Toorak Uniting Church

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Keeping Faith when Religion Fails

Matthew 14: 22 – 33
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 9
10 August 2014

I deliberately chose a somewhat provocative title for my message this morning, in part because the word religion doesn’t have a very good press at the moment. Regardless of the religious brand name there is little sense that religion or Religions are part of the solution to the problems we face in the world today. In fact a large percentage of people would see religion as a significant part of the problem.

Now before you start throwing stones at me, let me say that there is much that is good among the world’s Religions. At the heart, at the core of their being, most if not all religions want what is best for humanity and our world. But that is the problem. We have often migrated a long way from our core values. And we are also very quick to see the weakness in others' religion and not to see it in our own. It doesn’t take much, when we see images on our televisions of the violence in the Middle East, to label a religion as intrinsically evil, malicious or immoral. At home we see tragic destruction of childhood innocence in our own Religion. But I suspect we would say, "Well that’s not our denomination. That’s not what we believe or we would do." And that may be true.

The Heart of Religion
I remember in my youth group days someone saying that Christianity isn’t a religion it is a relationship. Well, that’s not really true. It is a form and a function that is religious. But there is truth that at the heart of Christian faith it is relation that really counts. Roger Housden in his book, Keeping the Faith without Religion writes:

Religion is fundamentally human. Created by humans for human consumption. And like humanity, it is both a glory and a scandal; inspired and silly; full of compassion and full of cruelty…. But it is not as [the new atheists] say the source of all evil.

Even if religion was banished from the earth there would still remain the impetus, the source of human existence that gave birth to religion and that is a relationship with the mystery of life that we call God. What is at the beginning of the human quest is something that is profoundly spiritual. We struggle to find a way of describing this longing. Our language doesn’t carry us quite where we want to go. Nevertheless, I think we are all drawn to unfathomable mystery.

To give it a name I am going to call it faith. And by faith I don’t mean my beliefs or just my religious faith, I mean a commitment that is deep within me that seeks beauty, love, hope, grace, joy, wonder, relationship, compassion, kindness and so forth. But most of all it is what the theologian Paul Tillich called "the courage to be."

Faith is being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality which we name God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.

Peter’s Act of Faith
I think Jesus was rather dismissive of religiosity. Remember Jesus of Nazareth never started a new religion. He was born, lived and died as a Jew. What he was critical of was religious pomposity and hypocrisy and in particular the loss of a relationship with the living God whom he called Father. Religious beliefs or duties or even religious practices could never be a substitute for a relationship with the divine or the sacred. It is that relationship which keeps a person on an even keel. Or, to use a Canadian expression, to point to True North.

And that is what I want to draw from this story of Jesus walking on the water and his encounter with his disciple Peter.

Then Jesus and his disciples got into the boat and went to the other side of the lake, having dismissed the crowds. Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. By this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

What is most important in this story is the role of relationships. Jesus goes to a quiet place for communion with God. He seeks solitude and in that place of stillness he connects in prayer with the centre of his being; the source of his faith. Meanwhile the boat is battered by waves and wind. One scene is a calm centering, the other a frantic commotion.

Then early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Again the storyteller wants us to see that from the still centre, from Jesus’ encounter with the presence of God, he is able to be calm and reassure the fearful disciples. Their religion gives them little comfort, maybe a belief in ghosts, but their relationship with Jesus casts out their fear: "Take heart, don’t be afraid, it’s me."

Peter is about to test the difference between religion and faith; between belief and trust.

The Quaker scholar Parker Palmer suggests that faith as a misunderstood word. Faith is not a set of beliefs we are supposed to sign up for. It is instead the courage to face our illusions and allow ourselves to be disillusioned by them. It is the courage to walk through our illusions and dispel them. The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is fear - fear of abandoning illusions because of our comfort level with them.

I think that is a very important distinction; it is that the opposite of faith is fear. Perhaps the opposite of belief is doubt. But as we know from the DVD many have seen of the interview with Dr Val Webb, doubt is an essential aspect of the spiritual life. The difficulty is that we have often muddled faith with belief and belief with faith when in fact faith is a constant in our lives while beliefs can change and can come and go. Back Peter! What is with this guy that he is so tempestuous?

Peter answered Jesus saying, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Jesus said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "Your faith was small, why did you fear?"

Your faith [your trust] was small, why did you fear? I think from this story we can begin to grasp that faith is a way of seeing the world around us. Perhaps Jesus was telling Peter – telling us – that we need to look at life differently. I said this story was all about relationships. Peter took his eyes off what could sustain him. His fear that he would drown overcame him and he lost sight of the relationship that could hold him.

Strangely, Peter had to let go of what he knew in order to embrace the mystery of what he did not know. Even though he was fearful, he had enough courage to let go of the illusion and embrace the new reality. Perhaps that brings us full circle back to where we started: the notion that religion will not save us, but a relationship of trust and faith in the source of life will make us whole. So I choose today to see the world through faith and hope and joy and love and not to be defeated by the waves of despair and the winds of destruction. I put my trust in the still centre of life and embrace those relationships that give me life.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

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