“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This is one of the most iconic statements in Scripture. It has been emblazoned on plaques and embroidered on sweatshirts. People have cross-stitched it, framed it, and hung in on a thousand living room walls.
But what does it mean?
The author of Hebrews is writing to discouraged, second generation Christians. These aren’t the disciples who stood with Jesus as he was transfigured and listened to God praise his Son. These aren’t the crowds that surrounded Jesus and saw his miracles. These aren’t the friends who noticed the empty tomb and experienced the resurrected Jesus.
These followers of Christ have heard those stories, of course, but those stories are fading. These followers have been through terrible persecution, seen their friends thrown in jail, know those who have been killed for their faith. Now they are wondering, “Was it worth it?” They aren’t seeing any results. Jesus hasn’t come back. There has been no revolution. All they’ve got is the Holy Spirit and some old stories.
The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers. He’s reminding them that faith is more than looking at the evidence around you and sighing in resignation. Faith requires a person both to look ahead in hope and to look more deeply at the reality around them.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for—faith reminds us that Jesus promised us the kingdom. Jesus promised us a new way of life.
But faith is also the conviction of things not seen. That is, faith is the belief that there is more than meets the eye to the present.
Think of our news coverage. Whether we open the Times-Dispatch or go to the New York Times online or turn on CNN, we are inundated with the fifteen most horrible things that have happened in the entire world the previous day. On top of that, we are reminded that we are slowly poisoning our planet and that we probably have some terrible disease we just haven’t been diagnosed with yet. Getting a bird’s eye view of the world is enough to make us want to hide under our covers for the rest of time!
Detroit is a perfect example. What do you know about Detroit from the news? Detroit is a big city that has collapsed and is filing for bankruptcy, right? You probably picture poverty and violence and decay. And all that is happening. Buildings are abandoned, some with squatters living inside. The drug trade and gun violence is all a part of life in Detroit. But what happens if we have “the conviction of things not seen.” What if we believe that God is at work in Detroit?
On her wonderful program “On Being”, Krista Tippet interviews people who examine the bigger questions in life, whether they are religious persons, scientists or poets. Recently she re-aired an interview with a woman named Grace Lee Boggs. Grace is a 98 year old philosopher who has lived in Detroit for decades. She and her husband were instrumental in the civil rights movement in the area and she continues to live her life with energy as she tackles the big questions of what it means to be a worker in an era in which all the jobs have left your community.
As Tippett spoke with Boggs and others in Grace’s community, they talked about community gardens which have been springing up in blighted areas. They talked about artists gathering and expressing themselves. They talked about people in Detroit gathering and breaking bread together, sharing life together. You heard stories of true community. Community rooted in love and respect. Community that sounded quite a lot like a community of God. There is more than meets the eye in Detroit. God is at work, even amidst the blight, even if we cannot see that on the evening news.
Abraham and Sarah certainly had to draw on deep reserves of faith. God send them forth without any real instructions! God made promises about their offspring that he didn’t fulfill for decades. Year after year Abraham and Sarah plodded forward, somehow trusting that God was at work, even when promises were not yet fulfilled.
We are not alone in those moments when we wonder whether God is a faithful, loving God. We are not alone when we have moments in which we think the resurrection story is a little far fetched. Waaaaay back, just a few years after that resurrection, people were already starting to think it sounded too good to be true.
So how do we nurture our own faith two thousand years, hundreds of generations later? How do we keep ourselves holding on when the evidence seems thin? When our own suffering, or the suffering of others makes us start to doubt the presence of God?
The author of Hebrews would encourage us to tell the stories. Remind ourselves of all the people in the bible, all the people across history who have had encounters with God. Remember our own stories of God’s faithfulness and listen to the stories of others. Whether you choose to read about the saints or a more modern memoir of faith by Lauren Winner or Kathleen Norris, reading about the faith of others can encourage our own faith.
Worshiping together can also be helpful. When a friend first invited me to attend a service at an Episcopal Church, I was a 21 year old evangelical who had just spend the summer on a poorly organized mission trip in Delhi, India. The trip raised all kinds of questions for me about poverty and God’s work in the world. It also made me doubt the church, whose cheerful attempts to lead Vacation Bible School amongst people who barely eked out livings in the slums of Delhi seemed patronizing, at best.
I came home uncomfortable in the cheerful, hand clapping worship services of the church I attended. So, when I walked into the doors of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I did not know what to think. But then the liturgy started. And I teared up because for months I had not been able to pray, but now, praying these old prayers in unison with hundreds of other people made me feel deeply connected. I had never seen the Nicene Creed before and thought it was the most brilliant thing I had ever read. At the time I had no idea it was a statement of faith that had been cobbled out in the 4th century, but I could tell it was rooted in something deep and true. I actually still have a scrapbook where I cut the Nicene Creed out of the bulletin because it moved me so much!
When we say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, we say it together and we always say it in the plural. We help each other keep the faith. When one of us doubts, another can believe for us. We may have weeks, months, years at a time when we aren’t able to say the words of the Creed with confidence, but we can stand there silently listening to the chorus of voices around us and remember that faith surrounds us, even if faith is not within us.
And if you are struggling with faith today, know that we will believe for you. We will hold onto the hope that God is at work in your present and that God has a future for you.
We hold onto the faith together. No one has to go it alone.