February 11, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Final vocabulary is the term that is given to the words and language that are most foundational to how we view the world. They are the words that, when you think about them, are hard to define in simpler terms; you simply know what the words mean. They are the words that you take for granted in the way you approach the world. Different people have different final vocabularies, and different communities also.
In the Church, we have our own final vocabulary, and were are on the second week of focus on themes for three of these vocabulary words. Since they are so fundamental to how we understand the world around us, including God who reveals Himself to us, it’s important to have a grasp of what these words mean. And since it’s hard to define final vocabulary in simpler terms, we have to expand the words, rather than break them down.
Today’s final vocabulary is faith. It’s a word that we use all the time in the Church. But the word presents two problems. First, when people use the word faith, they often mean different things. Second, it’s so common, we begin to take it for granted, and it starts to lose its meaning. So today, let’s reexamine our final vocabulary of faith.
Faith Is Receiving God’s Gifts for Salvation
Faith is so foundational to any talk about Christianity that it can’t be explained in simpler terms; we need to expand upon it. And that’s one of the problems of faith—it’s shorthand language, but people mean a lot of different things by it. Some people may mean obedience, others may mean a mystical or ecstatic experience, others a sense of social justice or chartable service. The only sure definition, though, is one that comes from God. And, fortuitously, we have a very clear definition in the book of Hebrews. Faith is being sure of the things we hope for, being convinced of the things we can’t see (Heb 11:1). Faith is a conviction of hidden things.
Too often, the emphasis is put on the “being sure” and the “being convinced” aspect of faith. A Danish writer by the name of Søren Kierkegaard explored faith in a book called Fear and Trembling. The Denmark of his day had become more decadent and was moving toward the rationalism that had gripped much of the rest of Europe at the time. Kierkegaard wanted a more vigorous and serious Christianity. In his book, he looks at the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (as story we have in our stained glass windows back there). The story was a picture of faith for Kierkegaard, that that faith was a complete surrendering. Abraham was even willing to suspend his fatherly instincts and his knowledge of God’s law, that murder is forbidden, and to sacrifice his son because of his faith in God. This, for Kierkegaard, was the essence of faith, when even morality evaporates.
Kierkegaard’s understanding of faith is what theologians call fides qua creditur, or “faith which believes.” This is the act of believing, the feeling of absolute conviction. But the thing is, faith always has an object. Faith always believes in something. And it’s that object of faith that defines faith. Kierkegaard was only interested in the feeling of absolute dependence, but God is interested in the thing not seen that convinces you to believe.
Another way to talk about faith is fides quae creditur, or “faith which is believed.” It’s the content of faith. And, as Hebrews says, it’s something that’s not seen, something hidden. Ultimately, this faith rests on Jesus Christ, who would appear to all sensation to be a regular person. But faith is convinced of something more: hidden beneath that flesh is the glory of the Son of God. Hidden beneath His cross and suffering is the reconciliation of the entire human race. Hidden at God’s right hand in heaven is the risen Jesus, who promises to come again. Faith trusts what the eyes cannot see. And this is why the blind man becomes an icon of faith in today’s Gospel. He can’t see what’s going on; he must rely on his ears.
The act of believing is shaped by what is believed. The faith of the Christian Church is the faith of Christ, faith in Christ, faith that is rooted in who He is and what He has done. Furthermore, faith trusts in the promises of Christ that are attached to the ministry of the Church. In Baptism, we see only a few drops of water rolling down a baby’s head, but we believe it’s a washing of regeneration and renewal. In the Sacrament, we see bread and wine, but we believe it’s the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Faith is being convinced of the things we can’t see, and thus, faith is receiving God’s gifts.
There’s a fascinating phenomenon that is called semantic satiation. Perhaps you’ve experienced it before. It’s when you repeat a word over and over again until it starts to lose its meaning and becomes meaningless sounds. It’s only temporary, but it shows how the mind can disassociate meaning from words that you use all the time. This is a problem with the word, “faith.” We use it so often, we must be on guard not only that we have the correct meaning, but that we have any meaning at all. And to do that, we need to in a sense reset and reattune our ears to find out not only what faith is, but why faith matters. Faith has a direction, a purpose. Faith receives God’s gifts—for salvation.
Faith is part of a lot of meaningless chatter. Tune into the Olympics these next weeks and you’ll be sure to hear some mention of faith. Only it’s not the faith of the Christian Church they’ll be referring to, but some amorphous, general sense of conviction or determination. This is what happens when “faith” gets emptied of its meaning. When “faith” becomes an empty shell of a word, you can import almost anything you want into it, make it mean anything you’d like. It’s like those motivational posters from a while back that have some inspiring word, like “courage” or “teamwork.” (I like the series of demotivational posters that came out in response. “Teamwork: ensuring that your hard work can always be ruined by someone else’s incompetence”).
In things that are not ultimate, meaningless chatter is meaningless chatter. But faith deals with ultimate things. That’s why it’s part of the Church’s final vocabulary. It’s foundational to how we operate, how we see the world and everything. And that’s true even when the human interest stories of the Olympic athletes talk about their faith. When faith is emptied of its meaning, it’s emptied of its object. Remember that faith’s object gives it its shape. Faith that is robbed of its object will of necessity look for another object.
In all of the various ways that faith is used, most often it means faith in yourself. Competing in the Olympics? Believe in yourself. Want to succeed in business? Believe in yourself. Want to be President of the United States? Believe in yourself. And you can do it. This is the same kind of faith peddled by many so-called Christians, as well. Joel Osteen’s message of faith is not faith in God, it’s faith in yourself. But the problem is, for every person who makes to the top while believing himself, there are a hundred who believed themselves to the bottom of the heap. Faith in yourself is faith that will ultimately fail, because you cannot believe yourself to overcome death. Even the most self-confident, determined individual cannot save himself from death’s cold touch.
So if faith is to mean anything at all in an ultimate sense, it needs to be constantly reattuned. Like when radios had dials to tune in stations. You have to make sure faith is right in that sweet spot, and then, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, “If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true” (LC I.3). True faith reaches out to the true God. But it’s not you who attunes your faith to reach out to God.
And again, the blind man becomes for us an icon of faith. He is lost in a world of meaningless chatter until he is confronted by Jesus. With a word, Jesus gives him the gift of sight, and faith receives that gift. But his faith received something more. Jesus doesn’t just say that the man’s faith has healed him, but that it has saved him. And Jesus said to him, “Look up; your faith has saved you” (v 42). Coincidentally, the man looks up and sees the object of his faith. It is as if He said, “Look up, your Jesus has saved you.” It wasn’t just that he received sight in his eyes, but that his faith was reattuned to see Jesus as his Savior.
So for faith to reach out to the true God, Jesus must first reach out to faith. This is what makes faith good and true, what makes faith a saving faith. Jesus gives faith its meaning. He is the object and content of faith. And when faith is attuned to Jesus, faith receives God’s gifts for salvation.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard