Where Does Faith Come From?


John 10:22-30     Fourth Sunday of Easter     May 12, 2019

 

 

Where does faith come from?  Have you ever thought about the mystery of faith?

In our culture, we’re not good at mystery, because then we’re drawn into something we can never fully understand or control or master, and we don’t like that!  Instead, we’re all about needing to be in control.  We strive for effectiveness and efficiency.  We work to improve our technique – in time management, in increased productivity, in managing people.

But what do we miss when we’re concerned with control and efficiency, effectiveness and technique?  Think about this.  When you are fixated on the clock and what you still need to accomplish, are you aware of the mystery of the present moment?  When you’re focused on managing people, are you able to enjoy the mystery of each individual person?

And as for our worship of technique!  Well, now that you’ve gotten me started …

Most all of you know that I love to ride my several bicycles.  And, when I’m in the library, I page through Bicycling magazine.  It’s a magazine full of bicycle riding technique: how to train, how to get faster.  But here’s what I’ve found: when I’m focusing on technique, then I’m in accomplishment mode – and then I am missing the joy of noticing what is in the moment when I am riding a bicycle.  I miss the mystery of the bald eagle, gliding overhead.  I miss noticing the beaver dam, and the mystery of those strange animals that built it.

Would you be surprised to hear that there is no shortage of experts who teach effective church management technique!  Certainly, there is value in that.  During my first 20 years or so as a pastor I learned all I could about effective church management technique.  And I think I became pretty good at leading congregations into becoming healthier and more vibrant communities.  For instance, there are leadership techniques to lower anxiety when a Council member makes an outrageous motion.  There are techniques to leading book studies that engage participants and stimulate their thinking.  There are techniques to leading worship with pace and energy.  Did you know there are techniques to re-engage people whose thoughts may be drifting, while they’re listening to a sermon?

(I just used one!  Have you ever noticed that I ask a question from time to time, and that I pause for you to consider what an answer might be?  That’s a technique to bring peoples’ attention back, when I’ve been droning on long enough that folks’ thoughts are wandering!)

There is value in control and effectiveness and productivity and technique.  But here’s the danger when we worship those things: then we lose sight of mystery.  So, for instance: a master of church leadership techniques cannot cause people to respond!  Their response is a mystery.  To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if someone doesn’t want to come to church, there’s nothing I can do to stop him – no matter how effective my technique is, or how perfect the bulletin is, or whether the air conditioning is set at the perfect temperature.

The longer I’ve done this work of parish ministry, the more I’ve become aware of the mystery of it all.  This started about 20 years ago, when I came to realize that there was nothing I could do to cause a person to want to gather for worship!  That desire is mystery.  I became aware that, nearly every time someone drops away, it’s all about something that’s going on in the mystery of his or her life, and not because we should be doing something better here in the church.  The same is true when someone returns to the worshiping community after many years away.

Then I started wondering about the mystery of why it is that I hunger for worship.  When I’m on vacation (and I’m not paid to be in church!), why do I hunger to find a place to worship while few of the others I’m with feel that need?  I’ve thought about what I’ll do in retirement.  Where will I find a worshiping community like St. Stephen, with members who are hungering to be drawn into the mystery of God, instead of simply going through the motions, or being anxious about how long the service is lasting?

Where does faith come from?  Haven’t you thought about that mystery, too?

For instance, why have you waxed and waned in faith over the years?

For instance, why will there be two siblings, both raised in the same way when it comes to church involvement, and one grows up to be deeply drawn into the mystery of God, while the other doesn’t think that is important at all?

And what is the role of the community of faith in all of this mystery?

Where does faith come from?

*  *  *

The encounter between Jesus and his interrogators is all about that, in the story we read in the gospel of John.

Jesus is surrounded by some of the leaders of the Jewish people.  (It is inaccurate, and even leads us into anti-semitism, to understand Jesus’ opponents to be “the Jews,” as the author of John writes.  Jesus himself was a practicing Jew, of course!  All of his followers, at this point, were practicing Jews.  But there were some of the leaders of the Jewish people – some of those among the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Scribes – who opposed Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king from God.)

Here’s what we read.  At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.  (Today, Jews call that holy day “Hanukkah.”  It’s the festival celebrating the rededication of the temple in the year 164 B.C., after Judas Maccabeus had regained control of Jerusalem from the Syrian King Antiochus IV.[1]It was winter, we read, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.  (The portico of Solomon, on one side of the temple, was enclosed.  It would have been a warmer place to be in the winter.)  So the [some of the Jewish leaders] gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Now, you can see how politically charged this question is!  It is the festival of the rededication of the temple altar after the Jews had reclaimed their liberty from the Syrian oppressors 165 years before!  They remember that great military victory!  But now they’re under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  They are looking for a Messiah who will lead them to liberty again!   “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” they ask.  Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  And here, you see, Jesus is into the mystery of faith.  Jesus is not the Messiah that the Jewish interrogators are expecting or looking for, is he?  But there are those who do believe that Jesus is the Messiah: Jesus calls them his sheep!  Why are most of the Jewish leaders incapable of believing that?

Where does faith come from, created in those who Jesus calls his “sheep,” those who hear Jesus’ voice and follow – including you and me?

Faith is created by the Holy Spirit, who creates a hunger for God within us, who draws us into the mystery of God, and draws us into responding to what God is doing!

Faith is created by the Holy Spirit when you and I hear the Word as it is spoken and preached, and as we eat and drink the Word and splash the Word in the sacraments, and as we share the Word with each other in our “mutual conversation and consolation.”[2]  That Word that creates faith is the gospel.  It is the good news: that “God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ.  By grace you have been saved.  In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”[3]  St. Paul expresses this good news that creates faith in his letter to the Romans: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.[4]

Where does faith come from?  Faith is created by the Holy Spirit, and that creates a hunger for God within us, drawing us into the mystery of God, and drawing us into responding to what God is doing!  It’s something like falling in love.  Do you decide to fall in love?  Are you in control, or practicing effective technique when you fall in love?  “We say ‘falling’ because love can never be reduced to a decision or to mere knowledge.  Yet the person is ‘in love’ and thus may do all kinds of things – not to earn the beloved’s affection but precisely because one already lives in that affection.”[5]

It is the same with the mystery of faith which is created by God the Holy Spirit.  To make Luther’s words plural: by our own understanding or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to him.  Instead, the Holy Spirit has called us through the gospel, enlightened us with his gifts, made us holy and kept us in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”[6]

Just as is true with real sheep, we followers of Jesus don’t do very well when we’re off wandering on our own.  So we journey together, in community, listening for the voice of our shepherd, and responding to that.  It is God the Holy Spirit who calls us, and gathers us, and enlightens us, and makes us holy.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

[1] Antiochus had used the altar in the temple for the worship of the god, Zeus!  This is the “desolating sacrilege” referred to in Daniel 11:31.

[2] A phrase used in the Smalcald Articles in the Book of Concord.

[3] Words of absolution in the order for Confession and Forgiveness in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, words that paraphrase St. Paul in Romans 5:6-12

[4] Romans 6:3-5.  These verses are quoted in the funeral liturgy.

[5] Timothy Wengert’s margin note in By Heart: Conversations with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism (Augsburg Fortress, 2017), p. 93

 

 

[6] Small Catechism, The Holy Spirit


About Pastor Andy Ballentine

Pastor Andy Ballentine loves being a parish pastor! Pastor Ballentine took his BA degree from the University of Virginia (with a major in sociology) and earned the Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He earned the Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with the thesis topic of: "How Benedictine Monastic Spirituality Nourishes Parish Ministry." He has completed the program of Spiritual Direction from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. In the Virginia Synod, Pastor Ballentine has served as Dean of the Peninsula Conference and as chaplain to the candidates in the Virginia Synod’s Candidacy process (those on the way to being approved for ordained and professional ministries in the church). He has staffed many, many Virginia Synod youth events!