I saw a picture of a piece of graffiti during the week. It asked the question: “Are you a hope addict?”
According to our readings today, the answer for every Christian disciple should be “Yes!” Christians are meant to be people of faith, and according to the writer to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.
But what does this mean? Is faith, as so many non-religious people think, simply “Believing six impossible things before breakfast,” a skill which the White Queen advises Alice to practise in ‘Through the Looking Glass’? Or is it actually a quite different way of living in the world, based on what we believe and hope is the ultimate reality behind it?
Genesis and Hebrews give us a picture of Abraham as a person of faith, and an example of of how to live in faith. The earlier chapters of Genesis tell how Abraham received a call from God to leave his home city, his relatives and his familiar way of life in his old age, and to travel with his wife, Sarah, to an unknown land, to set up home among foreigners and strangers. He has to be prepared to start again. If he does this, he is promised blessings from God: a personal blessing in that he will have a legitimate child of his own as his heir, and that he will become famous, wealthy and the founder of a new nation; but also that, through him, blessings will come for the benefit of the whole world.
Though the promise of a child in their old age seems to be nonsensical, Abraham and Sarah commit themselves to following God’s directions for their lives in faith in its fulfilment. They don’t themselves see the total fulfilment of the promise beyond the birth of Isaac, and neither do many of their descendants. They are commended because they live as if the hope is reality, even when it seems very doubtful that it will be fulfilled, and so play their part in bringing God’s purposes to fruition.
The New Testament indicates that we Christian believers are meant to regard ourselves as children of Abraham and Sarah: not in a religious or racial way, but in the way we commit ourselves to doing God’s will and bringing in God’s Kingdom. Hebrews refers to them as ‘our ancestors’ and urges us to follow them in seeking a heavenly country and city in which to make our home.
Luke also speaks of a way of life that is based on values different from the usual secular ones. Since the disciples expected an imminent return of Christ in glory, they were to sit light to earthly possessions, and reject earthly attitudes of competitiveness, acquisitiveness and possessiveness. They were to share what they had with the poor, and build up the treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than their personal fortunes. They were to be constantly ready for the coming of Christ, which could happen at any time.
Like Abraham and Sarah, they were commanded not to be afraid of the future. Living life in faith meant living it in the confidence that God was in control, and that God’s plans would ultimately triumph. Jesus assures the disciples that, though they will have to work to make the Kingdom of God a reality, God wants them to experience it, and wants to give it to them. Christian faith and hope means believing that all of life in this world, as well as in the next, is ultimately in the control of One who is like a loving parent, rather than governed by the forces of evil.
What then are these passages saying to us about the way we live our Christian lives today?
Are we meant to ignore what we know about human biology, and believe that a woman past the menopause can bear a child? Is every Christian meant to throw up their job, sell their house and wander off to colonise some foreign land in the name of God? Are we all meant to give away everything we earn or inherit, and live off other people until such time as Jesus descends from the heavens, and a completely new sort of world order is inaugurated?
Personally, I don’t think so. I think we are meant to use the intelligence God has given us, and the research done by scholars into the Scriptures, to interpret the meaning of these passages. That means first of all, recognising the sort of writing they are, and reading them in the context of that, rather than taking everything literally.
So, Genesis comes from the genres of literature known as myth and legend, the sort of literature that portrays a world where human interact with other sorts of beings like giants and demons, where animals can talk, and where people live to a great age. The religious truth of this literature doesn’t depend on those things actually happening. So, in this passage, I wouldn’t take literally the ages given for Abraham and Sarah when they left Ur or when they had Isaac; what I think we should take from the story is their example of living in hope and complete trust in God’s promises, and continuing the have faith even when things didn’t seem to be turning out the way they were promised.
Hebrews was written to a people with a similar world view, so it does take such details literally; but we don’t have to. We know very little about the background of this piece of writing; we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or what the circumstances were that prompted its composition. We don’t even know if it was a genuine letter, or a collection of sermons or a pastoral treatise.
There are even problems about what exactly it says in some places, and specially in the way it defines ‘faith’. The Greek original uses technical philosophical terms, ‘hypostasis’ and ‘elegchos’, for the words which are translated as ‘assurance’ and ‘conviction’ in verse 1. It may actually be asserting that faith is the reality of things not seen; that is, believing has itself a kind of power to make things happen, because what we believe affects the way we live, and so the reality in which we live. It may also be asserting that faith is the proof, rather than the conviction about what we can’t see; that is that living as if God’s Kingdom exists on earth is actually the proof that it does. Abraham lived in this way, the passage says, and so should we. This is why God affirmed of Abraham, and if we live in the same hope and trust, God will affirm us.
In Luke, Jesus uses a mixture of Semitic exaggeration and parable to teach his disciples about the proper way to live as a citizen of the better country to which Abraham was journeying. It is not just a matter of what we do in our spiritual and religious lives; God is as much, if not more concerned with what we do in our working, social, economic and political lives.
If we think God’s rules should control the world, then God has a say in how we use our money as well as how we conduct our relationships. If we think God’s blessing means justice, freedom, health and prosperity for everyone, then when we make political and economic decisions, we need to side with the poor, the sick and the outcast, rather than with the powerful and rich.
If we believe that the peacemakers and the humble are the truly blessed, it affects how we deal with situations of war, and with conflict in our personal lives. If we believe that Christ’s coming is not something that may happen at some distant time in the future, but happens every time we are asked to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick and those in prison, it makes an enormous difference in how we live out our faith in practical ways, and what we think is really important in our religious lives. If we believe that love and sacrifice are the values that truly reflect the ultimate reality that is God, then those are the values that will guide the way we live now, in spite of the frequent evidence that seems to deny this.
Our faith gives us the guide to how we live our lives in our earthly kingdoms, in anticipation of the future triumph of the heavenly kingdom. That is the way of life that Jesus calls us to. That is the way of life which will answer the prayer of many that God’s kingdom should come. That is what is means to live in the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.
That is what it means to be a hope addict!