A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 24, 2012.
O God, our Father, we pray today for neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellow students, people down the pew, people in front of us, and people behind us in the sanctuary. We pray for anyone carrying a burden, for each one with an unfulfilled longing, and for all with any weariness and grief. This very day, even in this hour, may some word of worship or some act of kindness communicate to them and to us your very presence and concern in our lives. May this day not come to an end without some confirmation that you have not forgotten and that you have not withdrawn your promises from any of us. May each one find that their hearts are lifted and their spirits encouraged. Grant that each one who bears grief, whether it be long or new, find a reason for joy today. For those whose hope seems nearly gone, renew their faith and allow them to experience the strength that they know comes only from you. May those seeking guidance find direction, and if anyone arrives at the end of the day still feeling cut off from you, with no vision of faith, then give that person perseverance. May they move forward until in your perfect timing they see for themselves the dawn of hope and realize that you are there and have been always. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
In the Baptist heritage and the evangelical tradition of which we are a part, there is a message that is often preached that we have each heard from time to time. It is a message that is fairly common to our conviction in terms of language that we use, i.e., being born again, inviting Jesus to be our personal Lord and Savior. I cannot remember the first time I heard it nor the last time I preached it, but I know that I have. The theme is this: That each of us must have a faith of our very own. No one else can do the things of faith for us. No one else can accept Christ. No one else can pray for us. We must do these things for ourselves. To have authentic faith in Christ, I must make the decision to invite Christ to come into my life.
When we baptize, many people will come and they have other family members who are already Christians and I will say to them, “Members of your family have already answered this question, but you have to answer for yourself,” and I will ask them the questions of faith. We each must decide and we each must do our own spiritual work. It doesn’t matter if we had a grandfather who was a Baptist preacher, an Episcopal bishop, or whatever it may be. Each of us must come to that place where we do our own faith work. No one else can accept Christ for me. After I become a Christian, no one else can give my offering. No one else can perform my acts of Christian service. No one else can sing hymns for me. No one else can offer the prayers that are mine to pray.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers of the early 20th Century, once said, “There are no proxies for the soul.” You can’t give away the responsibility for your own soul to someone else and ask them to do all of those things for you. It is ours.
This is absolutely true, but in my mind it only goes so far. The New Testament and the Gospels bear a witness. I will not say that it is different and I will not say that it is opposite, but it is in addition to this. In addition to this conviction, there is an additional point of view. We would like to wrap up most of our understanding of faith, God’s answer to prayers, miracles, and those sorts of things in a neat little package. We often try to sell it. We say, “If you have the right faith, miracles will be granted, and prayers will be answered. If you don’t have faith, then your prayers will go unanswered and don’t expect a miracle.” But the New Testament will not be wrapped up that neatly. Jesus will not be boxed in. It is not that neat, and I will also say it is not that cruel. To me, one of the cruelest matters of faith is to allow someone to believe that it was their lack of faith that resulted in some prayer not being answered, a miracle not being granted, or life not going the way they wanted.
There is a word in the New Testament that sometimes our faith works on behalf of others. There are two stories I can think of right off the bat. One is the story of the Roman official. He comes to Jesus and says, “My servant is sick, and I need you to heal him.”
Jesus says, “Let’s go.”
The official says, “You don’t have any need to come with me. I am a person of authority, and I have people. I say the word to them, and they follow my orders. All you need to do is say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus says, “Never in all of Israel have I found faith such as this. Go, what you as has been granted.”
The man goes home, and his servant has been healed. There was no indication whatsoever that there was faith of the servant—only the faith of the man who came to Jesus.
Then in Mark 2, we read the story about the four friends who carried their friend, climbed on the roof , and let him down in front of Christ. What a great story! I have a hard time hearing this story without thinking of an image from Honduras several years ago when we were on a mission trip. There were two friends who had made a sling for a third friend. Language was a barrier. I have no idea how far they carried him, how long they stood in the sun, or how long they waited for medical attention. Their persistence reminded me of how easy it is to undertake a task on someone else’s behalf, and how after 20 minutes our shoulder is sore from the beam that is carried from one person to the next, and our hands are raw from shifting the log from one side to the other. It surely took longer and they walked further than they had anticipated.
I transfer that to this story in the New Testament, and how these friends persevered. Where did they come from? We don’t know. How long did they wait? Finally, someone realizes, We are not going to get through this crowd. They take the initiative and climb up on the roof.
Mark has a very interesting vocabulary. In the original, sometimes he is pretty roughshod. Basically, he says, “They unroofed the roof.” They take the roof apart and let their friend down. He is down there in front of Jesus, and Mark says that when he saw their faith—the ones who were letting him down—not the ones who were in front of him—he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Of course, there is a controversy that erupts about the forgiveness of sins, and he winds up healing the man. The man would not have had his sins forgiven, he would not have been ushered into the presence of Christ, and he would not have had the attention drawn to his plight if it had not been for the faith of his friends. It was his friends that brought him to Jesus, and it is his friends’ faith that leads Jesus to do something for him.
We have at least two stories, the Roman official and the men on the roof, in which a person benefits—a person’s life is changed, a person’s physical and spiritual circumstances are different—because of the faith of somebody else. So it is not as neat as I just didn’t have enough faith and it wasn’t done for me. There is a broader and richer message to the New Testament than, You are on your own and you are going to have to do this yourself. Either you believe enough or you don’t.
There is this example in the New Testament that we can loan each other our faith. When I am short, you loan me, and when you are short, I loan you. We loan each other in those moments when we find ourselves at a faith deficit. Someone else can believe, encourage, and trust the promises of God on our behalf and it lifts us. We know this from our own experience. We know this from tangible experiences that many of us have had.
If you have an illness, a death, or some other event in your family, and people of faith surround you, you often hear this statement, “I don’t know what people do when they don’t have a church to count on.” What are we saying? My friends and the people who have come near have loaned me faith when I needed it. You may have an experience in your life and you say to one another, “I felt carried by the prayers. I felt a presence that was not of myself. I felt in some way that the prayers of my friends and others were carrying me to the presence of God and it got me through this situation.”
I can attest to that when I had surgery a year and a half ago in the sense of the congregation’s love being poured out to God. How do you explain that? In my mind, I have this image of a spiritual barn raising. On a weekend, people come from everywhere to help someone build a barn who cannot build it by themselves. Somebody brings their teenage boys, somebody else brings food, one person knows how to get the pole in the ground and set the columns, someone else knows how to do siding and roofing. They all gather together and they each provide what they have. At the end of the day, the person who was in need has a place for animals and hay. The barn has been raised. It was the efforts of everybody who loaned their skills and efforts. Sometimes I have the image of that being what it is like when we loan each other faith. We each bring the promise of God that we can trust in or we bring our special abilities to pray or to be present. When we leave, the person is surrounded by this structure of faith that was not of their own making.
We can loan each other faith. Why else do we ask people to pray for us? Why else do we put bumper stickers and magnets on our cars reminding people to pray for someone, other than we are saying that we need to loan some faith to these people. We need to give out of our own resources of faith to those who might be in a deficit situation at the moment.
I appeal to you today to loan your faith to somebody. Keep your criticisms, your doubts, and your stories about, My uncle died of that, to yourself. If somebody tells us a problem, sometimes we say, “My uncle died of that.” Don’t say that. Loan your faith. Share your encouragement. Share a word of blessing. Share your presence. Share your belief in God’s care. Share your belief in God’s future, and in the promises of God that you have seen come true in your own life. Share that verbally with someone. Someone needs to hear that.
And pray. Never underestimate the power of praying for each other. You have heard the statement that we will never know the things that have been changed or the things that have happened that have come about only by prayer. Not until God gathers us all together in that eternal kingdom will we ever know what has been done, maybe in our own lives, because someone else was praying for us.
Loan faith. It is like love in a healthy family. We don’t ever have to decide who gets it. It is not as if there is only so much to go around and it has to be divided. There is always enough. If you have three more babies, there is enough love for them all. There is always enough faith to share and still have enough for ourselves.
How would any of us have made it this far in life if somebody had not loaned us some faith at some point? Be intentional. Give to someone who needs. Share your presence. Pray. Give them a word of encouragement and blessing and faith today. There is enough to go around.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.