Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Outcome of Faith

Acts 2:22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

“You are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  1 Peter 1:9

In his book, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a man lost in a desert, dying for lack of water.  He came upon a weather-beaten, broken-down old shack that at least provided a little shade from the desert sun.  Looking around, he saw a pump, an old and rusted water pump coming from the ground.  He crawled over, grabbed the handle, and began to pump up and down – but nothing came out.

He staggered back.  Filled with deep disappointment, he looked around and saw an old jug behind the pipe running up from the ground.  There was a message scratched on the jug which read, “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug.  Be sure to refill the jug before you leave”.

Popping the cork from the jug, he sure enough found it filled with water, but now he was faced with a decision that would certainly change his life.  If he drank the water, he would surely live.  If he followed the instructions and poured all the water into a rusty ol’ pump that looked like it had not been touched in years, he may have wasted the good water he had in hand and desperately needed.  If it worked, though, he could have all the water he could ever want.

After thinking about it for a time, he reluctantly poured all the water into the pump.  Grabbing the handle, he began to pump.  No water, though.  Not at first.  Eventually there came a trickle, then a steady stream and finally a full-on gush of fresh, cool water!  He filled the jug and drank it.  Over and over, he drank his fill.

He then filled the jug for the next traveler.  He filled it to the top, put the cork back in, and added this note: “Believe me, it really works.  You have to give it all away before you can get anything back”.

We could wish that faith were not quite so challenging, but then it wouldn’t be faith.  The truth is we cannot really know or even understand faith until it is put to the test.  That is, we cannot really know what our faith is made of until we endure some traumatic experience.  The testing of our faith could even be as innocuous – but no less insidious – as allowing ourselves to become engaged in a malicious conversation about someone … you know, gossip.

I always think about the hard choice facing Abraham when The Lord called upon him to sacrifice his beloved Isaac.  That is a test we cannot begin to wrap our minds around and is, in fact, one of those times when we may be relieved to think maybe many Bible stories – especially this one! – should not be read literally but should be thought through with a little more serious time and contemplation than to think, “better him than me!  I could never do such a thing.”  Or to be completely honest with ourselves and declare, “I would never do such a thing!” 

Faith is hard.  Unfortunately, faith is also grossly misunderstood.  Like love itself, faith is not at all about how we may feel at any given time; it is more about what we are willing to do even when we would rather not.  This is what distinguishes faith from mere belief. 

It is easy to believe something to be true, especially if what we believe promises us some personal benefit without cost or effort.  Faith, however, has much more substance and is about much more than just “me” or “me and Jesus”.  Faith is about a willingness to heed our God and His Word – that is, His Son - and obey and follow Him ... even if we do not fully understand … or agree.  Especially when the cost, the risk may seem to be more than we could bear or when His Word challenges us to rise above our cultural or even personal standards.  You know, turning the other cheek, actively praying for our enemies, and other such “nonsense”.

It is not unlike the exchange between the Risen Christ and Peter (John 21:15-19).  Jesus had asked Peter over and over, “Do you love Me?”  Peter answered over and over, “You know I love You”.  After each answer, Peter’s spoken love for Jesus compelled Jesus to respond, “If you love Me, feed My lambs”, “if you love Me, tend My sheep”, and “If you love Me, feed My sheep”.

It was not enough for Peter to simply say, “Yes, Lord, I love you”.  It was not even enough for Peter to call upon Jesus to look within his heart so Jesus could “see” Peter’s love for Him.  It was not about only Peter and Jesus; it was about Peter’s need to understand Word and Deed are not mutually exclusive; that saying it was not as good or even the same as doing it, that claiming “Jesus knows what’s in my heart” is insufficient as genuine faith goes.

It’s hard to understand what really held “doubting Thomas” back.  Maybe he was still living with and running in the same fear that drove him and the others into hiding when Jesus was arrested.  Maybe he was still dealing with the anger of such a profound let-down; “believing” Jesus was the Promised One who would save Israel but never quite understanding all Jesus had tried to teach them about the real enemy we still face.  Or maybe he was just plain angry that this God whom he was challenged to trust did not deliver – at least, not on his terms.

When Thomas was finally blessed with the real Presence of the Risen Christ and was finally assured of the certainty of the Resurrection, everything changed for Thomas.  His eyes were finally opened when our Lord challenged Thomas to “reach out your hand” and literally touch the New Reality.  And even though Thomas spoke into this Reality with “my Lord and my God”, Jesus still maintained that believing only with one’s eyes – as the proof the religious leaders had demanded with “signs” – was not enough, was not quite the same as the faith which is fully prepared to trust enough to act even when physical proof is lacking.

We are facing so many problems within the Church universal and specifically within the United Methodist Church.  We are blaming so many for diminishing the witness and the integrity of the Church and we usually attach some social “hot button” issue to those whom we believe should bear the greater burden of the Church’s failure.

In the end, however, we may need to acknowledge that the Church’s failure is not in what the Church chooses to believe.  Rather it may be the Church’s collective failure to fully trust enough to act that may be at the core of all our short-comings.  It is easy for us to pretend “that issue” the Commission on a Way Forward is dealing with is the one single issue that is dividing the Church - until we stop to consider this “one issue” and all its residual sub-issues are only symptomatic of a much greater and more insidious threat to the well-being of the Church and its witness.

Ultimately it may be precisely our failure to act within a particular, divinely ordained pattern that is preventing the greater Church – and many individual churches – from breaking the cultural molds we’ve fallen victim to.  How to act, however, is not quite the challenge until first things really do come first.  Recall in Matthew 17:14-21 that the disciples were unable to drive out a demon.  Jesus had already chided them for their lack of faith but when they asked Jesus specifically why they had been unable to cast out this demon Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting”.

The “outcome of our faith” has everything to do with what we are willing to first put in, but we are assured there is great power to be found in what we choose to do and how we choose to go about it.  If not much is coming our way in terms of what we believe to be good and true and right, we must consider what we are – or are not – putting in.  Like the man at the well in the desert who expected water before he was aware of and willing to follow the instructions.

Our Lord assures us there is much to be gained for what we are willing to give of ourselves.  It is written, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).

Let us pray we learn to let go of what we only think we possess as our own – especially as it pertains to Truth.  Only then will we begin to see and embrace the genuine “outcome of our faith”.  Then will we know the genuine power of faith.  And then may we finally begin to really live!  Amen.

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