The Nature of Faith

“Your faith has made you well” is one of those verses from Scripture that may have done as much harm as good.  On the one hand, many of us have given joyful thanks to God after someone we prayed for recovered from illness or injury.  Just as many, however, have not recovered in spite of the fervent prayers of many people.  Maybe some feel that their prayers weren’t good enough or loud enough or in the right language.  Wondering why our prayers didn’t “work” has been the cause of many a believer to stop believing; this misunderstanding has closed off countless conversations with God just when those conversations are needed the most.

I think this may be because we often think of our faith in terms of cause and effect.  We imagine that if we believe this or that, good things will come our way.  If we follow all the rules we will avoid bad things in our life.  Just being a good Christian somehow immunizes us from the virus of evil in the world.  We notice this particularly when we pray for a particular thing and it either happens or it doesn’t.  There must be a direct relationship.

Today’s story sends us down a different path.  There is more to this story than the healing of ten lepers.  The healing is almost secondary to the broader narrative.  What does Jesus really mean when he says, “Your faith has made you well”?  Was there something about this man that was more well than the other nine?  Does his gratitude have something to do with his faith?  Apparently Jesus thinks so.

 

nature-of-faith“Nature of Faith”
Sunday, October 9, 2016
20th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19, CEB

Last Sunday we talked about God’s economy of faith and how we have what we need as God takes whatever faith we can muster and uses it to get us through “whatever”.  We looked at the story of the tiny mustard seed to imagine how strong we really are when we rely on God for what we need.  No worries!  This morning Luke brings us another story about faith.  He tells us that the nature of faith manifests itself in the ways we offer God our praise and thanksgiving.  Maybe you’re familiar with the term, “Living with an Attitude of Gratitude”.  As cliché as that may seem, it is exactly what this story is about.

Let us pray…Lord, today we come to your word wanting to know more about what you expect from us as faithful people.  Bring us to deeper understanding this morning.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

Professor Kimberly Bracken Long suggests:  “‘Your faith has made you well’ is one of those verses from Scripture that may have done as much harm as good.  On the one hand, many have given joyful thanks to God after recovering from illness or an accident.  Just as many do not recover, even though they may have prayed just as hard and just as often.”  Is one’s faith stronger than the other’s?  It is not uncommon for people to wonder if their prayers are good enough.  Maybe they didn’t pray loud enough, or long enough, or in the right language.

I don’t think the problem is with our prayers; I think it has more to do with understanding the nature of our faith.  Maybe we’ve been taught to think of our faith in terms of cause and effect.  We imagine that if we believe this or that, good things will come our way.  If we follow the rules we will avoid bad things in our life.  We may think that being a Christian is like getting a flu shot, immunizing us against evil.  What bothers me about this line of thinking is that it may well be the cause of many believers walking away from the church and turning their backs on God.  This misunderstanding of faith closes conversations with God just when those conversations are needed the most.  There is good news in the story that helps us avoid those pitfalls.

One thing we notice is that the actual healing of the ten lepers isn’t narrated in the story.  It takes place “off-stage”…It is kind of a sidebar.  The emphasis in the story is on the fact that the Samaritan – the unlikely outsider – returned to offer praise and thanksgiving.  We don’t know what happened to the other nine.  We presume they were healed of their leprosy.  We think they must have gone to the priest to be declared clean again.  That’s what the story tells us.  We’re not even sure of how Jesus feels about them.  What is his tone?  Is he sad, angry, disappointed, or simply amazed at their bad manners?
We can’t really tell.  What we do know for sure is that one man returned to say thank you and Jesus offered him a wellness far deeper than physical healing.  This outcast leper, this despised Samaritan was embraced by the grace of God and made whole.  This man shows us what it looks like to live with an attitude of gratitude – we experience the wholeness of spirit that God intends for us.

Similar to last week’s mustard seed story, Jesus tells us that we don’t need to be concerned with whether we have enough faith to make our prayers “work”.  Faith isn’t about cause and effect; “say it and get it.”  What Jesus is talking about here is that the nature of faith is to live what we believe and to live what we believe is to constantly give thanks and praise to God.  Our faith is in the God who created us and gives us all that we need.  Our faith is in the God who came to live with us, suffer for us, and die in our place to defeat sin and death.  Our faith is in the God who lives with us still as comforter, advocate, and friend.  For this God we must be truly grateful.

Living a life of gratitude constitutes living a life of faith.  Think of it as if “faith” and “gratitude” are interchangeable words.  To practice gratitude is to practice faith.  If our faith is not something we possess, but rather something we DO as a way of life, then our life expresses complete trust in God.  When we know that God, the giver of all good things, holds all life in his grace-filled hands – how can we NOT practice gratitude?  Living this kind of faith, living with praise and thanksgiving, we realize that faith is given to us in abundance, “pressed down and overflowing” (Luke 6).

Remember that this section of Luke’s gospel began with Jesus telling his followers that the demands of coming along with him are great.  It is clear that spreading the Good News is going to be a challenge; there will be mountains to move along the way.  Sometimes we don’t think we have what it takes – our faith is too small; our prayers aren’t good enough.  So Jesus reassures us by teaching that living out our faith – by respecting God’s ways, by honoring one another, and by giving thanks in all circumstances – we are given all the faith we require.  This is where we discover the true nature of our faith.  If you are healthy, happy, and secure, you can give thanks to God for your blessings.  If you have been healed, thank God for the healing.  If you have reconciled a relationship, give thanks to God for the reconciliation.  So also, if you are fighting against illness, thank God for walking with you through the pain.  If you are battling an addiction, thank God for giving you strength to get through today.  If you are mired in grief, thank God for peace and comfort; thank God for sharing that person with you.

If prayers of thanks are part of the soul’s healing and restoration, the physical circumstances of the person praying become less important.  It is the thanking that saves the grateful leper and heals his soul.  This thankfulness is available to all of us in all circumstances.  One person may give thanks to God for today’s wonderful experience.  Another may give thanks to God for holding her up during a difficult day.

When we practice gratitude it changes our life.  Imagine waking up every morning and being grateful – for the day; for waking up at all.  Think of giving thanks for the opportunity to earn a living, provide for your family, and enjoy the company of those you love.  Everything you have is a chance to give thanks.  It is a lifestyle choice to give thanks to God – NO MATTER WHAT.

Gratitude also changes the life of a congregation.  Grateful Christians come to worship, not because the “get something out of it”, but to give thanks and praise to God within the faith community.  The quality of worship is transformed by the gratitude of the congregation.  Stewardship becomes less about fund raising and more about the joyful giving by faithful givers.  The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hearts and hands extending Jesus’ love to the world.  Prayer includes not only intercessions and requests, but also shouts of praise and thanksgiving.  Some people believe that the practice of gratitude is an essential part of being human.  John Burkhart wrote: “To withhold acknowledgement, to avoid celebration, to stifle gratitude, may prove as unnatural as holding one’s breath.”

Worship is at the heart of the Christian life and this story of a man who returns to give thanks points to that truth.

More than once in Scripture we are told to “return and praise God”.  From the shepherds at Jesus’ birth to the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, we are told to return and give God praise and thanksgiving.  God promised to be at work in the world, in our church, and in our lives, so we cannot help but give thanks – that is the nature of our faith.  “Go on your way, your faith has made you well,” is not problematic at all – even when physical healing does not come.  Instead, Jesus’ words describe a life of blessing for the church: as we go on our way, we rejoice and give thanks for, in giving thanks in all things, we find that God, indeed, is present in all things.  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[Giving thanks to Kimberly Bracken Long and “Feasting on the Word”]

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