Belief and Faith

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 23, 2007

(The Reading is from Luke 5:1-11)

Jesus Christ turned the world upside down and inside out in big ways and little ways. When He asked Peter to set out on the lake and cast his nets again he was giving him a chance to see things in a different way.  Everything Peter had learned as a fisherman told him that fishing on Galilee was to be done at certain times and in certain ways. Old habits die hard. Pride gets in the way. Still Peter did as he was asked and his world changed. "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man."

Jesus replied with words that are comforting and challenging at the same time, "Do not be afraid."  Comforting because all of us are in need of being set free from fear and challenging because we will not easily relinquish even this most negative aspect of life.  We would rather hold on to what is familiar even if it isn't good for us than let go and float into the unknown.

If we do not recognize the scenery, then we may be sure God is leading us. The Lord is calling all of us to go "against the grain," that is, to lose our lives so that we can find them.

The Sermon on the Mount begins like this, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  This verse is at the root of the most radical kind of self-denial.  What does it mean to be poor in spirit.  Obviously, it has to do with something that is not seen with the eye, something interior, a poverty of the mind and of the heart.

Let me quote from the writings of Fr. Laurence Freeman of the World Community of Christian Meditators.  

"To find God, then, we must lose God, at least our primitive ideas and images of God. Detaching from these familiar images will be painful... It is a deep level of our psyche that is being changed. Pain as well as joy accompanies the discovery of the living mystery because the idols we must smash are so enmeshed with our images of ourselves."

This is where it begins. Meeting God means change on the deepest level.  The most significant changes occur first in the mind and heart.  When Peter and the others returned to shore with their surprising catch of fish the scripture says, " They left everything and followed him."  Something changed deep within them to bring about this response.  They did not know it at the time, but they had encountered the Living God and all their mental idols began to fall. Jesus began at that moment to lead them to freedom.  Faith had awakened in these fishermen.

Belief is one thing and faith is another. Belief is based on concepts, words, definitions, doctrines and dogmas, on structure and form.  So belief is rigid and firm, a closed system.  Belief gives us a starting point and boundaries beyond which we dare not go and remain believers, but belief is limited in its scope and power.  You can have all knowledge and still not have faith. St. James writes that "even the demons believe and tremble."

Faith, however, is entirely open, experiential, a pilgrimage into the mystery that cannot be expressed in words. Faith has unlimited potential, it is entirely open to the on-going revelation of Truth as it reveals itself personally.

Allow me to quote from the book THE WISDOM OF INSECURITY by Alan Watts.

"The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes.  Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.  Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.  Belief clings, but faith lets go.  In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception."

"If you were able to understand it, it would not be God," writes St. Augustine. "If you were able to understand even partially then you deceived yourself with your own thoughts." Although it is a frightening thing to let go of our moorings, let go we must if we are to experience the Living God as He is.

The breaking of interior idols unblocks the flow of Divine energy in us. We meet God as He is and we discover who we really are in the meeting of Maker and image. Still every revelation is partial at best for God can only reveal Himself as we are capable to receive and even then He, in His essence remains unknowable. God is revealed and yet always hidden. The poor in spirit are those who continuously cast down their idols and approach God with complete openness to the Truth of who He is rather than what they think Him to be.  They approach with unburdened hearts and thus a poverty of spirit full of wisdom and humility.

When Mary Madgalene met the resurrected Lord in Gethsemane he said a curious thing to her. "Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to my Father."  One commentator wrote that Jesus was discouraging her from holding on to memories of the past, her previous understanding of Jesus and the excitement of the moment; to let go of her conceptions and face the new reality. In other words, "Do not hold on to what you think you understand of Me now to do so would be to make an idol, there is more to come you cannot comprehend." St. Paul put it this way, "for now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face: now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known."

It is like this: an arrogant and skeptical professor went to meet a Zen Master thinking to prove to himself that the master had nothing whatsoever to offer him. The Zen Master invited him for tea. The Master poured the tea and kept pouring until the tea overflowed and began to fill the tray.  The professor was startled. The Master said, "Are tou troubled by this? Your cup is so full you cannot receive anything more. To receive wisdom we must know that we are empty."

Believing that we have all the knowledge possible about God is to hold on to a delusion, a mirage and a dream.

In Christ Jesus all things become new, so we must expect our perceptions of God to be ever-changing, that is, if we do not try and hold fast to what we think we understand at any given point.  Doctrine and dogma open the doorway to Truth, they cannot and do not exhaust it. When the Holy Spirit moves in an open and willing heart you can hear the sound of idols crashing.

More than anything, I think the Lord is calling us to embark without fear on the path of faith. The truth sets us free and since the truth is not an idea, but a Person, it is in Jesus we must place our hope, not in our ideas. We must not be afraid to let go. "Do not be afraid" is spoken to all those who actively seek the truth. A healthy spiritual life is living, growing and dynamic. Belief in God is no substitute for a living faith.

I will end with some beautiful words from the mystic poet Rumi.

To find a pearl dive deep into the ocean
don't look in fountains.
To find a pearl you must
Emerge from the water of life always thirsty.