Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Essence of Faith

Fifth Sunday after Trinity
June 30, 2013
Do you have strong faith, or weak faith? Or just enough faith? Are you growing in your faith? Are you backsliding in faith? Perhaps the real question is, what is the essence of faith? The word faith never appears in today’s Gospel reading. But today’s Gospel reading teaches us what faith is. It gets to the heart of faith. It directs us to what we need to be directed to when it comes to faith.

Faith is never about faith itself. If it were, it wouldn’t be faith. Faith is something that is directed toward something else, confidence in something outside of itself. Faith in itself is faith that is baseless and without any power. Faith looks outside of itself. It relishes what it latches onto, not onto how great it itself is. In fact, faith is so outward looking that it has no thought to itself, no desire to have anything directed to itself.

Faith the Holy Spirit gives is faith that latches on to Jesus. Faith the Holy Spirit gives is not faith for faith’s sake, but faith on account of Jesus and in Jesus. It is faith that looks to Christ alone and is sustained by Christ alone. Faith comes by hearing. That is the first way our Gospel reading teaches us faith. This is what the people were doing. They were hearing. Specifically, they were hearing Jesus. Luke says, “On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on [Jesus] to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret.”

There is no faith apart from hearing. The Word of God proclaimed is what our ears take in. The Word of God proclaimed is what the Holy Spirit uses to impart faith to people. The setting of today’s Gospel reading is the hearing of the Word of God. Jesus was teaching it and the people were hearing it. This must be the staple of the Christian life: hearing, receiving, partaking of the Word of God through its proclamation and in the Sacraments. Here is where the Holy Spirit first brings faith into your life and here is where He continues to sustain it in you.

On this occasion we meet our friends Peter and James and John. They were fisherman. Jesus was teaching and they were doing their work. He would use this to His advantage. The God of creation is the God who uses His creation to bring about blessings to the people of His creation. Our Vacation Bible School this past week had the theme “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” When we look at the grandeur of God’s creation we can marvel at the blessings He gives to us. People can produce amazing artwork, but can anything match the beauty of God’s creation?

But the point of the theme of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was not simply to marvel at the breathtaking glory of mountains and the natural beauty of God’s creation, but to see that God uses the things of His creation to come to us. At Mount Sinai He gave the Ten Commandments. At the Mount of Transfiguration He was declared the Lord who is glorious in His humility of walking the path to the cross. And of course on Calvary He died on that cross.  These mountains were specific mountains. They were located in particular places. God came to His people on those mountains.

There were many other instances where God came to the people of His creation. The Gospel reading for today is one such instance. Jesus used the boats of the fishermen to teach the Word of God. He used the water He created to get a little breathing room while the crowds pressed in on Him so that His voice would carry farther and more people would hear.

When He finished, He said to Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” What does faith know about Jesus? He is God. He is almighty. He is Lord. It also knows that He is God in the flesh. He was born. He grew up. He ate regular meals, went to school, learned the trade of His father, which was likely a carpenter. Had He gone fishing when He was a kid? Possibly. Maybe, maybe not. But He was not a fisherman. He didn’t make a living on the water catching fish. But here He was telling Peter to put out into the deep and let down the nets for a catch.

Now what does faith know about this; about Jesus, the one who is God but not a fisherman? Well, for us it might be a different answer than what they would have had back then because we have the benefit of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all telling us of all the many miracles Jesus accomplished. We know He wasn’t a fisherman, but He wasn’t telling Peter to make a catch because of any knowledge of fishing, but because He was God! Because He could do anything! All of that is true, but that’s not only what faith looks to.

It looks not only at Christ as God. But also at Christ as Lord. The difference is in seeing Him as the Almighty being who can do anything and the one who is personally your Lord. Peter’s response is the response of faith. Not simply in Jesus as God but in Jesus as Lord. What we learn here about faith is that it is not dependent upon the heart of the person who has the faith. Or how much understanding he has. Or whether his faith is really strong or just hanging on by a thread. Rather, with faith, it is always dependent on one thing, and that is Christ.

Peter answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” His response, weak though it may be, is one of faith. The worst thing a person who is weak in faith can hear is that they are weak in faith. If you are struggling in your faith and you are told that you are weak in faith, that you need to have more faith, what is it you are being directed to? Your faith. What you are being directed to is yourself—the very last place you should be directed to. You are the problem! The reason you are weak in your faith is because your focus is already on yourself.

No, if you are weak in faith, you should not be directed to yourself but outside of yourself. You need to be directed to Christ. And even in his weakness, Peter recognized this. “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” But what are his next words? “But at your word I will let down the nets.” Peter knew it wouldn’t do any good. He made his objection known to Jesus. He was tired. He had worked hard all night. He, the professional fisherman, had done all he could to catch some fish and it just wasn’t happening. Time to pack it in, clean up for another day, and go to it again that night.

But at Your word, Jesus, I will do it. Faith is strong even when it is weak. Even though, Lord, I don’t think it will do any good, I will do it. I will do it because of Your word. Because You have said so, I will do it. At Your word. This is the essence of faith. Not Peter. Not you. Not even the fact that God is God and is almighty. The essence of faith is Christ. At His word faith is formed, faith is sustained, and faith is strengthened.

They let down the nets. Well, we know what happened. We could see it a mile away. We’ve seen this kind of thing happen so often in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that we know that when Jesus says you need to put down the nets for a catch, a catch there will be. And lo and behold there was.

But they hadn’t seen it coming. They were floored. They were scared. They were in awe. What kind of person could this be? This wasn’t just a catch, this was a miracle! This was the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen! They needed to scramble. Their boats began to sink. At His word was produced something other-worldly. Something they could in no way bring about. Not through their toiling. Not through their knowledge. Not through their, well, their anything. They were in the presence of the Lord. He was the only one. And He is the only one faith looks to. Not your toils, not your knowledge, not yourself, not anything you do or of who you are. Christ and Him alone.

And faith sees something else. “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” Peter had come face to face with his Lord. You know what that means? He had come face to face with his sin. When you are standing in the presence of the Almighty God, you are standing in the face of the one who is holy and standing as one who is very unholy. Faith sees this, and is terrified. Faith sees this and does not shy away from it. Faith knows it cannot be in the presence of the Lord because we are sinners from birth. Faith confesses what is true, we are sinners and are unable to stand before the Lord.

But the beauty of faith is that it doesn’t turn inward for help or hope. But rather to the very Lord of whom the sinner cannot stand in the presence of! What happens after Peter speaks and confesses? Hearing. Jesus speaking. Jesus speaking and Peter hearing His word. It was, after all, as Peter had said, “at Your word,” and now Peter got to hear His Word. Jesus said to [Peter], “‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.” Do not be afraid. You are absolved. Forgiven. Lifted up. You cannot stand up in My presence. That is true, but take heart! Stand up anyway, because I tell you there is nothing to be afraid of. The miracle I have accomplished today is a drop in the ocean compared with the vastness of the mercy I will bring forth when I ascend the mount of Calvary. There I will die for all of your sins. Yes, you are a sinful man. And yes, I will depart from you so that I can go where you are unable to go and pay for all of your sins so that you can stand before Me and be in my presence forever.

This we know Jesus has done. The greatest miracle of all. And because of it the Holy Spirit grants you faith. The best way to think about faith is to not think about faith but about Christ. Rather than wondering if you have right faith or enough faith, look instead to Christ. He is the essence of faith, not faith. Faith hears Him. Which is nothing else to say than, you have faith. You hear Him and your are forgiven by Him. Your faith and your life are in Him. Amen.


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