I 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?