“Brothers and sisters: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us … persevere in running the race that lies before us … keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”
This is what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews advises us today. Last week, we began a series of readings from Hebrews that focuses on our faith and the commitment that comes from that faith. We will soon enter into our Fall Homily Series that will help us to see our faith in (hopefully) new ways and live it more fully. In September, we will explore the positive elements of what we believe; in October, we will see how that faith prepares us for the “game day” of life; in November, we will learn how this life of faith and commitment to Jesus can often make us “Weird” in the midst of our world.
But I am now getting ahead of myself!
“Keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith,” says our Second Reading.
Faith, for the religious person – for most of us – is a word often thrown around, taken for granted, but never fully defined. We know what faith means in a broad sense; but what is faith, as we have learned it in our Christian tradition – and more importantly, what is this faith that Jesus is leading and perfecting? It might not be as simple as we think; however, it is easy to understand.
First, faith is a response to a supernatural call – something that comes from “beyond” us. For us, this “something” is God, and faith is our response to that – itself a gift from Him. This is why Faith is one of the so-called “theological virtues.” This level of faith – we can call it the first level – works something like this: “I believe that there is a God somewhere” or simply, “God is.” This is what Moses came to understand through his experience at the burning bush when God revealed His Name to us forever.
What do we do at this level of faith? It calls for something more, but we are not quite certain of it. We “ride along,” feeling our way through the experience of faith, as children often do. Here, at this level, we can welcome one another who believe as we do, offering our own experiences of faith for the sharing.
The second level of faith is a bit different. This is the level of real encounter with the God who exists. It can be expressed like this: “I believe that I have an encounter with Christ here.” It is an encounter in a place, in a community. This is what we can call “ecclesial faith.” Beyond simply believe, this is a faith of belonging, where we know that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. At this level, more than just welcoming others, we are inviting others to join us – to find that same faith that energizes us.
This leads to the third level of faith: a “yearning faith.” This faith says, “I want to delve deeper into my relationship with Jesus.” It is a faith that hungers and thirsts for God’s power and presence in our lives. It is a faith that demands justice. It is a faith that sees the connectedness of all life and our responsibility for one another. This is what Pope Francis has been inviting all Catholics to since his election.
This is the faith that the writer of Hebrews is calling us to when we read that we are to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith.”
This desire to know Jesus at a deeper level is what Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel when he cries out, “’I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!’” Not only do we burn with a desire to know Christ, but He burns for us! When we realize this fact, the fact that our God-made-Flesh yearns for each one of us to know Him better, we cannot help but reach out to His life-giving baptism.
This faith can be dangerous; it might estrange us for the world; it is a bit odd, considering what passes for normal in our world and culture today. However, this is exactly what Jesus says He has come to offer.
And this will then lead to the final level of faith. This is, finally, a faith that evangelizes – a faith that goes out to others, to the world. This faith says, “I want to share my faith with others because it has given me life and I want others to have this life too.” It is active faith; it is faith that is sent – apostolic faith.
We can see ourselves in one of these stages of faith, I am sure. But, I do not offer them to you as a selection from which to choose – as if we look for which ones suits us best and settle into that. No. We are all called to all these levels, ending eventually in the final, evangelical faith that burns in us and seeks out others with whom to share the saving message of the Gospel. Our time here, gathered in worship is meant to equip us for that final stage – to spur us on. After all, only Jesus can perfect us in that regard.
So here we go again, surrounded by this cloud of witnesses – the race still lies ahead!