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Might our ‘Love of the World’ Challenge God’s Love for Us?

welcomeI have been following the Joint Assembly of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada currently underway (July 3-7, 2013) with curiosity and excitement. I am uplifted and inspired by the photos, themes (main theme: Together for the Love of the World), and reports that show up in my facebook feed on an almost half-hourly basis. Yet, it was inevitable there would be something to make me go ‘huh?!’ Nestled in the middle of a compelling and heart-warming video presentation of faith testimonials offered by two young people, the following was shared:

“I would never stop hanging out with my friends that don’t have a faith, in the way that Jesus hung out with people of all different walks of life. He dined with prostitutes and gamblers. And although he had a ‘core’ around him that had a faith and followed God, trying to do what was right and follow that faith of what they believed, he never once shunned the people that didn’t share that faith with him.”

This statement gave me pause to reflect on how ‘faith’ was being defined in this context. At first I was caught off guard by the connection drawn between people identified as ‘without a faith’ and ‘prostitutes and gamblers’; yet on further reflection, I realized something else stood out: reading the gospel has fostered my belief that socially marginalized people in Jesus’ time–prostitutes, tax-collectors, the dis-/differently abled, the unclean, foreign soldiers, etc.–were not at all ‘without (a) faith’; in fact, they were the very ones that Jesus repeatedly identified as demonstrating remarkable faith; and their faith was often highlighted in clear contrast to those who thought themselves upholders of faith, yet who were, in truth, ‘of little faith’. It appears from Jesus’ perspective that those ‘of little faith’ were normally ‘teachers of the law’ and Jesus’ own ‘core’ of disciples. Here’s a quick overview of both sides of the faith dynamic:

Stories centred on healing offered by Jesus in response to those he identified as having a robust faith:

1) A Roman centurian amazes Jesus to the extent that the latter remarks “truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus instantly recognizes this ‘outsider’ to be an ‘insider’ to God.

2) A woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years touches Jesus’ cloak and is healed as Jesus announces that her faith has saved her.

3) A Caananite (or Syrophoenician, depending on whether you read Matthew or Mark’s version of this story) woman persists in earning the attention and approval of Jesus, who eventually heals her in recognition of her ‘great faith’.

Stories of faith evaporated due to fear, ignorance, or self-righteousness:

1) When the disciples grow fearful that they will perish in a storm out at sea, Jesus rebukes them for their fear and highlights their ‘little faith’.

2) Peter (who later, much transformed, becomes first among apostles!) attempts to orchestrate a situation by which he can verify Jesus’ presence; yet, quickly distracted by his surroundings (a strong wind), he finds himself unable to follow through on his plan and falls (into the water), provoking Jesus‘ rebuke: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

3) The disciples rapidly forget that Jesus has successfully multiplied 5 loaves of bread to feed 5000 people and overlook his warning against the ‘yeast’ (teachings) of the Pharisees and Sadducees, after which Jesus (again) denounces the disciples as individuals ‘of little faith’.

4) After his death and ressurection, Jesus visits the disciples (who were ‘sitting at the table’) and criticizes them for lacking faith in the testimonials of those (first Mary Magdalene and later two other disciples) who witnessed Jesus after he had risen.

So which group (the marginalized or the ‘core’) demonstrates the lion’s share of faith in the gospel? The stories are illustrative, not exhaustive, and of course the disciples showed great faith by prioritizing the call to follow Jesus; yet they also often appeared incapable of growing in their faith, while those outside of the disciples’ ‘core’ were markedly praised (and ‘saved’) for visibly reaching out in faith.

I don’t believe it is strictly necessary to be socially marginalized at all times to demonstrate and practise strong faith. Also, I feel that experiencing doubt can ultimately strengthen faith (Peter may be an example of this). Yet, I believe the stories listed above clearly show that the kind of judgment we are called to cultivate to identify and celebrate acts and persons of faith can be informed but never limited by social, cultural, and even moral norms, because Christ has a magnificent way of turning it all on its head, right before our very eyes. 

The posturing of ‘us’ and ‘them’–we who ‘have a faith’ and they who do not–is helpful only in so far as it reveals to us the illusory dichotomies that hold us back from reaching our full potential. After all, are we not all in the same boat in so far as sin, forgiveness, and God’s love are concerned? As Jesus points out, faith in one’s own righteousness cannot measure up to the benefit of repentence and God’s loving forgiveness. The hardest part of this lesson for me is to regularly remind myself how easy it is to slip into the first role and forget that my faith is only as strong as I understand it to be imperfect–and in that imperfection, I can never know it to be ‘more’ or ‘better’ than anyone else’s.

My comments are not intended to dampen the joyful sharing and earnest work I have seen taking place at the Joint Assembly. I am thankful for the video that inspired me to write on this topic because it helped me gain increased clarity on some points with which I wrestle. Perhaps this is my own way of participating in the Assembly discussions from a distance–discussions born out of a concern and love for the community we all wish to support and empower.

Finally, I was heartened to read of the Joint Assembly keynote address by South Indian theologian Rev. Dr. Christopher Duraisingh, who ‘urge[d] delegates to be open to being turned inside out for the love of the world’. Our church communities have the potential to create spaces and resources around which we may congregate and support each other when we accept God’s call to grow in love. Yet, they also have the potential to hinder and harm this process if we do not open ourselves to God’s creative power and the diverse and surprising features of renewal it invites. I recall a conversation I recently had with someone I consider a mentor. She does not profess a particular rubber-stamped faith, yet I consider her acts of faith to be a guiding force to me and others who know her:

“I wish to create more places that can spark us to reach our calling, spaces where people interact with each other around creativity. People in the world with the least often have the most to teach us. We need spaces that provide an opportunity to meet people who are unlike ourselves.”

Returning to the gospel examples shared earlier in this post, if I am serious about inviting God’s healing into the world and into my own self, then perhaps I should start imagining myself as diverse and unlikely as the people whose faith Christ confirmed and praised; and to learn how to do this, I may have to stray from my ‘core’ and become part of those whom we have called ‘without a faith’. Can you imagine yourself doing this for the purpose of ‘our love of the world’? How do you think it might look?

Afra Saskia Tucker

About Afra Saskia Tucker

I am Development Coordinator at the Montreal Diocesan Theological College. Blessed with a multi-cultural family and an inclination to learn about other faith traditions, I have learned from my life experiences here and abroad that encounters with people of different faiths, beliefs, and cultures are in fact essential and enriching to my own faith journey.

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9 Responses to Might our ‘Love of the World’ Challenge God’s Love for Us?

  1. Afra;

    Could you expand on what you mean by ‘faith’ as you allude to early in your post? I agree with you that there are very few people who are ‘without a faith’ whatsoever and that it is certainly true that the socially marginalized are any exception that that.

    I admit that I hadn’t taken the quotation you discuss in quite the same way. I wasn’t sure that the identification of those ‘without faith’ was necessarily applied to the prostitutes and gamblers. I could be wrong, but I thought they were meant to be two different categories.

    Peace,
    Phil

    • Afra Saskia Tucker

      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your questions! I agree that what I quoted can be interpreted in more ways than one and I admit to choosing the least generous among them. My motivations for that decision are 1) it was the first interpretation I formulated when I heard the video testimonial; 2) even if it wasn’t intended, it’s difficult not to see an implicit connection made between the first category of so-called non-believers of all walks of life and the socially marginalized mentioned immediately afterwards; 3) most of my friends, the majority of whom would likely qualify for ‘unbeliever’ status, would point to this kind of statement as a reason not to get involved in the church (it promotes an attitude of charity–and I don’t mean love–instead of solidarity), so I feel I owe it to them to pass the message on and wrestle with it myself.

      As for your request that I elaborate on ‘faith’, I take it you are referring to my question about “how ‘faith’ was being defined in [the] context [of the statement]?” I hear the quoted statement speaking of ‘a faith’ that is an identity that separates the upholder from others who exist outside of a ‘core’ of faithfuls sharing that identity. I find instead that the gospel examples demonstrate it more commendable to point to acts of faith of those whom we may imagine outside of the ‘core’, since their faith in creating and receiving a just, forgiving, loving, and healed world is truly remarkable and actually puts them at the centre of God’s mission.

      I’m not entirely sure if I’m answering the question you have in mind; if not, let me know, I can have another crack at it.

      Afra

  2. Hi Afra;

    That was helpful. I see what you’re saying about the fact that is very often those outside the ‘core of faithful’s who act on their faith in the New Testament. Very frequently, that is the way that it works out in the day-to-day world as well. It is easy to get insular and start thinking that our church or faction of the church is the ‘core of faithful’s and I think what you and the speaker agree on is that it is important to go outside that core. To be authentic, of course, it is impossible to condescend to anyone really which is the attitude that you rightly criticize. It is so important to take everyone we meet seriously and remember that not only are they loved by God (whether they acknowledge Him or not), but that they could be a person through whom God is working at that moment. God is so much bigger than we are that He can work with and through us whether we are willing to acknowledge it or whether we even know it.

    I wonder though if relying solely on acts of faith to define faith doesn’t create some problems. That is, there is no doubt that many of the acts that we would identify as good acts can be done no matter what the state of mind/soul a person has. It is entirely possible to, say, feed someone in a soup kitchen and harbour an abiding hatred of the homeless. or to given charity as a way to show off to the community. Of course, we would rightly condemn these examples, but it indicates a separation of action from motivation that is implicit if we only decide on faithfulness as acts of faith.

    Yet, I’d be as hesitant to use some set of propositions that one signs onto as a definition of faith because one only has to hang around a church for a few weeks to realize that there are as many different understandings of what actions faith calls us to do as there are people in the church. And that isn’t counting those people who use their religion as a stick to beat anyone who disagrees or those who shield their nefarious deeds in the cloak of religion.

    I wonder if the solution, however, is in recognizing the interaction of one’s understanding relationship with God in one’s life and the actions which result from that understanding. Faith as trust in God (as we’ve learned through our relationship with him) and action are inseparable, but I think it is the relationship with God which is the defining element of a person’s faith. This isn’t to say God can’t use that person for the good of the world or the furthering of its redemption, but I’m not sure that is exactly the same thing.

    Just some thoughts.

  3. Afra Saskia Tucker

    Phil, I completely agree with you. My intention was not to provide my own definition of faith, but rather to respond to features of faith offered by the speaker of the quoted passage. For this reason, I responded by naming gospel examples that demonstrate faith (your point about ‘acts’ is well taken; I think I made a poor word selection in this case), all of which are rooted in the subject’s relationship with God, which, as you have suggested, is more properly defining of faith. My main concern was to show that so-called outsiders were equally prone to acknowledge and benefit from a relationship with God as the chosen core of men who spent countless hours alongside Jesus. So while it is quite human to judge what we hear and see, our judgment is never perfectly attuned to God’s understanding, therefore it is risky business to try to separate out the faithful from faithless. I hope what I have just said is relevant to the points you are conveying.

    • No problem, Afra. What you’ve added gives the added context I needed. For the record, I think you’re right that it is not uncommon for outsiders to have a viable relationship with God, even if they are uncomfortable with the church itself. That is becoming increasing common and begs the question of why we haven’t been able to be the sort of community that allows for this. That is another rather large kettle of fish, of course.

      Peace,
      Phil

      • Afra Saskia Tucker

        Thanks Phil; again, completely agree with you. By the way, I have been reading Francis I’s first encyclical (see the link below), whose very topic is faith. I don’t agree with everything posited, but it is an enriching read nonetheless on this topic. In terms of basic definitions of faith, I hear a resonance between the roots of this concept and what Anon (commenting earlier) described as being ‘grasped by God’.

        “In the Bible, faith is expressed by the Hebrew word ’emûnāh, derived from the verb ’amān whose root means “to uphold”. The term ’emûnāh can signify both God’s fidelity and [a person]’s faith. The [person] of faith gains strength by putting [her]self in the hands of the God who is faithful.”

        http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20130629_enciclica-lumen-fidei_en.html

  4. I really enjoyed reading this.

    I’ve always appreciated Tillich’s definition of faith as an “ultimate concern” or a state of being grasped by something, be it God or the elegance of a mathematical formula. But it means that everyone has a faith, even if some people have a secular faith. The more popular definition of faith as “a belief in something despite a low level of evidence” is a problem on so many levels. Among them, that it’s possible to not have a faith.

    Jesus’ admonition to his disciples under this definition of faith means either that their faith is idolatrous or that they are too little grasped by God.

    • Anon;

      Thanks for the comments. I admit that Tillich’s definition seems a bit broad to me, although not without value. It points to a Higher Power, perhaps, but I’m not sure that is the only thing that we are called to believe when we talk about Christian faith. There is no doubt that God can be found in all things. His fingerprints, after all, are all over the world. However, I think it a different thing to see God in the elegance of a mathematical formula than to have a viable relationship with God.

      That said, I also think that my comments on relationship with God are also too broad a concept to be usable for a definition of faith. Even a militant atheist, who vociferously denies the existence of God, has, in a sense, a relationship with God–a very, very bad one. One would hope that those who call themselves Christians would have a good relationship with God, but that isn’t even a guarantee as there are a fair number of people struggling with a concept of God as one that smites one at the slightest hint of disobedience. How one can run a viable relationship with someone like that, I don’t know.

      I think the key element of faith, which makes the relationship with God even possible, is trust. That is, faith, in its etymological origins, also understands the idea of trusting someone- here God. That means that some trust needs to be in place for even human relationships to work decently and I suggest that is doubly so with God. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, that isn’t enough to want to be in relationship. If we have a God who is arbitrary and harsh, there will be no trust, no matter how powerful He/She is. God also has to be good and, so trustworthy. We have to trust that God has our best interests at heart or our relationship will have to be defined by slave/master dynamics.

      Hope that makes sense.

      Peace,
      Phil

    • Anonymous: thanks for being part of the conversation. A reminder, though, that The Community has a “real names only” policy – it’s how we keep conversation supportive and civil. If you have something to say, you have to stand behind it! Nicknames are fine, but all TC account holders have a real name and email address behind it (or a FB account, etc).

      See the forum rules and guidelines here:

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