Rev. Hannibal: “Question of Faith”
Text: “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’ ” —Matthew 14:31
Early in my ministry, I was, for twelve years, a member of the religion
department at a secondary school in New Hampshire. One of the books chosen
for the year-long required study of religion was Paul Tillich’s
Dynamics of Faith.
For many of the eleventh graders who endured this required course,
Dynamics of Faith was not the easiest or most entertaining book to
read. The language is methodically theological. The students always accused
Tillich of explaining, in four totally convoluted pages, what otherwise
could have been simply stated in four sentences.
The mythology that surrounded the course, and the book, was legendary.
Each new eleventh grade class entered the course with fear and trembling,
and left, at the conclusion of the year, enriched and enlightened, if
not a little overwhelmed that they, too, had made it through
“introduction to religious Studies” and now, as Seniors, were
eligible to add to the mythology that made intro a much revered course at
As I think back on my days teaching Intro I am struck by one recurring
theme and how that theme, introduced in Paul Tillich’s words the first
day of class, developed and added new meaning and dimension to the course as
we reached each new plateau.
One of the rewards of teaching—for me at least—was to see
every student—in his or her good time—come to the realization of
the truth of Paul Tillich’s statement, as it applied to the religions
of the world, generally, and to the specific faith to which one personally
ascribes. The opening sentence of the first chapter of Dynamics of
Faith boldly proclaims:
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics
of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.
We would argue the validity and truth of Tillich’s words for hours
on end: in class, in the dormitory, at meals, and on the playing fields.
Tillich’s statement became the concern of all religion classes.
Yet, After all the philosophizing and theorizing the question still
remains: Do we really know what our ultimate concern actually is? Do we
really have a clue as to what true faith involves?
Throughout the Gospels we see the faith of the disciples tested: first by
Jesus, next by the scribes and Pharisees, and finally by each other. Time
after time we see that these trusted followers of Jesus came up short.
The logical response to the linking the disciples with those who lack
faith, is to throw up our hands, surrender to the principalities and powers
of this world and cry, “What’s the use?” It is not at all
out of line to ask, “If all those who gave up kit and kin to follow
Jesus could not be counted as faithful, what chance have we, who are
continually challenged and swayed by the world outside our doors?” The
question is a valid one for anyone who is wrestling with the meaning of
faith in their life.
The gospel story that precedes today’s New Testament reading is the
account of the feeding of the five thousand. The story continues with our
Lord sending the disciples ahead by boat to their next stop, Bethsaida. As
so often was the case, our Lord separated himself from the crush of the
crowd so that he could be alone with God. He went off by himself, to pray
and to seek the peace of God so that he could once again meet the needs of all
those who came to him.
While he was praying he saw the distress of the disciples in the boat and
started for them. He walked out to them on the water. Needless to say, the
followers of Jesus were beside themselves. Scripture tells us that they were
first terrified, then amazed, and then confused.
If we look closely at today’s gospel we see the very human
responses of the disciples to the unexpected appearance of Jesus. We see
that Matthew’s gospel seems to zero in on Peter’s fear, skepticism,
First he questioned if it was Jesus coming to them. He needed proof, he
needed a sign: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the
water” (Matt. 14:28).
Next he jumped over the side of the boat to walk toward Jesus. the result
was not the ending we would expect. “Peter got out of the boat and
approached Jesus, but when he saw the fury of the wind he panicked and began
to sink” (Matt. 29b–30)
Maybe you have had this experience when you learned how to the ride a
bike or learned to swim. The learning experience also includes trust:
trusting yourself; rusting the one who is guiding or directing.
I remember when I was learning to swim. Everything was fine while wearing
those floaty things on my arms, or having my Dad support me as I paddled
around the pool. Then, as always is the case, Dad slowly, almost
imperceptibly, moved his arms from below my body and I was floating. And I
was on my own.
But there was that moment of realization when I truly was on my own. A
moment of panic when I realized that I was floating by myself.
I was ready to float, I was beginning to learn to swim but I didn’t
believe it. I didn’t try myself. So I panicked and cried out. And just
as quickly as I cried out Dad re-adjusted his arms and once again, I felt
safe and secure. The truth is that Dad’s arms were never really gone. I
just could not see them. I was always safe and secure. (P)
This is what happened to Peter: “Jesus reached out and caught him
(Matt. 14:31a). Jesus had not abandoned Peter. He would not have
called him simply to leave him on is own.
This is what happens to all of us at one time or another. God reaches out
and catches us, when we least expect it because we panic. We do not believe
that we can really trust in God. It may be too risking. We don’t want to
give up control. So we sink, and God reaches out to lift us up.
That is if we don’t get in the way.
The act of faith that revolved around the self-realization and
transformation of the disciples of our Lord only became possible after they
were able to step back and recognize who this extra-ordinary man truly was
and what he did as they walked the roads of Galilee. It was only after our
Lord had left them on their own that the disciples were forced to confront
the reality of Christ as he had confronted them during their three-year
apprenticeship. When Jesus was among them, the belief in the rightness of
their cause had been enough to sustain and carry them through the hard times
and over the rough spots of their odyssey.
It was only after our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection that they
were able to begin to see that the rightness of their cause was nothing more
than an external cloak that masked the internal reality of God’s
blessed truth. And that truth is our guide today as we struggle with the
meaning of faith in our lives. Faith is not the result of things seen, or of
social rank or financial stability. Faith is the centering of our whole
being on the goodness and mercy of God. Faith is not believing that Jesus
can do this or that. Faith is knowing God intimately on a level of our being
that is not clouded and compromised by a transitory view of the world, a
view that corrupts the reality of Christ in our lives.
While faith is not simply a by-product of our external image of God, it
is important to note that God has always used the world around us to show
the love, mercy, and care that sustains and guides all humanity. But the
busyness of life does not often lend itself to the awareness of God in our
midst. Often we are too preoccupied with our own deeds, needs, and concerns
to see the mind of God worked out in the world around us. At times it is a
pure struggle to remember to stop long enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of
the beauty and goodness that is all around us, to take time to be silent and
know that God is speaking directly to each of us in a variety of ways, and
in any number of voices. Try as I might, often I find myself too impatient
and preoccupied with life to see God’s acts of salvation carried out
in the lives of people all around me.
Although these little epiphanies seem all too rare, these glimpses of the
presence and power of God in the world are to be cherished and remembered.
It is in the time of our anxiety and fear, the time of our “aloneness”
that the remembrance of these glimpses of God give us courage and sustenance
to meet the challenge of a world that refuses to accept God. It is in
these dark times of the soul that we especially need to know the reality of
God’s presence in our lives.
I remember sitting in the barber shop waiting my turn when a young man
walked in and began speaking to the barbers. If you know anything about a
neighborhood barber shop, you will know that one does not hold a private
conversation in such a place. The words spoken are public and, more often
than not, meant to be public. This conversation was no different. It was the
story of a man who had spent a year in a drug rehabilitation center. He had
just been released and presented with a clean bill of health. His was a
story that he wanted the world to hear, it was a story that everyone in the
shop needed to hear, young and old alike. This young man came into that
barber shop one rainy afternoon this past week and spoke to the people in
the shop of the experience of going through his own personal hell: his
experience with drugs and then his salvation, his redemption, and
finally his renewal.
Those of course were not his words, they are mine. I attached the
religious language to his testimony. He did not mention God or religion once
as he told his story to no one and everyone who sat in that crowded room.
But as he spoke of his agony and dependency as he slowly committed suicide
over 18 plus years, I saw a sadness in his face that to me was the sadness
that Christ must have felt at the prospect of loosing one of his flock.
As he told us how he had wasted his life I saw the pain and desolation
that must have been etched on the faces of the prophets and patriarchs as
they pleaded with wayward Israel to turn from following false gods and
worshiping idols, to return to the way of truth. It has been said that
“a person can change, only when they awake to truth and see truth in
the light of truth, and no longer in the light of self-interest and
As I looked into this nameless person’s face, I saw the reality of
his words, and the joy of his deliverance. I saw the sincerity and truth in
The young man finished his story, clearly eager and glad to have been
able to relate his odyssey from the brink of a drug-induced death to a
drug-free life. He finished his story and walked from the shop vowing to
help others as he himself had been helped.
He had accepted who he had been, free from the lies and pretense that
would mask his real self. He had looked at himself, and seen that in order
to change he would have to empty himself of who he had been, in order to
accept who he could be. A deeper awareness of self was his starting point.
the self-realization that he must search the solitary regions of his soul to
find his peace was the key.
For us, who confess and call ourselves Christian, it is much the same. Our
knowledge and love is not based on the number of godly deeds done or seen in
a weeks time. Faith is not gained through the senses of life that are easily
recognizable and verifiable. Faith is a result of God’s grace in our lives,
working in us those good things that are possible only through the guidance
and direction of the Triune God.
Maurice Nicoll writes,
Faith is not believing in the extraordinary simply because
miracles are performed, it is a perception, an insight, and a conviction
that there is an order of truth above the truth of the senses: and one that
the senses cannot give directly—that is, they cannot form the starting
point. A [person] must start beyond himself—and faith is the starting
point. (The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of
Christ, by Maurice Nicoll, p. 117)
To think from faith is to think in a new way: to act from faith
is to act in a new way. (ibid, p. 120)
Throughout the Gospels we see our Lord looking for those “signs of
faith” in the people that he encountered, that would set them apart
and indicate their understanding of those attributes of life and thought
that belonged to the life of faith. Over and over Jesus ministered to people
who, for a variety of reasons could not or would not open themselves up to
his message. They could neither “hear” in his words or see in
his actions the new life he came to give.
They wanted to take everything in their own way and according to
their own interests and to understand in the same terms as they understood
everything else in their daily life. (ibid, p. 123)
They could not see the difference between their truth and the Truth of
Today we live in a world
- where the distinction between truth and falsehood is often blurred
and distorted for the sake of self-interest,
- where justice as a virtue to be maintained is often obscured by the
expedience of gain or profit,
- where acceptance of and respect for others are considered matters of
personal choice and freedom,
- and where goodness and honesty are often considered business and
Into such a world as this our Lord comes to strengthen all those who seek
a stronger faith. Into such a world as this Christ the comforter makes
himself known to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, but above all
else, hearts ready and willing to accept his call.
Christ gives us the permission to accept who we are, as well as the
authority and the power to transform our lives, so that through faith in his
holy name, we may become agents of his reconciliation and God’s
Let us pray:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
love stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death;
victory is ours through him who loves us. (Desmond Tutu)