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August 17, 2008

The Greatest of These Is Faith

Sunday A.M.

Ephesians 2:4-8


            We have been considering, during sermon time, passages from the writings of the Apostle Paul.  This series is in connection with our Sunday night discipleship study, The Life and Letters of Paul.  While reading through Paul’s letters, I came to that wonderful passage known as The Love Chapter, I Corinthians 13.  The last verse, as you know, says, “Now faith, hope, and love, these three abide.  But the greatest of these is love.”  I spent some time pondering that verse and the connection between those three great Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love.  For today, at least, I would like to suggest that the greatest of these is faith.  Next Sunday, we will consider hope.  On the last Sunday of the month, we will consider love.

            Talking about faith is not easy to do.  By mid-week, I was up to my elbows in commentaries and word studies, thinking about how to approach the topic with you this morning.  I pulled a book off of my shelf by Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be.  He contends that faith is our ultimate concern.  He is an existential theologian, philosopher.  Most people do not what existentialism is, maybe two out of the whole congregation.  I am not even one of the two, so why go there?  I was talking with Clare about how to approach this topic, and she suggested, “Do what you used to do at Scout camp.  Make it as simple as you can.”  I have tried to do just that, and I hope you are not insulted.  If I can simplify the subject enough so that I can understand it, maybe that approach will work for you, too.

            I want to tell you a story.  I, of course, have embellished it, almost beyond recognition.  That is a storyteller’s prerogative. 

           Some years ago, Clare and I flew with our two sons, our only two children at the time, from Louisville, Kentucky, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Piedmont Airlines.  Boarding the plane required walking up steps into the rear of the plane.  First class passengers boarded first and sat at the front of the plane, which put them ahead of the roar of the old prop engines.  Everyone else had to endure the noise.  We, of course, were not in the first class.  We were in coach. 

          This plane made many stops between Louisville and Winston-Salem: Lexington, Kentucky; London, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Asheville, North Carolina; and finally Winston-Salem.  It was like riding a grasshopper, up and down and up and down and up and down.  I remember when we approached London, Kentucky, it seemed if the plane were going to crash into the side of a mountain.  As we circled the mountain, however, suddenly an opening appeared. Our pilot glided the plane onto a little landing strip on that mountain airport.

            Another pilot was flying this very same route.  As he came into London, Kentucky, he told the passengers, “We are going to be here for a little while, probably twenty or thirty minutes.  If you want to get off the airplane and stretch your legs, you may do so.”  Twenty-five or thirty passengers got up from their seats, walked down the steps and onto the tarmac.  They all headed for the lounge area at the terminal, which, by the way, is a terrible name for an airport. 

            One passenger in first class did not get off the plane, a young blind woman who was traveling with her seeing-eye dog.  She was on her way to Wake Forest University where she had enrolled as a freshman.  When the pilot exited the cockpit, he asked, “Would you like to get out and stretch your legs?” 

            She answered, “No, I do not want to do that, but I would really appreciate it if you would just walk my dog.  It will do him good to get off the plane.”

            The pilot put on his sunglasses and walked the woman’s seeing-eye dog to the back of the plane and down the steps.  He pretty much let the dog wander on the tarmac.  All the passengers inside the terminal were watching this pilot in his dark glasses, walk around with a seeing-eye dog.  You get the picture. 

Some passengers wanted to change to another flight.  One man said he was going to rent a car from Hertz and drive the rest of the distance.  Another man opened a flask he had hidden in his pocket and took a big swig.  One Christian said, “I am just going to have faith.”

            This story is a description of what some believe is faith, simply putting your life into uncertain hands, taking a chance.  This poor misunderstanding about faith can create much trouble. The famous American humorist, Mark Twain was really poking fun at the ecclesiastical community when he said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”  That, unfortunately, is the way many people think about this Christian virtue.  Maybe Helen Keller came closer to the truth when she said that faith is not what we see but what we know and what we believe.

I will never forget the time when a student who had epilepsy enrolled as a freshman at a college here in South Carolina.  He met a group of students there who were very conservative Christians.  They told him that if he had enough faith, prayed, and believed, God would heal him of his epilepsy.  They convinced this student to let them gather around him and have prayer.  They told him, “If you really have faith, you have to throw away all of your medication.  That medicine shows a lack of faith.” 

This young man quit taking his medication for epilepsy, trying as hard as he could to believe that God was going to heal him.  About two weeks later when he was in the bathtub, he had a seizure and drowned.  His mother went to the college and talked to some of those involved in that group.  They said to her, “We are sorry about your son.  He just didn’t have enough faith.”

What a cruel statement to make!  What a terrible misunderstanding of what it means to have faith. 

I have thought about how to describe faith.  A wonderful description in the book of Hebrews states:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1-2).  I want to approach this topic simply by giving you five symbols of faith.  If you keep these in mind, you will have a better understanding of what it means to be a person of faith.

The first symbol, a seed, comes from the teachings of Jesus.  With the use of a parable, he told how a mustard seed can grow into a plant almost the size of a tree.  He commented, “If you have enough faith, as much as a mustard seed, you can move a mountain.”  If we believe that we have enough faith to actually move Hogback Mountain a few feet to the right or to the left, we probably have faith like Mark Twain described.  We are probably claiming that we believe “something that we know ain’t true.” 

Let me explain the meaning of that comparison. Jesus was referring to an old rabbinical saying, a teaching of the rabbis.  A person whose mind was full of doubt was said to have “a mountain of doubt,” meaning that the person had almost insurmountable doubt.  A rabbi who could lead that student to the point of belief was called “a mountain mover.”  Jesus was saying that a mountain of doubt exists in the human mind, but just a little faith begins to move that mountain of doubt to the side. 

We sometimes think of doubt as diametrically opposed to faith.  Kathleen Robinson learned differently.  Her husband was afflicted with a manic depressive disorder.  Her life was turned completely upside down when, in one of his manic states, he cancelled all of their health insurance.  Kathleen Norris was not aware of the cancellation.  Just a few weeks later, his mood swung to the depressive side.  In deep despair, he was hospitalized for several weeks.  The bills that accumulated simply sent the family into financial ruin, causing them to lose their home. 

Benedictine nuns took Kathleen Norris into their convent to provide her with a place of refuge and recovery.  She reports that while walking to the room where she was to stay, she muttered under her breath, “I really do not belong here.” 

The elderly nun, the Mother Superior who was accompanying her, turned around and asked, “Why do you say that?”

Kathleen answered, “Because I have so much doubt.”  She had been a Presbyterian early in her life, but she had gone far away from the faith of her youth.  Now, she found herself in this convent.  “I don’t belong here.  I have too many doubts.”

The nun just grinned and said, “Doubt is good.  Doubts are the seeds of faith.”

We do not usually think about doubt that way.  We so often refer to one of the apostles as “Doubting Thomas.”  He was a man of deep faith, but his doubts overwhelmed him for about a week.  He became exemplary among the apostles, a man of great courage.  He was really “Thomas, a Man of Deep Faith.”

One of my favorite passages from the New Testament, Mark 9, is an encounter between Jesus and the father of an epileptic boy.  This father had brought his son to the disciples, but they had been unable to heal him.  Finally, Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration.  The man described his son’s seizures and pleaded with Jesus, “If you can do anything, please help us.”  Jesus answered, “‘If you can!’  All things are possible to those who believe.” This father gave what I believe must be the most sincere affirmation of faith, “Lord, I believe.  Help Thou my unbelief.” 

So often I find myself right there with this father – betwixt and between belief and unbelief.  None of us has perfect faith.  We all have our doubts.  Jesus said, “If you have as much faith as a mustard seed, you can start to overcome that mountain of doubt in your mind.”

The second symbol I would give you is that faith is a path in the dark. 

Our son Scott hiked the entire Appalachian Trail with a companion, a young man named John.   Scott told me that when the heat of the day was very oppressive, especially in mid-summer, they would sometimes take a nap in a cool place in the late afternoon, fix supper, and then hike at night.  They invested in some headlamps, the kind coalminers wear, to walk up and down the Appalachian Trail, up and down those mountains, through the dark.

I asked, “How did you like walking at night?  Scott, isn’t that dangerous?”

He said, “Dad, you do not get to see as much scenery, and it can be dangerous.  When you walk with a headlamp, you just keep stepping into the light.”

That is the way we live.  It is true that none of us can see the future.  It is also true that we cannot see very far down the path.  We never know what the future holds, but we know that God has a destination in mind.  We know that God will show us the way.  We know that Jesus is the light of the world.  We know that we are to take one step at a time into the light, following the path we only see a little of at a time.

The third symbol of faith is a wheelbarrow.  I love the expressions on your faces.  That comment is puzzling.  The book of James says that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  Martin Luther, the great Protestant leader of the Reformation, discovered that we are justified by faith.  That became the key verse in the entire Reformation movement.  Luther thought that the book of James was spurious, difficult to understand.  James is not saying that faith is not enough.  He is saying that faith requires action.  I agree.  Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations in the 1950’s, said that the life of faith must necessarily pass through the world of action.  The truth is that our faith has to be active.  Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, called this very step “the leap of faith.”  He said at times Christians have to decide that by faith they are going to acknowledge something they cannot prove. 

Can you explain to me how the death of one man on a Roman cross nearly two thousand years ago outside the old city of Jerusalem can have anything to do with my sins now?  What is the equation for that?  Where do you find the physical principle that makes sense out of that?  How can the blood shed there have anything to do with the sins I commit now?  We cannot explain that, but I believe it with all my heart.  Because I believe it, I have invested my life in declaring that very message.  I cannot prove it.  I cannot explain it, but I believe it.  That is what Kierkegaard meant by the “leap of faith.” 

How does this relate to a wheelbarrow?  Have you heard the story about the tightrope walker who crossed a wire stretched across Niagara Falls?  A huge crowd gathered around him when he announced his plan.  He stepped on that wire and walked all the way across the falls, then turned around and walked all the way back.  The crowd erupted into cheers applause.  Then he took a wheelbarrow, balanced it on the wire, and rolled it all the way across and all the way back.  Next, he rolled that wheelbarrow – containing two bags of sand, one hundred pounds each – all the way across and all the way back. 

Then he quizzed the crowd the question, “How many of you believe that I could push a full-grown man in that wheelbarrow all the way across and all the way back?”  When hundreds of hands went up, he asked, “Who will volunteer?”

It is one thing to believe.  It is another to get in the wheelbarrow.  When you say that you believe in something, the question is, “Are you willing to stake your life on it?”  Placing your life into the hands of Christ Jesus in whom we believe is the heart of the Christian faith.

The fourth symbol that I would give you is that faith is a gift.  This symbol brings us to the announced passage for the day, Ephesians 2:4-8:


But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.



Several years ago, I wrote a poem about homegrown tomatoes.  Some have made fun of me, but many have given me some tomatoes.  People sometimes leave them in a bag on the front steps of my home.  In about two weeks, I am going to write a poem about sweet corn. 

The gift I am talking about will not be left on the front steps.  This gift is so precious that you must receive it personally.  In order for this gift to come to you, you have to open your hands.  You cannot earn this gift; you must receive it.  You must open your heart and receive the gift, the gift of salvation and the gift of grace.  When we say that we accept Jesus, we invite Jesus into our lives.  We accept the gift God has given us.  He wants to present this gift to us personally through His Son.

The fifth symbol is that faith is like a pilot with a seeing-eye dog.  After the pilot walked the dog around the tarmac, he went back up the steps of the plane and returned the dog to the young woman.  Passengers boarded the plane again and continued on to Knoxville, Tennessee, and then toward Asheville.  Somewhere over the Smokey Mountains, the plane entered great turbulence.  The pilot announced over the intercom, “Please, everyone fasten your seatbelts.”  Even the stewardess followed the pilot’s orders.  She sat next to the blind woman and began a conversation with her, “I know you are going to Wake Forest as a freshman.”


About that time, the plane really bounced.  The stewardess looked at the young woman and commented, “You don’t seem to be afraid.”

“No, I’m not afraid.”

In a few moments, sharp turbulence again jostled the plane.  The stewardess repeated, “You are not afraid at all, are you?”

The woman answered, “No, I’m not afraid.”

“Why aren’t you afraid?”

The blind woman explained, “Because the pilot is my father.”

Our Father is in control.  Our Father is sovereign.  Our Father has our lives in His hands, and He does not want to do one single thing to hurt us.  He wants to save us.  His promise is, “I will always be with you.  I will never leave you.  I will never forsake you.”  He loves us, and He wants us to enjoy life in His care.  If you can believe that, you have what the Bible means by the word faith.  This faith is faith that is not necessarily seen.  It is certain.  It is not blind faith at all.  It is the assurance that we are in the hands of God.

Do you have that kind of faith?  Do you know that your life is in the hands of God?  Have you received this great gift of salvation by simply saying, “Yes, I accept it”?  Do you know that no matter how many doubts you have, just a little bit of faith goes a long way?  Do you understand that God, the great Creator of the universe, loves you and gave His Son as a sacrifice for your sins?  I hope you believe that.


©  Kirk H. Neely

August 17, 2008


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