her whole assumption that having faith was basically a matter of luck, struck me as rather odd - it was as if she regarded faith as some kind of celestial goody bag, that God dispensed arbitrarily: 'Yes, you can have it - and you - but not you.'

But then, people do have rather strange ideas about the nature of faith sometimes - even, it should be noted, the followers of Jesus.  At the start of our Gospel reading this morning, the apostles say to Jesus, 'Increase our faith.'  Again, their assumption seems to be that we are passive recipients of something that God dishes out to us, which means that we can request more of it.  But I wonder what they were expecting in response? 'Certainly,' says God in reply.  'Here you are, have another couple of scoops.'  Surely faith doesn't work like that.

If I were to ask all of you in our congregation today about why you have a Christian faith, you would each give a very different answer, because our faith journeys are as unique and as individual as our life-journeys.  And, of course, we are also in very different places on that trajectory.  There will be those among us who have a life-long Christian faith, who are very clear and confident about our commitment; there will be others among us who are still very much at the exploratory stage, and not at all sure what to make of any of it.  And there will be those who are somewhere in between.  But I suspect that despite this vast and varied spectrum, there are also some common threads - some things that, to one degree or another, we all share.

The first is that it is very likely that central to our own exploration of the Christian faith, has been another person, or group of people, who have at some stage, either in the distant past or in the present day, opened our eyes to it.  Indeed, there is an old and very astute saying that 'Christianity is caught, not taught.' 

Perhaps it was our parents or family members; perhaps it was the influence of a schoolteacher, or a minister, or a friend, or a member of our peer group, whose example left us feeling that there was something in this faith business that we needed to explore further.  How interesting that in our second reading this morning from the Second Letter to Timothy, Timothy is told this: 'I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I'm sure, lives in you.'  In other words, Timothy grew up in a Christian household, with the example of two generations of Christian commitment before him. 

And that, I suspect, is true for most of us, too.  It is certainly true for me.  I can identify several individuals whose influence and inspiration was absolutely pivotal - some of whom I have known for years; one of them a young girl I bumped into accidentally on a course when I was in my early twenties, whom I have never met since.

But there is something else that is really important in our reading from 2 Timothy, as well.  Because Timothy is then told this: 'I remind you to re-kindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands, for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.'

Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.  Faith is a gift of God that dwells within us - and it is my own firm conviction that it is there, latent, within all of us.  But we are not simply its passive recipients - we have to do something with it; we have to enable it to be set alight.  That is why how we respond to that gift is key.

So what are those trigger points?  Those moments of ignition?  Again, they will be unique for all of us, and can take many different forms - but significantly, they will be moments of connectedness; moments when something happens, whether inside or outside us, that evokes a response in us that can prove life-changing.

Perhaps it is a moment of beauty and wonder.  I can remember a student friend of mine describing how, as a sixth form student, he was camping on a remote hillside as part of his Duke of Edinburgh scheme.  In the middle of the night he came out of his tent, and saw something that simply took his breath away: above him was a dazzling, clear starlit sky, all the constellations clearly visible.  That unexpected vision of the wonder of Creation and the boundless heavens simply overwhelmed him; it was a glimpse of infinity that touched his teenage soul so profoundly that he knew at that moment, not only that God was a living reality, but that he could no longer live his life without God at its very centre.

Or the trigger point might be a moment of crisis, or catastrophe, or utter despair that has us crying to God from out of the very depths.  Some of you will remember the TV Chef of Two Fat Ladies' fame, Clarissa Dickson-Wright - whose memorial service we held here at St Bride's.  Her life was extraordinary in all kinds of ways: she grew up in a violent and abusive home; she experienced a devastating bereavement when she was in her early twenties; she was in turn a massive workaholic and a massive alcoholic, until the whole of her life completely unravelled.  And she describes how one day she was on her knees, struggling to clean burnt jam off the quarry tiles on the kitchen floor, when she found herself saying: 'OK, God - if you are up there please do something, because I really can't go on.'  And from that precise moment a sequence of extraordinary events began which led to her rehabilitation and made possible the completely different future that unfolded for her.  Apparently, her mother had always said to her, 'Leave it to God, Clarissa - he has a much better imagination than you do.'  And that turned out to be the truth that she was to discover for herself, many years later.  Note again, by the way, that there was a person of faith behind her faith journey, too - in this case her mother.

Or it could be something much less dramatic: a kind of 'divine niggle'; an inexplicable sense that leaves us feeling that we just need to find out more.  Or a wonderful piece of music that holds us riveted; or a poem that touches our soul.  I was once told of a Hindu gentleman whose conversion to the Christian faith began when he read the genealogy at the very beginning of Matthew's Gospel - you know, the desperately boring bit that starts 'Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Judas and his brothers', and so it goes on right down to the birth of Jesus - the man's logic being that if Jesus came from a lineage as esteemed as that, he really had to be taken seriously.  The triggers, the ignition points, can be completely unexpected.

But our role in the process can never be entirely passive.  Because there comes a point where we have to discover the truth of the life of ourselves by living it.  Similarly, faith is increased, not because we are awarded another scoopful of it; it is a consequence of living out that faith; of testing out its claims, sometimes in the most challenging of circumstances - so that we can discover for ourselves the wisdom of Clarissa Dickson Wright's mother: 'Leave it to God - he has a much better imagination than we do.'

Faith, belief and trust are all intricately linked.  When we say to somebody 'I have faith in you'; or 'I believe in you', we are also making a declaration of trust - and it is experience that will reveal whether that faith, that belief, and that trust are well-placed.

Given that we live in an era of fake news, spin, and political bluster, in which trust and truth are commodities that are increasingly under threat, it is ever more essential that we take seriously the invitation and the challenge of the life of faith.  It is not a matter of luck; it is a gift that is the possession of us all.  And the life of faith, as our second reading tells us, is full of challenge: ''For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-discipline.' 

But we do not travel this journey alone or unsupported.  Nor do we know all the answers.  For there will be times when we should do exactly as Clarissa's mum advised:

'Leave it to God; he has a much better imagination than we do.'

Amen

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