Genesis 15:16; Psalm 33; Hebrews 11:116; Luke 12:3240
I want you to see this old man, Avram, daring finally to shove God’s comfort aside. He is your ancestor. The genetic code of your faith runs through what is hot and wet in him. God says, “Don’t be afraid, Avram;” and he shoves this aside. Reassurance has finally become suffocation. “What is it to me,” he says, “these personal blessings? What is it to me to have a shield that preserves me, when everything I build will go down with me? What is it to me to have intimacy with God, when I spill my seed on sand?” Avram’s ferocity is to be yours. What is your life, if it is only about you? Avram’s bitterness that a slave will inherit all he has is the sign for us of all those relationships that are not life of our life, but the sterile terrain of constant negotiation, vigilance, control, and fear. In leaving behind all we have built to one who has neither known us nor loved us, we leave behind no gift of our self into the future, nothing that we have nurtured into maturity and formed with love and pain, no child of our labor to receive the fruits of our labor. These coagulations and constipations and corruptions are our recognition that what we have hauled back and forth every weary day is, when we put it finally down, a corpse. Naturally Avram says, “not this; I cannot endure that my life will only have turned out to be about hurling my bridge across an abyss that has no farther shore.”
This angry despair fans out not far from us. In this election year, how can we hear what is said by either of our candidates for president and not agree with Avram?—“O God, we continue childless, and the heirs circling around us appear unfamiliar!” How can a deep yearning not burn in us: a yearning to foster a just and respected peace around the globe, to establish in this nation basic equal rights and protections, to put in place provisions so that illness and unemployment are not descents into financial ruin, to provide for all the human family, which is after all, our flesh, to honor and to care for life in all its forms?
God never coddles us. God takes Avram outside and shows him the night sky. Once the searing glare of the sun is gone, we see every shimmer of imaginable light it overpowers: the confident steady glow of planets, moving from one house to another, the stars crowding in, a cloud of which we are the witnesses, the curve of Ursa Major, the boldness of Orion, the shy dance of the Pleiades, and the fathomless horizon of the waves of the Milky Way, our mother’s ghostly arm embracing us in the dark. “Can you count them?” God asks; “so many are your inheritors, made of your own flesh and blood, of the very stuff of your self. You are concerned about not having one heir, but you will not be able to count your heirs. You are anxious and resentful about your immediate property, but in me your house is infinite. You clutch for human satisfactions, legacies and legal certainties, but all of nature receives and restores, rescinds and renews; and you yourself are the child of the stars, seated with your siblings on this vast lap and passed from hand to hand of these vast powers.”
Avram believed—amazing: to have faith because one sees the stars.
From this sentence, Paul reinterpreted Judaism and increased the offspring of Avram to include us. The faith of Avram, celebrated in the Letter to the Hebrews as we heard today, remains, for Christians, the dominant gene by which we claim our relationship with Avram: we believe as he believed; we are his heirs, because we have faith as Avram had faith.
Now faith is difficult to talk about, because we do not always know what we mean when we use the word. A commonplace to sort out the dilemma is to speak of objective and subjective faith. Objective faith refers to external Tradition, ecclesiastical history, the content affirmed, the deposit received and passed on. Subjective faith refers to internal stance, personal story, our readiness to lie supple in God’s hands, our willingness to rise from our beds at God’s disposal each day. This is helpful, since both kinds of faith are necessary. Clearly, the faith of Avram is subjective: he is not assenting to a creedal formula, but is ready to move forward in trust.
Now Avram needed this internal stabilization. Avram’s life was one, not of objective questions, but of existential guilt: he abandoned his homeland, he bartered the body of his wife Sarah for his survival, he banished his son Ishmael, he battled and bargained for safe grazing-fields, and finally he bound his son Isaac on an altar of sacrifice. Given these disorienting self-renouncing actions, he needed the divine gyroscope of subjective faith for stability. What ancient Semitic householder would abandon his home? What honorable husband would hand over his wife into a harem? What patriarch would banish one son and prepare to slaughter another? These distortions stretched Avram’s self-recognition beyond of all self-respect—every one an act of faith, requiring yet more faith to be endured. Bound every night onto the rack of existential guilt, who would not rise into the darkness, leave his tent, pace beneath the distant stars, and wonder about the promise of his life?
Can you receive this? When we are willing to be the dust-mote the Spirit blows where it will as it rushes over the earth, obedient to the breath of God, that subjective faith breaks conventional contracts and violates social arrangements. Can you accept this? Living faith is always a betrayal of the person we thought we were, because we must be ready to leave behind all we have built in order to follow. Look at Paul, our older brother: if you abandon yourself to this transforming faith in God, you will appear mad. The residue of normalcy will then plead with you daily to be practical and pragmatic and to give this madness up, and will eventually fasten its fangs in you and inflame you with the fever of guilt—guilt not for anything you have done, but for what you have become. Can you live this way, in unrelieved existential guilt, when all you have become is a self naked before God?
Unaided, we cannot. Existential guilt is only endured through faith.
More than a subjective assent to life and suppleness in God’s hands is called for. Living one day at a time, gratefully and appreciatively, which is the essential formula of subjective faith, can become an abdication and a distortion, so that what is meant to be receptive becomes passive, drowsy, complacent, deadly. Faith is not an idle gamble that things will get better. Something more is called for. Faith must be an assertion that God works in me for good. This is what is reckoned righteousness.
Just as faith is both objective and subjective, it also is receptive and active. Objective active faith is the affirmation of Creed and the fulfillment of the corporal works of mercy; objective receptive faith is our willingness to be formed by these traditions. Subjective receptive faith is our pliable open still consent before God. But subjective faith must also be active. Subjective active faith is my full conviction that the goodness in my life, which I now only strive for, is actual in my future. It is my claim that the concrete good I demand of God has already been given to me. Avram believed the vision of descendants; in this, righteousness was recognized.
Now this is the crucial thing. Subjective active faith is not about some unknown or incomprehensible or inexpressible Good. Subjective active faith asserts that the Good I long for, the good I sense as absent in my life, is already bestowed on me in the future, promised and held in trust by God for me so securely, that I can act on it now as if it were true in the present. This is the “substance of things hoped for,” that is, the present effectiveness of what is yearned for. In subjective active faith, we treat what we yearn for as certain and given. We act now as if the freedom and dignity denied us by circumstances are ours already. We act now as if the courage we lack already propelled us. We act as if reconciliation had already overcome resentment between us. We act now as if justice were not a political debate, but already the foundation of all human relationships, and we assist its unfolding in time. We act now as if respect for the dignity of every human being were already the governing principle of all human relationships. We act now as if human joy and flourishing were not circumstantial, but essential. We have the faith, subjective and active, to guide all decisions this way. And this way of acting, fully embracing our freedom in Christ, will compound the existential guilt of broken social arrangements, but the only absolution of that guilt is affirmation that this freedom in Christ is real.
Subjective active faith is the only way to endure existential guilt, because what we affirm is the Good that aligns and makes fruitful the self. As you, in subjective receptive faith, rest in God’s hands, you are already held where hope is fulfilled and held: you rest in God where the Good you pursue is ready for you. If we have given up everything for God, if we have become the person we no longer recognize in order to follow God’s call, then it is not enough to remain pliant in God’s hands. We must affirm that the good we are striving towards is also in God’s hands, as the goal that makes every step of this race endurable. That is why grace abounds in such a life, because it then resides where grace does, in the bosom of God.
One final thing—you may think it blasphemous. The Hebrew text of this crucial verse is actually more ambiguous. It says—and I am quoting now from a Jewish Torah—“now he trusted in the Lord, and he deemed it as righteous merit on his part.” Notice that we don’t know from the original who deems merit on whose part. We know from Paul’s use of the text that by his time conventional interpretation was that God reckons Avram’s faith as merit for Avram; Avram is justified by faith and reckoned righteous. This governs Christian translations of the passage, as we heard today: “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”—but the word “Lord” is our addition.
But what if Avram reckons God righteous? This is truer to the text. It is Avram who protests petulantly. It is Avram who falters and who, in the face of God’s unwarranted affirmation of him, says, “but I don’t have what I want: flesh of my flesh!” It is Avram who needs the assurance that God is faithful. Avram, staring at the stars, feels the stirrings of trust in him. It is Avram who reckons that this internal power rising up in him, persuaded of the triumph of good—that is, faith—is God’s righteousness. Let me say this again. Avram discerns in himself conviction of the truth of God’s promised good, and he recognizes this as God’s breathing faith anew in him. The Lord’s righteousness is to make good the promise by new strength. This subjective active faith—the future promise made effectively present—is what Avram reckons as God’s righteousness. God is righteous because God’s power sustains human beings against what would crush them with indifference by infusing in them ability to claim the goodness of the future even now in the present.
The life of faith is never the life that affirms fear; it is never the life whose culmination is our preemptive rescue from projected catastrophe, our constant alertness over security and safety. If that is what we hold out as the good we believe in—that what is mine will be confirmed as mine and increased into the indefinite future—if that governs our decisions, if only for this life we have hope, then we are of all creatures the most unhappy.
My point today is that the life of faith affirms that what we long for is already established by the sovereignty of God, so we are free to act in that truth. Our subjective active faith is that we will know the Good we long for, because we will trust it as we help to construct it. We will recognize the justice that enables the flourishing of human beings, we will affirm that God has provided and sustained it already in our future, and we will reckon that faith to God as righteousness. As Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Even here, we are already gathered around the throne of God, in the city that has foundations prepared for us, whose architect and builder is God. Even now, we have been freed to act as citizens of heaven all the days of our life in the kingdom already given to us. Even today, we share already in the joy of all the saints and in the good pleasure of the life of the one God, Eternal Source, and Only-begotten Word, and life-giving Spirit, who, for our subjective and active faith, will not be ashamed to be called our God, and whom we praise this day, as even now and here we praise in all eternity.