I had to take my personal story of ministry and faith back 18 years, to the parish of Warfield (near Bracknell) to preach about that little word “faith” last week. The process proved to be one of the toughest battles I’ve had in the sermon writing department. Apparently the result was worth it though, in that I now know at least one person with a decision they’d been grappling with, for which I thank God, and him alone!
(You may find looking at The Message version of Romans 4 helpful – it’s the one we read in the evening service this sermon was preached at.)
Do you remember the first time that you trusted God for something? It might have been as you prayed for someone for the first time, or as you tentatively moved forward into your first ministry, sensing somehow that you were ‘meant’ to do this thing for which you felt distinctly ill-equipped. It may even have been something that seemed almost an accident, or a co-incidence; almost but not quite – because you were sure that God was directing this and guiding circumstances towards some particular end that he wanted you to be part of.
My husband and I were reminiscing recently about our 5 years attending church in Warfield. Shortly after we settled as a newly married couple into St Michael’s Warfield, the church held a church planting conference. A significant part of the geographical area that the parish covered was being developed as housing, and the churches leaders had obviously entered into discussions as to how it might build a new congregation within that new community, using as it’s base the CofE aided school that was conveniently being built on a road called All Saint’s Rise.
We had laid low since arriving in the church, and were not eager to take on long-term responsibilities. We did not live in the parish, nor even on the edge of the new housing development, but well to the south. We didn’t expect to have anything to offer, and might perhaps have not even attended the conference, if it were not for the fact that God, in the shape of the Anglican mafia, took a hand. Our old vicar from our Aberystwyth era, had a conversation with our new vicar at a meeting, in which our names cropped up. And lo, we were asked to lead the worship for the church planting conference in Warfield!
There was something about the circumstances, the twists that conversations took, our own reaction to that one weekend’s commitment, that meant we both knew, deep down inside, that this was only the start of something God wanted us to do. We trusted that God knew what he was doing because we weren’t completely sure what he was asking of us, but within months we were less than surprised to find ourselves on the leadership team of the new church plant at All Saints, Warfield.
I went to look at Warfield on the web, to see what All Saints might be up to these days, almost if you like, to check out the validity of the story as a sermon illustration. I discovered that this very weekend (3rd March 2012) was in fact the 18th anniversary of our very first service at All Saint’s Warfield. From our small musical contribution to those first tentative steps at church planting have blossomed 18 years of ministry in a developing community, and in that parish, three further planted congregations!
At the beginning of Genesis 12, we read “The LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation,and I will bless you.”
I wonder if Abraham really understood at that stage in his life, at the tender age of 75, why it was so important for him to leave the trail his father was following and set off with his family and his herds for pastures new? Yet, trusting in what he believed God wanted of him, he did it anyway; and he kept on doing it as God guided his life continually in the decades to come.
He exhibited something we call faith; a small word, that trips off the tongue quite easily, usually in reference to others, but which is so difficult to live out in practice!
We probably know the story quite well. Abraham the nomadic leader of pre-written history. A man not without selfish fears for his own well-being that did no honour to God, his wife or the Pharoah of Egypt! (Genesis 12:19) Yet someone for whom God’s promise that he would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations (Gen 17:4-6) developed over time, despite his efforts to take matters into his own hands with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Abraham, the geriatric who, nearing 100 years old still hadn’t sired a legitimate heir, and whose equally aged wife remained agonisingly barren.
Yet, Abraham “dared to trust God to do what only God could do” as we heard in the Message version of Paul’s letter to the Roman’s just now. And we know that Abraham’s faith was rewarded in the birth of Isaac. It was tested once again on the mountain of Moriah, and vindicated in the renewal of the God’s covenant promise in that place, and ultimately in the formation of God’s people the Israelites.
From what may have seemed an insignificant act of faith that we read about in Genesis 12, Abraham’s example, followed by that of his descendents, led to the founding of a nation of believers.
I wouldn’t normally place myself in the same context let alone sentence as Abraham, but reading the website of the Warfield Churches last night, reminded me that from a perhaps insignificant act of faith 18 years ago, has grown (with a lot of help from a lot of other faith-full followers of God) a vibrant fellowship of believers.
According to St Paul in this passage in Romans, Abraham is our “faith father” – the one from whom our faith in God is inherited. It is not that we have inherited simply a faith in the same God as Abraham believed in, but that Paul believes we should have inherited the attitude and degree of faith that Abraham exhibited when everything seemed hopeless and he decided to “live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn’t do, but on what God said he would do.” (Romans 4:18 MSG)
Both Abraham, and to a far lesser extent those of us who planted the congregation at All Saint’s Warfield, exhibited great faith in God, plunging into the promises that the church there understood God had made for us to fulfil. But what was it that strengthened Abraham’s faith, inspires people to plant congregations, start new ministries, and share that faith inheritance so that we might see God’s promises for our generation and our community fulfilled.
We’re told here (Rom 4:17 TNIV) that Abraham had faith “in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” As his life went on God revealed to Abraham both the power and the faithfulness with which he acts in people’s lives, in such a way that Abraham’s faith was revealed as being in a God of resurrection and of creation. It wasn’t a blind or unreasoning faith, but one based on a rational response to a God he knew to be reliable and trustworthy.
For in the birth of Isaac was both creation and resurrection. In Isaac’s conception for Abraham was the resurrection of a body that was “as good as dead” (Romans :19) and for Sarah a reproductive resurrection. God was also showing himself to be a powerful creator, fulfilling his promise to Abraham through the future that was made possible in the birth of his son. This was gift, God’s overwhelming gift of grace to Abraham, the fulfilment of his promise that he would make Abraham the father of nations.
We can probably understand that on Mount Moriah, the power and faithfulness that had made Isaac’s birth possible, were the inspiration for the faith with which Abraham carried out God’s instructions. Yet, what Paul seems to be saying in this passage of Roman’s is that Abraham’s faith in the power and faithfulness of God, pre-dated the miracle of creation and resurrection that was Isaac’s birth, and that this is the extent of the faith to which we are heirs.
Do you remember the first time that you trusted God for something, felt God’s hand on your life not just for your own good, but in a way that would impact on the life and possibly the faith, of others? How certain were you that God, through his power was able to do even that which you sensed he was making you part of, let alone “immeasurably more than you asked or imagined” (Ephesians 3:20)?
Personally, I don’t remember anything of the sort.
Trying to remember back 18+ years to the months between the church planting conference in 1993, and the birth of a new congregation in March 1994, I can’t remember much at all to be honest, except some uncertainty as to whether Graham and I were fit for the purpose others seemed to see us being called to. Not for the last time in my life, I was probably being more obedient to the wisdom of my elders, a trust in their possibly naïve view of our abilities, and a prideful unwillingness to let them down, than I was actually showing faith in the power of God.
Perhaps your faith has been stronger than mine was at that stage in my life. If it has been, I do encourage you to share the testimony with us later if you wish. But it is often so much easier to see in the lives of others, examples of faith in the power of God to make the seemingly impossible, possible, than it is to witness to it in our own lives.
I regularly have my puny faith encouraged by emails or Facebook messages from Baghdad and the Foundation for Relief and Reconcilliation in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White and the people of St George’s Baghdad, exhibit each day the kind of faith in the power of God to do miracles – financial, political and medical – that I don’t even wish to witness the need for! I guess you all know the story of his MS, his commitment to the practical needs of others, and to work for peace between the Abrahamic faiths, and within their fractured networks. His work, and the stories that issue from St Georges are for me living proof of the creative and resurrection power of God, in which I so often have such little faith.
Here’s an example of one of Canon Andrew’s emails. This one is dated in late August last year (2011):
The Alpha Course recommenced here this week. As usual we have so many people wanting to do the course that we can’t get everyone onto the church at once, so we meet at different times through the week. There are still hundreds of people at each session.
The really amazing thing is that we now have a course just for Muslim women….They tell us that they all come to Alpha because they have seen how we love people and care for them at the clinic. They have also heard that miracles happen at the church and they come to find out more. It is all rather amazing and a wonderful testimony of how good G-d is and how effective Alpha can be.
Abraham, was called from what we now call Iraq, to the place that became known as the Promised Land, where if my geography isn’t out, Isaac was born and God made his covenant with Abraham, and to which the people of the promise would return again and again through their history.
The faith of Abraham was based on the visible grace of the God to fulfilled a personal promise in a way that was eventually to bless the whole world. That grace was a gift, un-encumbered by the later necessity of the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law that was required to give boundaries to God’s people.
We, like Canon Andrew and the people of St George’s, are heirs of that quality of faith. In fact like Canon Andrew, we are in the privileged position of being able to have faith in God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which showed beyond all doubt the dependability of God’s power. If you like, the faith of Abraham and the faith to which we are heirs through Christ, are the brackets around the parenthesis that was the era of the Law and the Prophets.
Yet, I don’t know about you, I but have a horrible tendency not to live as though I have the same quality of faith as Abraham, or someone like Canon Andrew. Not if I’m honest with the thoughts and feelings that flit through my mind as I pray for someone, or even as I prepare a sermon. The level of expectation my faith has in the power of God’s grace to change lives through the testimony of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is limited by my forgetfulness of examples of that power and the doubt that creeps in through my reliance on self, rather than the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is perhaps ironic in the era of the BOGOF offer and the free gift, that faith in the grace of God, a free gift generously given, and belief in his trustworthy power to create and resurrect life, can be so difficult for us to hold on to.
Doubt can hold us back from plunging into the promise that God has for us. It might be doubt that we’ve heard correctly God’s voice directing us; it might be doubt in our own abilities. It might be doubt in the willingness of others to be open to hearing God’s voice, or doubt in the structures of our church and society to make possible that which God wants to bring about.
Each of us has the option of grasping hold of a promise from God. He wishes to be exuberant in what he wants to give us, and through us what he wants to give others. The promise is that we have a part to play in fulfilling that original promise to Abraham, that we God’s people, the inheritors of Abraham’s faith, would be a blessing to all nations. We can only do that through acting as though we really believe in the same power of God that raised Jesus from death to life.
The only way I have found that I can maintain even a mustard seed sized faith in God (Matthew 17:20), and set aside my earthly doubts, is to keep reminding myself of past circumstances when some contribution I hesitantly made to his Kingdom, seems to have born some fruit, often in the hands of others, as is the case at All Saint’s Warfield. I have to learn to rely more and more on the power of God to work through me, way beyond what I know myself to be capable of, through continual practice. I have to discover for myself afresh each day, just how powerful is the love and grace of God.
As we move through Lent, we have a special chance to acknowledge our doubts and fears fledged through our continual tendency to depend on ourselves. We can do so with the assurance that we will see afresh at Easter, the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus.
God want’s to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, in our lives, and I believe, in the life of St Peter’s. St Peter’s is far from dead, but still God wants to call into being, things that are not yet! We have to dare to trust God to do through us, what only he can do, and what we can not do without him in us. Once we have worked out what we believe that is, and that after all is what Andy has presumably been called by God to help us discover, then we mustn’t tiptoe around the ideas asking sceptical questions (as the Message version of Romans 4:20 says). Instead we must grasp firmly that little word ‘faith’, at the same scale and with the same intensity that Abraham did, and Canon Andrew does, and plunge into whatever work it entails, sure that we do so filled through the Holy Spirit with the strength and power of our creator God and the resurrected Christ.