Faith Has a Focus

Among the stories my Father told me about his National Service was his account of what happened when his group of recruits reported for duty. The Officer in Charge decided that he would sort them out according to their religious affiliation. Apparently, it was very simple. Firstly, there were the Catholics. Then there were the Jews; and anybody else, (no matter what they said!) were automatically categorized as ‘Church of England’.

I’ve often thought about this task, which seems to have been placed on the shoulders of the dear old ‘C of E’. Sometimes it seems that we’ve been marked down as (let’s be blunt) some kind of dumping ground for any kind of well-meaning sense of ‘religiousness’. Yes, there may seem to be distinct advantages in such an apparent sense of inclusiveness. We often use the phrase ‘broad church’ to highlight what a virtue we think this is, don’t we? But the downside as many have observed, is little more than a descent into what we can only call ‘ersatz religion’. Something which resembles the real thing but fundamentally we know something is not quite right. It’s not just that we might be accused of lacking doctrinal rigour or concern for the truth.

No, the real problem, for me, is the way Christ and his Kingdom have come to play second fiddle to priorities set by the State and wider culture. I think this is a particular issue for a body such as our own which allies itself so closely with the State. In short, we end up standing for everything and nothing. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Some years ago, I worked as Chaplain in a College of Further Education. I remember being asked by one of the Tutors if I would spend an afternoon speaking with the trainee Nurses. As you might expect, they were doing a course on human development and I was asked to give them some insights into how people relate to matters of faith at different stages in their life… as children and then on into adulthood.

Now, I jumped at the chance to be useful (or so I thought) and I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon especially because I found it fairly easy to find plenty of material to share with them! After all, this was a time when people were very fond of saying that they were ‘spiritual’ rather than religious and so I discovered that there were quite a lot of readable books on the shelf.

But I look back on it all now with considerable misgivings. Because, whilst the Social and Psychological research and the descriptive terms that were used to describe the way faith develops in people had some merit, I realise that all I was basically doing was passing on some fairly interesting but quite general ideas; notions which anyone of goodwill might broadly accept.

Putting it simply, what rankles with me is realising that I didn’t really get to talk much about Jesus. And then I realised that if I had then I would have had to refer to him in pretty much the same terms as any other ‘faith teacher’. As someone who ‘was’ (in the past tense) essentially a purveyor of timeless religious truths which you might gain from any number of sources. Certainly not as the one who embodies the truth about God, us and the world.

In other words, I’m cross with myself not just because I didn’t do my job properly but because I can see, now that to some extent I was regarded as a safe pair of hands; as broadly inoffensive. Yes, I was the authorised as Chaplain and no, I wouldn’t of exploited my teaching position but frankly, any generalised religious figure could have given this talk. I stood out because I was C of E.

It’s perhaps a bit strong to say that I allowed myself to be exploited. Rather, I think I was all too ready to play the role of representative of that big tent called the ‘C of E’… I had become ‘go-to’ person for ‘general religious stuff‘. And in retrospect, like dear old St. Peter, I can still hear a cock crowing.

Essentially, it was all of a piece with that sickly-sweet assumption which clings like barnacles to the dear old C of E; that we’re all on some kind of religious quest, climbing up different sides of a mountain and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere. And this is the context in which it seems we all work out our own privatised religious quest. And my point is that in our desire to fulfil what we might call a ‘socially cohesive role’ as opposed to a divisive one (which would never do!) we are gradually losing our way. Particularly in our role as a teaching Church. We’re losing the capacity to offer anything new, distinctive or challenging because we’ve assumed the mantle of that place where we bring our various ‘religious’ beliefs with the expectation that they will be confirmed.

The touchstone, for me, is the way we have come to use and understand the word ‘faith’. Let’s look, for a moment, at what St. Paul told us this morning. He says to the Church in Corinth: “Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – ‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. (2 Corinthians 4.13-14)

Now, if we’re going to understand what Paul is getting at we need firstly, to realise that he’s talking about the extreme trials he’s been going through. So, Paul has faced huge problems; he’s anxious and feels as though his world is falling apart. So, secondly the question of course, is “How does he deal with this?”. Well, it seems that he’s been praying with one of the Psalms. We read it a little while ago… Psalm 116. And what stood out for Paul is there in verse ten: The writer says, “I trusted in the Lord when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted’” (Psalm 116.10). This is what he means when he says, “we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture”. (v13) Faith is defined as ‘trusting in the Lord, when greatly afflicted’. That is Biblical faith.

You see, the point is that faith has an object. It’s focus is the Lord. We’re not talking about some general religious niceness or the hope that something might turn up. We’re not referring to some amorphous notion we might call our ‘spirituality’. No, “Faith,” as Tom Wright says, “Is not some general religious attitude. It is faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead”.

Putting it directly, if you and I are going to have the “same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture”, (v13) then, its focus will be the living God. And not just any old notion of god but, as Paul says, “the one who raised the Lord Jesus” (v14) And this is where I let those nurses down. This is where the dear old ‘C of E’ abdicates its responsibilities when it fails to point people to Jesus; who is the way, the truth and the life.

Because, here’s the thing, when you reject this ‘generalised’ notion of faith and recognise it’s true focus… the living God who raised Jesus from the dead… we get in touch not just with the conviction that gave Paul courage to continue in the worst of circumstances. We begin to lay claim on these resources for ourselves. We find capacity for endurance because, as Paul says, we “know the one in whom (we have) have put (our) trust”. (2 Timothy 1.12) But the tell-tale sign for me is there in our attitude towards the cross.

This is the biggest challenge to what I’m calling ‘generalised’ religious attitudes; these ersatz notions of faith. You see, a generalised deity cannot save you. We get around this by living on the assumption that we don’t think we need saving anyway because by and large we’re into ‘generalised self-help’. That’s the product many people are looking for; and what they’ve tragically come to expect from the dear old ‘C of EBasically it’s little more than sentimentality. That’s why we can fill the Church on Easter Day but people run a mile on Good Friday. All the while we forget that faith is faith IN… Faith IN a very particular saving and redeeming God. Not the God we WANT but the one revealed in Jesus the Christ.

To my shame, I thought I could talk with those nurses about faith without much reference to Jesus; but to that extent I was letting them down. I was peddling generalities and it won’t do. I was playing a ‘religious’ game … the one expected of me under the banner of the ‘C of E’. It looked and sounded (if I say it myself) quite respectable, academic and sophisticated. But it was such a long way from what Paul calls the “same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture”.

The kind of faith that remains steadfast in trial, not because we have any particular merit or capacity for endurance but because the focus of our faith is a great and saving and redeeming God: the God revealed in Jesus the Christ.

So, pray today that this is the God you are coming to know… Pray that this God is the focus of your faith….. and the one in whom you will place your trust.

2021-06-13