Seeing is Not Believing

“I guess you have to just make a leap of faith.” How often have we found ourselves saying or hearing these words, or something like them? Faith, to most of us, is the act you have to make when you just cannot understand, when rational thought fails to give an explanation. It seems a blind leap in the dark. Actually, this phrase, “the leap of faith,” originates from a 19th Century philosopher who originally used it as the leap to faith. The whole point in this way of seeing things is that faith is not something that one can arrive at through reason, but is necessarily the result of a leap across a wide chasm that separates those who believe from those who do not, a leap necessarily against reason.

This has given rise to a parody of faith in the modern world as a place of refuge for those who are incapable of thinking or who go blindly through life. But this is precisely not what the Church and the Sacred Scriptures mean by faith.
St. Paul tells us today in the epistle to the Hebrews: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Now, the reference here to “things not seen” might seem to suggest the existence of the “leap to faith,” but it is also important to note that St. Paul is talking about evidence. There are lots of things that we cannot see, but we believe are there. I cannot see oxygen molecules, but I most certainly do not dispute their existence, though after ten minutes of a sermon you might hope for a temporary lack of them right about here. Still, though, this isn’t faith in the precise sense in which we mean it as Christians, because the existence of oxygen molecules can be proven with a scientific certainty that does not apply to spiritual realities.

Does this mean, then, that we are less certain about the things we know through faith? No, not at all! Religious knowledge through faith is not something lower than scientific knowledge through physical evidence, a lower way of knowing as the secular world would have us believe. When people claim that faith cannot be certain because it lacks the kind of evidence that we have for oxygen molecules, they are making a mistake of categories. Just because the methods of one discipline do not apply to another does not mean that one is more valuable than the other. You cannot measure the pleasure given to you by a good movie or a good meal, but that does not mean you have any less certainty about whether or not it was good or not. And if anyone tried to quantify the pleasure you derive from eating based on frequency of nerve impulses coming from your taste buds, we would all agree that was a pretty poor way of accounting for the very real human experience of tasting. Similarly, you cannot provide any physical evidence of the love you have for another person, but just because you cannot quantify love (beyond feeble expressions like, “to the moon and back”) does not mean that love is not real.

So what is the basis on which we have sure knowledge through faith, the basis that applies just as much to the realities of faith as scientific experimentation does to chemistry and physics? St. Paul reminds us of how Abraham, the first father of the Jewish people, left his homeland and traveled for years through the desert, and believed in God’s promise that he would give him many, many descendants even though he was old and his wife was sterile, because, “he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.” The basis for our faith in all that God reveals through the Sacred Scriptures and the Church (pause) is God Himself. It is a really and truly existing God who makes Himself known Who is the basis for our faith. Faith, concretely, is belief in what we cannot know by sight through the authority of God who reveals Himself.

Abraham knew God because God revealed Himself to him directly, and while we might hope that we would have such an experience, we probably should not count on it. But the story of Abraham forms the first reason for our own faith: the real history of God’s interventions in the world in the Sacred Scriptures. The Bible is not just an old story book with nice lessons for us. It is the true history of how God has cared for His people. Most importantly of all, we have the evidence of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, reported by the same Sacred Scriptures and testified to by the deaths of the martyrs and the continual preaching of the Church to this very day.

If you remember the story of Abraham well, you will recall that the most extraordinary evidence of his faith is that he was willing to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac, his only child, from whom God had promised to give him descendants as numerous as the stars. This would seem the ultimate example of a blind faith, of being willing to do something completely contrary to reason and everything that we know to be good, the horrific action of killing one’s own son. But even here, we do not have the blind faith of which the world accuses those who follow Christ.

St. Paul tells us in today’s epistle, “[Abraham] reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.” Abraham knew that Isaac’s very existence was because of the all-powerful God who could act completely outside of the bounds of nature by giving a son to an old and infertile couple. His willingness to follow God’s command is motivated not, then, by a blind faith that resembles mental illness as it might seem, but rather by the solid evidence that God can and does act beyond nature.

We too will be tested as to whether or not we have faith, but not in the extraordinary way in which Abraham was. Rather, our test will look more like that parable presented by our Lord in today’s Gospel. Here, he sets out the example of two servants who await their master’s return, one who carefully tends what has been entrusted to him, and another who squanders his master’s property with drunkenness and gluttony, and mistreats his fellow servants. One is greatly rewarded, the other is severely punished.

At our Baptism, we received the immense gift of faith, which beyond being an act of belief that we make, is a gift infused into our hearts by grace. Our Lord tells us, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Abraham was entrusted with much when the Lord revealed Himself to him, but we have been entrusted with even more because the gift of faith we received at our Baptism is a stable quality in our souls that has the constant power to bring us closer to God.

Some people use this nature of faith as a gift to make excuses for why they do not believe: “Well, I guess faith is a gift, and I just don’t have it.” This is usually done in comparison with another person who seems really to have faith, and comparing ourselves with others is always the sign of the beginning of problems. But the reality is that anyone who has received Baptism has had this gift infused in him from the beginning of his Christian life. So when you are tempted not to believe in God or His teachings, either because of a tragedy that makes His very existence seem impossible or because His teachings or those of His Church seem unreasonable, ask for an increase of that gift of faith. It is there in your heart, desiring to grow.
There is a reason that our Lord uses the example of a drunk and dissolute servant to typify the person who does not believe: the quality of life that we lead affects our ability to believe. The more that someone gives himself over to behaviors contrary to living out the faith, the harder it is to believe in God, and the more one is tempted to slide into a life in which God seems irrelevant. Here I am reminded of the story of an atheist philosopher who was approached by a young man who had decided to abandon his faith but found he just could not stop believing in the Eucharist. The atheist philosopher’s advice was for him to commit grave sins against chastity and then receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, which was the certain death stroke for the young man’s faith. Fortunately for us, the state of the drunken and unprepared servant in our Lord’s parable can never be the end of the story.

We saw how St. Paul referred to Isaac being given back to his father Abraham as a symbol. This is because Isaac has always been seen as a sign of Christ, the only Son of God the Father, who was also not afraid to give His Son up to death, knowing that He was to rise on the third day to bring us redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. If we have squandered the gift of faith through living in ways not in accord with God’s law and the teachings of the Church, we always have the opportunity to turn back to his Son, who never ceases to offer forgiveness to every repentant sinner.

Our Lord tells us, “Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Since we cannot know when Christ will come, or when the hour of our death will bring us before His judgment seat, we must wait in faith, a faith that believes all that He has revealed through the Sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. Thanks be to God, then, that we never have to wait in fear, because the same Christ who will judge our souls is the One who died and rose for us, and greatly desires to restore us to being the servants who will be put in charge of all the master’s property, if only we will confess our sins and ask for his forgiveness. His mercy is absolutely infinite, so long as we will ask Him.

The Rev Royce V Gregerson
St Charles Borromeo Church, Ft Wayne
XIX Sunday through the Year, AD MMXVI