Epiphany: "A Homily on Faith"

The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams

The formation of the Book of Common Prayer came out of what would have to be described as a stormy time in Europe. The Reformation, which marks it’s 500th anniversary this year, was a time of great upheaval and change.  Torture and capital punishment, religious war and a series of bloody monarchs. Uniformity in worship, good teaching and authority were desperately important for maintaining stability as the dust settled.

Today’s world is a million miles away from that, though it is still pretty stormy. We have achieved so much, but it still feels like we have so far to go. Battles we thought were over, about the usefulness and credibility of torture, for example, are rearing their ugly heads again. This is why our Human Rights and adherents to international rule of law are so important.

This week the House of Bishops released a document about Human Sexuality. Another report which generally fails to recognise that there is real division on the views within the Church. To many in the church it feels like ‘here we go again.’ Whether looking at the storms in international politics, in the Church’s own failings, or the storms you endure it your own life, you would be justified to cry out in prayer: ‘Lord, save us, we perish’ like the disciples in tonights Gospel (according to the BCP lectionary)

Tonight’s Gospel is undoubtedly focussed on faith, or at least the little faith of the disciples, and the supreme authority of Jesus, who is able to calm the storm and command the devils. And perhaps the even lesser faith of the villagers who demand Jesus moves on.

During Lent we will be having a series of services which explore the different traditions of the reformation, in honour of the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the churches in Wittenberg. In Britain, alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles of Religion, we also had a book of homilies. These homilies would often be read out by the clergy instead of them writing their own sermons - they couldn’t quite be trusted to theologically knowledgeable to provide the good and right teaching required of them.

I toyed with the idea of reading one to you this evening, obviously I decided not to, but I did read the one on Faith, as that seemed so important to this Gospel Reading. At the time, there was a great concern among all the reformers across Europe regarding the balance between faith and works. The system within the roman catholic church of paying for indulgences in order to gain access to Heaven was the very topic of Luther’s theses. But the assumption that Good Works are all that matter remains today. We talk of earning the title of being a ‘good person’ based on what we have done. Small children are described as ‘good’ because they are quiet, smile at the right moments and go to sleep. The reformers were keen to make the point that we don’t earn our salvation by what we do, we gain it through faith in Christ.

The Homily ‘On Faith’ begins acknowledging this distinction but then going on to discuss two types of faith. ‘Dead Faith’ and a ‘Quick or Lively Faith’.

A ‘Dead Faith’ would be the faith of the devils in today’s Gospel, who recognise Christ as the Son of God and even fear him. It is an idle faith, which has no impact on the life of the person with it. 

A ‘Quick’ or ‘Lively Faith’ on the other hand is one which leads to good works and fruitfulness - flourishing. This type of faith, you would be told if I had read the sermon: ‘is also a true trust and confidence of the mercy of God through or Lord Jesus Christ, and a steadfast hope of all good things to be received at God’s hand’.

This kind of trust and steadfast hope in God enables us to do good in the midst of the storms of our lives and the storms of one another’s lives. It is this kind of faith which leads to people persevering against atrocious conditions to improve the world. It is not a faith without questioning or uncertainty, but a faith that drives us to build the Kingdom of God. To resist the worst tendencies in the world in sure and certain knowledge that we are not alone, but that we have with us a true and honest friend, who will be there with us even when we think he is asleep. With him by our side we will weather the storm and find ourselves released by his salvation.