11 June 1985
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
What do we mean when we say that we believe? The word has become so weak. More often than not to believe means that we accept a proposition on trust and yet with a certain hesitation, with a degree of uncertainty: ‘I believe that he will come,’ ‘I believe he is right,’… How different this perception of believing is from the faith of Abraham or from the faith which the Son of God become the Son of man shows in mankind. Let us dwell one moment on Abraham who was called in the Old Testament “the father of all believers.”
The test came so clearly and could be such a lesson to us. He was promised a son in his old age and the son was born, and he grew, and the Lord had promised that this child would be the first of a vast race, as numerous as the sands of the shores, as many as the stars in heaven. And of a sudden when the child was already growing, when all hopes seemed to be ready to be fulfilled in him, when he was joy and expectation, the Lord gave his word, “Take this child, Abraham, take him onto the high mountain and bring him a blood offering to Me.” And here is the test not only in the fact that Abraham obeyed because he recognised the voice of the same Lord who had commanded him to leave his land and to go to the place that the Lord would reveal unto him, the test was even more acute. Was he going to believe God’s promise or God’s word? The promise could be misunderstood, the promise could be fulfilled differently. He did not know. What he knew for certain was that the Lord had spoken again and he trusted the Lord more than he trusted the promise he had been given. He left it to the Lord to find a solution to the problem that was insoluble for him. And the Lord did find the solution.
Now, no-one of us is put to the test in such a way. And yet, so often we are not prepared to accept God’s word to us because we think that God could not speak that way. We say that there must be something wrong in the way in which his words were reported, that we should use our intelligence, our judgment. The result being that we submit God’s word to our human judgment and not our human judgment to God’s own wisdom. And yet we might well know that the words of Isaiah the prophet are true throughout the ages, the words which God spoke to him, “My ways are not your ways, My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are so far above yours as My thoughts are above your thoughts. And so here we are confronted with sharpness by Abraham, by his unreserved, complete trust in God so different from our own attitude. Are we prepared to accept what Paul called ‘the folly of the preaching’, a preaching concerning ways and attitudes in this fallen, distorted world that seem not to solve its problems? Are we prepared to be fools for Christ’s sake, remembering that the folly of God is wiser than the sagacity of men and the wisdom of men? This applies to all our ways, to the way in which believe or not in the Gospel as it was proclaimed by the early Christian community. It applies also to our readiness to live according to the Gospel, to follow a way in a distorted world that is straight, to live in a way which is a scandal or a folly. Are we prepared for that?
I would like to give you an example, modern this time, of that kind of mad, foolish attitude.
I met in Russia a man, a priest who had spent thirty six years of his life in prison and in a concentration camp. To most of us it is either most of our lives, or half our lives, a very long term. He sat in front of me with eyes shining with wonder and said to me, “Do you realise how wonderfully good God has been to me? The Soviet authorities did not allow into prisons or camps priests or any kind of spiritual ministration. And God chose me, a young, inexperienced priest and sent me for thirty six years of my life to minister to the people who needed most of all to be looked after and to have a witness of God in their midst.” That is one who believed, that is one who took an act that otherwise could be understood as the brutality of the times, as something monstrous happening in our days, as an act of divine wisdom and an act of love not only to those who were also like him in prison or in a camp but to him. He deemed it a privilege to be allowed this ministry. Here is a man of faith, he did not try to oppose a passage of the Gospel or a line of the Scriptures to the will of God, to try to find a loophole or to find a way in which he could charge God with many years of suffering. He was a fool humanly speaking, he was wise in God.
And then I would like to attract your attention to the Lord himself. It is not his faith in the Father I want to speak about, it is His faith in man, in us. St. Paul is clear about it when he says, How would anyone die for his friends? but Jesus, the Son of God become the Son of men died for us while we still were God’s enemies, opposing His will, unfaithful, unwilling to follow the way of life which is narrow and hard at times. He had faith in us... This is one of the most extraordinary things one can experience - realise that God has faith in me. He created me knowing what I would be, and yet, He had faith that I would find the way, the way of life. He entrusted me with the knowledge of Him, He called me to be His disciple, and when I say “me” I mean each of us. God has faith in us. A friend of mine in a sermon said once, “When God looks at any of us, He does not see the virtues or the achievements which may well not be there, but what He does see is His own image in us”. Do we look at one another with faith?
You know, faith according to the XI chapter to the Epistles to the Hebrews is certainty concerning things unseen. To see the image of God in one’s neighbour is an act of faith that makes us followers of Christ because He looked at the harlot, at the sinner, at the tax-gatherer, at Zacchaeus and Matthew and in each of them He saw the possibility of salvation. One of the reasons why our world is so cold and so dark, and so painful is that very few believe in one another. We treat one another as though we were a precious painting that has been damaged by time, by moisture, by circumstances, by the folly of man, and we concentrate only on the damage - it is cut, is it slash, it is ugly, it’s almost destroyed. That is what we see. And God looks and sees what has survived of the unsurpassed beauty of His image and loves it.
And we could do the same quite easily. It would be so easy if we thought that our neighbour however damaged, profaned, made ugly, distorted by life in all its forms, whether it be heredity or education, or circumstances, that our neighbour is a holy image. Think of the way in which you would treat the photograph of your mother who had died, or your fiancé who had been killed in the war, or of a person whom you loved with all there was of love in you and you discovered that his photograph had decayed, had been ill-treated, perhaps, torn with hatred by someone. You would treat it with tenderness, the very wounds it bears would call for care. We would treat this photograph, as one would treat a badly wounded person. One wouldn’t say, “This person is wounded. How revolting this blood and these broken bones, and this flesh!” We would say, “Here is still life, he can live”. And we would give all our attention and love to this person. This is the way in which God sees us and believes in us. And this is the second half of the diptych - to say that we believe in God and don’t believe in those for whom He has given His life is a lie. It’s not true. St. John says that if we say that we love God and don’t love our neighbour we are liars. Well, we are; but in order to love our neighbour we must have faith in him, faith that all things are possible, that the most depraved, the most broken person can change. And indeed people do change. One can see that in so many ways when life is tragic. In the war, in accidents people whom we thought were totally incapable of any good suddenly show mercy and love and heroic courage.
So when we speak of faith and of believing we must learn to believe in the way in which the early Christians believed. Take St. Barnabas. It was reported to him that Saul, the persecutor had come blinded by a vision and everyone probably said, “Don’t come near him, don’t you know that he came, he was on his way to destroy everything that we are building. He is a hater of Christ.” Barnabas believed in him, he went to see him, he called him his brother, not Cain but a brother in Christ, and he restored the sight of Paul and gave him to know Christ and sent him on his glorious missionary journey. He believed in him because God had believed in him first.
And think of so many people who in the Gospel or in the Acts are believers. Take for instance the man who said, “I believe, Lord, help my lack of faith!” How often we would be right to speak that way recognising that we lack this total certainty and yet that there is in us a flicker of hope, that we are ready to believe and yet we are afraid of believing - what if my faith is not met by God’s mercy? We can say, each of us, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!” But we must then believe. What did this father believe in? I think what he believed in was what he saw in the Lord Jesus Christ. He saw in His eyes infinite, divine compassion. He did not see the power of the magician, Christ was no magician, but he saw love, and because he saw love, he saw that everything is possible.
Now, we should be able to be to people around us an occasion for that kind of faith. People should meeting us, see in us that love which that man found in Christ. They should see compassion, they should see that we believe in them even against all evidence. And then they also could believe through us in God and through God in mankind and in life. Then they could, like Thomas, say, “My Lord and my God!” and have no doubt anymore. So that faith is an act of heroic trust, faith is an act of faithfulness to God’s word and to God’s person, faith is also the certainty which is born from that kind of experience. Let us read in the Gospel the passages where we can find faith revealed and ask ourselves, “How did these men and women find this degree of trust in God?” And we will discover that we also possess enough evidence to believe; only we imagine that believing is something so extraordinary, it is the condition of the saints. No, it is the condition of normal, ordinary, sinful people, who can give their trust to God, obey and then discover that they were not insane in doing this.