For Those Who Will Believe
©2011 Robert J. Elder
May 1, 2011
2nd Sunday of Easter
I Peter 1:3-9
...even though you do not see him now,
you believe in him
and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
for you are receiving the outcome of your faith,
the salvation of your souls.
One little word in our passage for today caught my attention when I first began making plans for this sermon, and it hasn’t let go of me yet. It is the word “outcome.” You remember. The passage reads, “for you are receiving the outcome of your faith...”
We are? If this is true, how will we know we are receiving it? It has set me to thinking about outcomes and what it is about them that is important to us. Say last night we went to the meeting of the Advisory Committee on Governmental Referential Capacities (ACGRC) instead of staying home and watching the ball game on television; and lets assume – even though we chose to go to the meeting – we were big baseball fans who just have an overworked sense of obligation to duty. We would want to ask someone how the game came out. Or to put it more like the scripture does, we’d want to know, what was the outcome of the game?
Now, imagine we see our good friend, Hanson, and we know he is a big fan, too. “So, Hanson, I had to miss the game last night. Big meeting on referential capacities, you know. How did it come out?”
Hanson fields the question like a short stop, but hurries the throw to first: “The final score was 5 to 7,” he says.
That may well be the outcome, the final score, 5 to 7, but it stops somewhere short of satisfying our curiosity, doesn’t it? We may come back with a further question, “No, really Hanson, how did it come out?” And Hanson may add, simply, “We won.” We’re pretty sure we remember Hanson follows the same team we do, but we want to be certain: “By our team, you mean the Tualatin Tarantulas?” A “yes” to this question would at least give us the satisfaction of knowing which team had won by two runs. But is that all we really want to know when we ask about outcomes?
Imagine a television sports cast with no game films, no commentary from the ballpark, no highlights, no names of stars or statistics. Just scores. It would be a pretty dull program. No, when we want to know the outcome of the game, we’re hoping for more than the score. We want a few highlights, we want to know how our team performed, whether an aging star is still up to an all-star performance, things like that.
Sports comparisons may not satisfy everyone, so let’s think of another. Say our favorite niece, Hildegard, is about to have a baby. One Saturday we receive a phone call from her mother, our sister in Tacoma, saying the baby came today. “How did everything go?” we wonder for starters, but all she says is, “5 pounds, 6 ounces,” and hangs up. Well, that may be the outcome as far as she is concerned, but we’re far from satisfied. How long was Hildegard’s labor? Is she OK? Did her husband get there in time? What are they going to name the baby? Was it a boy or a girl ... or twins ... or a giraffe?
See what I mean? Outcomes are more than just final, tidy little statistics – they involve us in everything that leads up to the end. I began thinking about outcomes when I read this passage from I Peter, and I haven’t stopped yet. Peter said the outcome of our faith – which, by the way, he says we are already receiving, no need to wait – is the salvation of our souls. But we want to know more than a final statistic. How is the outcome of our faith going on now? What is it about faith that it can be said to have an outcome, anyway, and besides, what would the game highlights leading up to this outcome look like if we could see them; and further, how is it that salvation is already the outcome of something like faith?
Let’s think about the content of the word “faith” for a minute. Had you ever thought about your faith having an outcome, leading to something? Lots of people think of an afterlife in heaven as an outcome of faith in Jesus, that is their vision of the salvation of their souls. But Peter said that believers are already receiving the outcome of our faith. Heaven, for some, is a long way off. So what does an outcome of faith – the salvation of our souls – look like now?
It can be a frustrating thing, thinking about this word, faith. I remember a 1980s top 40 song by George Michael, who intoned over and over, “you gotta have faith...” 1 Probably most would agree, but I don’t think the recording artist was talking about the same kind of faith we talk about here at church. Not only might we not agree on what faith really is, we’re not altogether sure where it comes from. The all-American variety of thinking would suggest that faith is something we have to go out and get, some sort of philosophical commodity that we can work up in ourselves.
So the shock here in I Peter is, the faith we have in Christ is provided as a gift. It’s not a work, not some piece of our own effort that by going out and working hard at it, we can obtain a quantity of it. Rather, faith is the very gift of God, working within us to transform our lives. Paul thought so too, when he wrote to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” 2 In some ways, it’s just like that ball game we missed. Our being there would not have changed it. Our being there does not change the nature of faith as a gift of God. Just as with any true, “no strings attached,” gift we give to someone, God’s gift of faith is offered quite apart from our own receptivity or lack of response. It is a ready gift, awaiting us.
Karl Barth once wrote, “In believing...[people] have not created their own faith; the Word has created it. They have not come to faith; faith has come to them through the Word. They have not adopted faith; faith has been granted to them...” 3 The Word he is going on about is the same Word John wrote about when he was speaking of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word...” 4 Faith’s source is in Christ, not in us.
The Source of Faith
If we were still unconvinced that faith is something which comes to us quite apart from our own effort to snatch it, just recall the way Peter speaks of it. He referred to faith as an inheritance. Think of faith that way for a minute, as an inheritance. At some point in our lives we knew nothing of God, yet the whole work of Jesus on the cross took place so that we could become God’s own children (have a “new birth” is the way this letter puts that idea!). Now, having done nothing of our own to achieve our status as God’s children, we are called inheritors. Of course, that is what people often do for children they cherish. They leave them an inheritance, some substance of what was once theirs. It’s sort of a heavenly analogy for discovering that the billionaire across town, whose lawn we once cut when we were nine, has left us his whole estate. Parenthetically, that’s something worth thinking anytime we contemplate our giving to the church. Who is the real giver in any church program of giving? Real giving, as we understand it, began and ends with the gifts of God.
No one chooses their natural parents. It is one of those happenings of nature. Yet there was nothing inevitable about God’s desire to think of us as his children. Still, because of the work of Jesus, we are considered the children of God to the extent that we find we are called into his lawyer’s office to hear about our inheritance, just like real family. Our faith is in many ways like that: an inheritance we are to manage, not to own.
The one thing that gives us this new status as inheritors is the work of Jesus through his cross and resurrection. The whole outcome, not only of our deaths but of our present lives, is taken up in this new reality. So faith is a gift – from beginning to end. What then is the outcome?
The Outcome of Faith – Salvation.
I think it’s interesting that Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, thought a great deal of the passage we are sharing today. Throughout his long life as a pastor and professor of systematic theology, he labored continuously on a multi-volume work called Church Dogmatics, which takes up about 2 feet of space on my bookshelf at home.
In the very last volume of that faithful, immense life’s work of thousands and thousands of pages – a volume called a “fragment” because it ended abruptly, unfinished, when he died – Dr. Barth took up I Peter 1 for the last time in the final few pages. Here is a portion of what he wrote:
“According to I Peter 1:3 Christians ... are those who through the overflowing mercy of God ... are in his resurrection from the dead, begotten to a new and living hope...
“... The object and content of this hope is the same Jesus Christ who in his resurrection from the dead is its basis ... [This hope] protects them against disenchantment by constantly and clearly differentiating itself from all else that [people] might wait and hope for, all their great little utopias.” 5
In other words, this faith – a gift of Christ – is unlike anything else in which we might have faith, faith of our own doing, our own choosing. This doesn’t mean that disenchantment won’t trouble believers. It just means that no matter how disenchanting life may be, nothing can remove what has been given us – faith in Christ, which is the gift of God, not of our own doing.
I like the way that idea finishes, that our hope does not rest in all the great little utopias that we can create for ourselves. The outcome of our faith is nothing less than a real hope, one not bound by our own power, our own schemes for human perfection, our own tasks accomplished in our own time. The outcome of our faith can strengthen us even through traumatic times because it is based on something that wasn’t ours in the first place and yet is completely ours because of God’s love: the resurrection of Christ, accomplished for us in the one who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. Gave it. Why do we give of the time and substance of our material lives to the work of the church of Christ? Because our hope does not rest in utopias of our own creation, but in the very word and work of Jesus Christ. What effort on earth that we can name surpasses that?
Friends, that is a piece of good news. Faith has an outcome? Yes, indeed, it does. And the good news is that the outcome is already secure, our lives today can be lived in the sure and certain knowledge of God’s love for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1“Faith,” by George Michael, circa 1987.
3Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God,
Karl Barth, T & T Clark: 1975, Vol. I.1, p. 245, emphasis mine.
5Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God,
Karl Barth, T & T Clark: 1975, Vol. IV. 4, p. 197-198.