I've always struggled with the litany of 'heroes of faith' in Hebrews 11, particularly the way that it has been used to valorize violence and martyrdom. Here was my attempt to deal honestly with a difficult text.
What is faith? That seems a good question for us to ask. The truth is that, while I am sure we would all say that we have faith, I am also sure that we don’t spend much time thinking about what faith is. One popular answer is offered by Richard Dawkins: ‘Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’ Well, love him or hate him, when you read the Epistle to the Hebrews and its statement that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,’ (Heb. 11.1) you begin to think that Richard Dawkins may have a point! Perhaps faith does, simply mean ‘credulity’ or something like that? And then you read the examples of faith which the writer to the Hebrews highlights, Warriors, Kings, Prophets and Martyrs. No doubt wonderful people. But if faith is a blind hope of future glory, it can be hard to read a litany of martyrs like that of Hebrews 11 without thinking of those who even today, destroy themselves and many others with them for the hope of a martyrs reward in paradise. Faith, holy war and martyrdom are a potent and often savage combinations. They represent the abandonment of reason and the embrace of violence. Really, is this how we are to show our devotion to God, either by inflicting or suffering violence?
But to read this passage from Hebrews and to take holy war and martyrdom from it as our bench-marks of what faith looks like would be a huge mistake. Because if we were to do that we would forget that what these people are commended for is not martyrdom, or heroism, or military might, or cunning, or wisdom or success or even for being persecuted. They win God’s approval because of their faith, and nothing else. Faith might have motivated them to do good things. Sometimes faith motivated them to foolish, morally questionable and sometimes downright wicked actions.
Take one of the ‘heroes of faith’ on our role call, Jephthah the Gileadite. You may not have heard of him before. He was one of the early rulers of Israel, they were called ‘Judges’. Jephthah believed in God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises to give them a land of peace and security. But life in the promised land brought Israel into conflict with other nations. Jephthah was preparing to do battle with the Ammonites, and in faith, he prayed to God ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering’ (Judges 11.30–31). He returned to his home victorious, and his daughter came out to greet him. And so Jephthah murdered his daughter. Faith in God’s promise led Jephthah to unimaginable wickedness. Surely we can find better examples of faith? Why is this man, of all men, worthy of our consideration? Not because of the cruelty to which his faith led him, but because, with all of his moral fallibility, he believed that God was able to bring about the future of peace he had promised.
To believe that God is able, even when the odds are stacked against you. That takes faith. To believe that, even though everything looks like it is going well for you, if God’s future dawns, it will do so because God has done it, and not ultimately because of our excellence and skill. That takes faith.
For the people who originally received this letter, probably Jewish converts to Christianity (that’s why the book is called Hebrews) living in Rome, the temptation was to give up believing in God’s promise. They had probably suffered loss of friends, alienation from family, possibly the confiscation of property. Those word’s of Jesus in the gospel reading – son against father, mother against daughter – this was reality for some of these early Christians. The state they were in provided every reason to give up. To throw in the towel. But the writer of this letter wanted to draw their attention to these people of faith from the past. People who believed in God’s promise. Who’s lives were often morally compromised, but who believed that whatever their present circumstances, God could bring about what he had pledged.
And here’s the thing: All those people, who had faith in the past did not receive the fulness of God’s promise – The messiah for whom they waited was still in the distant future. Therefore – the writer says – surrounded by such a company of faithful people who continued to hope in God’s future even though they did not receive it’s fulfillment, how much more should we who have received the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ continue to trust in the promises God has already fulfilled and will bring to completion. The heroes of faith in the past didn’t even know what the course they were running looked like or where it would take them. But we have received the fulfillment of what they were looking for: Jesus, the pioneer of faith. He is the one who ran ahead of us and marked out the course for us, faithful even through the disaster of crucifixion. He now stands ready to receive us when the race is run. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith (there is no our in the original Greek text).
We are surrounded by this vast cloud of people, too many to count, all who bear witness that God remained faithful, and that he is able to bring his promise to fulfillment. A great cloud of witnesses who cannot run the race for us, but who are willing us on. The best thing we can do, as they did, is to keep our eyes our eyes fixed on Jesus, who not only marked out the path of faith, but who has the power to bring faith to its completion. To make God’s future for the world a reality.
As a church, we have known many difficulties in the past few years, and we’ve had a number of successes too. How can we be people who aren’t seduced by our successes into thinking that we can build the church under our own steam? How can we be people who aren’t discouraged to the point of giving up by our failures? If we are to be people of faith, I think that it may look something like this: we will daily ask ourselves – ‘what is the future God has promised? Do I trust that, whatever we may or may not do, that God faithful to that promise and will bring it about? How can that promise inspire us to continue running, and to help my faith work for peace and not violence? How does that promise threaten and challenge us? What are the weights and encumbrances, the behaviors and beliefs, which we need to cast off to run efficiently. And finally, are we keeping our eyes fixed on the faithful trailblazer, who alone has the power to bring God’s purposes for the world to completion?