People of faith find themselves often, perhaps daily, tottering on the precipice of disillusion, swaying from their own questions, wondering if they have been suckered by some mug’s game that tells them to be satisfied with God’s promises instead of the cold, hard reality of this world’s guarantees. Still, the claims of faith are not so easy to shake, not in spite of the cold, hard reality of this world’s guarantees but because the guarantees of this world are so cold and hard. Sober reflection allows us to see that faith, supposedly ephemeral, vague and airy, grounds itself on the rock of history, masterfully building on the hope and love of those who have come before us, who have heard, recorded and lived God’s word.
Yet even among the earliest Christians, faith could waver, replaced by the concerns and worries of the day. The time of Jesus’ parousia, or “return,” which all his earliest disciples hoped was imminent, would work itself out, as it still is working itself out in history. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to “sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The strong contrast between earthly wealth and heavenly treasure was essential, for the heavenly vision demanded faith; and in the interim between Jesus’ ascension and his return, weariness in the contemplation of unseen promises could drag down faith. Jesus pleaded that we be diligent in seeing where the true treasure is.
Alertness is essential for maintaining faith in the true treasure. Drowsy disciples, then and now, need to be awakened, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The prophecy of Jesus’ return claims us, for it is a divinely given word that remains in effect throughout history until it comes to fruition at the end of history.
It is not as if this task were given to us alone. All who came before us needed to maintain the same faithfulness and alertness. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says about the cloud of witnesses who had come even before the apostolic age, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.” This is the key for the faithful witnesses of old, that the promises of an unseen home were accepted in faith and maintained throughout their lives in the hope of faith.
Their earthly vision had been adjusted so that they could see the truth through the ephemera of hard facts. The author of Hebrews proclaims that “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” These promises have found faithful witnesses not only in the ancient past, but throughout history. Faith is not a dead letter, but a lived experience.
Years ago, when I was a teenager, my great-aunt Sarah, then in her 90s, hugged me for what would be the last time and whispered something in my ear that made me cry. She was born in Russia and lost her fiancé in the chaos of the Russian Revolution. She never married and lived on a small farm with two of her unmarried sisters, victims themselves of the travails of the revolution and emigration to a foreign land, whose language they never spoke. This is what made the tears I cried so remarkable. I could not understand what my Tante Sarah had said to me in Low German. I turned to my mother and asked, “What did she say?” Mother explained: “She said, ‘If I don’t see you here on earth again, I will see you in heaven.’”
That is faith. And as the years go by, whenever heaven or the God who calls us home to dwell there seem like illusions, that faith becomes more solid, more real to me, for “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”