“The Gift of Faith”

Pentecost/ICor.12.4-13

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

It is often said that skepticism began in England in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold, for example, wrote in his famous poem, “Dover Beach,” about “the sea of faith.” The sea of faith was once “at the full, and round earth’s shore.”

Now the poet only hears faith’s “melancholy long withdrawing roar, retreating to the breath of the night-wind down the vast edges drear.”

Once strong faith has retreated, this idea was common in the literature of the nineteenth century, and it has had an effect on the unreligious writers of our own day. Yet doubt is hardly a modern invention!

In the Bible, for example, there are plenty of skeptical psalms. Psalm 22 begins with the line, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me.” Jesus himself may have uttered the words of this Psalm when he was dying on the Cross.

In the New Testament, there is the disciple known as Doubting Thomas. He wanted to see for himself that Jesus had risen from the dead. He overcame his lack of belief and is also known to history as St. Thomas.

And the Bible then recognizes that faith doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Human beings aren’t born religious.

Humans sometimes seem to be hungry for God—as babies are born hungry for food. Yet according to the Bible, faith remains a gift to human beings—a gift from God–a gift which only flows out of God’s grace.

Thus in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he lists the blessings that different people in the Church are given by the Holy Spirit, Paul notes the gift of “faith by the same Spirit.”

First of all, we know that faith is a gift because it isn’t earned by any labors on our own part. Faith can’t be compared with the alleged “free gift” you get for taking out a magazine subscription. For, in that case, you have to pay for the magazine; the tote bag is neither free-not a gift! Faith comes to us from God, whatever we do.

Yet while we remember the blessings of the Holy Spirit on this Feast of Pentecost, do we always appreciate that one of these blessings is faith?

For notice, too, that if faith can’t be earned, then there’s nothing we can do to get it. But that puts unbelieving people who want to have faith in a quandary. If there’s nothing they can do on their own which will bring them closer to religion, how can they come to have faith?

Well, skeptics could reflect on how the Holy Spirit first came to the whole church. As we heard in today’s First Lesson, the disciples of Jesus “were all together in one place.”

Now many of us might think precisely the opposite. We might see faith coming to individuals—as I might feel the presence of God in my heart or as someone who once scorned religion is converted after years of soul-searching. But the Bible conceives of faith as being sent to what is significantly called, the “community of faith.”

On the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appeared in the midst of an assembly of all the followers of Jesus. At the beginning, the Spirit didn’t appear to private persons. Instead, it was given to the whole people of God.

No wonder, then, that people become religious for the first time when they’re touched by such a community of faith.

I once served as chaplain to an Episcopal school for boys. Now you might think that would be a hard job, given that middle school boys have many things on their minds besides the finer points of the Christian religion!

In fact, though, teaching theology was easy. The job was easy because a Christian fellowship had formed in that school.

The inspiration for the school came from its remarkable headmaster. His quiet faith filled every nook and cranny of the building. Even boys from unreligious homes were caught up in the spiritual atmosphere.

Teaching religion in that school was a breeze because the boys didn’t have to conceive of faith as some abstract possibility—they could see it all around them.

Faith was there, in their gathering for prayers and discussion in the evening; in the customs of respect that formed their common life; in the openness of faculty and staff, always ready to offer their time for the students.

And because Pentecost is the gift of the Spirit to the whole church, and the church as a whole is the bearer of faith, no individual member of the church needs to carry the burden of religion on his or her own shoulders.

Instead, like the students in that boarding school, individuals take on their own parts in the larger community of faith. The same can be true in a parish—where one person will lead a work of outreach; someone else will phone a sick person; someone else will be an enthusiastic supporter of a study group.

So if that is how spiritual gifts are distributed, is it any wonder that some people will be better at articulating their faith than others? Couldn’t we even predict that only a minority of the faithful will be able to talk confidently about their belief in the complexities of Christian theology?

Not every Christian has to be Thomas Aquinas. Nor Mother Theresa for that matter. Each of us has our own gifts from God to contribute to God’s Kingdom.

A person who hesitates before the mysteries of belief may be someone with skill in caring for those in trouble. In this case, the church member who is adept in works of charity can rely on others who are more theologically inclined to worry about issues of doctrine.

Again, this presupposes that faith isn’t just an individual matter. John Smith and Jane Doe don’t acquire religion by themselves; they don’t contemplate one article of the Creeds after another, deciding whether to accept or reject each doctrine. This isn’t the way most people come to have faith.

As it happens, the Creed reflects this communal understanding of faith. You may have noticed that the communion service rite that we generally use in this parish has two alternative versions of the Nicene Creed.

One version begins, “I believe in one God,” while the second version starts with the words, “We believe in one God…”

Now while “I believe” has the advantage of making me consider what I think about religion, “we believe” points to the communal side of faith.

Maybe you have trouble understanding one article of the Creed; it’s difficult for you in all honesty to say that you have a strong and deep confidence in its truth.

If you have questions about some doctrine, it may be helpful to remember that the Creed is something we believe in. And if it is something we as a community of faith believe in, then you can trust someone else to believe strongly in the doctrines that you have trouble with.

Which is another way of saying that we don’t stand alone on Dover Beach. Some people have faith which is so strong that it strengthens and encourages the rest of us.

It is in this way that the Spirit gives to all of us the gift of faith.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion and praise, now and forever


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