All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 August 2015

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 August 2015

Sermon preached by Prebendary Alan Moses


Hebrews 11.17-31

The words “by faith” sound through tonight’s passage from Hebrews like the refrain in a litany, as they do throughout the whole of Chapter 11. In its recital of actions of faithful men and women of old ‘by faith’ appears no less than 18 times.

In classical rhetoric this was known as anaphora. A writer or speaker used anaphora, repetition of a key word or phrase:

  • To make an impact on the memory when teaching;
  • To make an impression on listeners in a eulogy or a political speech, and move their hearts;
  • To build cumulative effect in an argument, to win their minds and so win a case. 

This is not the “vain repetition” Jesus condemns in the Gospel: mindless babbling on like the pagans; piling up words to no purpose. This is repetition with a purpose: to help people remember and to bring about either change of mind or strengthening of an already-chosen position.

‘By faith’ echoes the opening words of the chapter: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (NRSV)

This is not a comprehensive definition, one which says everything there is to be said of faith: more one directed to the situation of those for whom he writes.  The Letter to the Hebrews is not so much a letter as a sermon. It is addressed to a Jewish-Christian community, probably in Rome, which has already experienced persecution: imprisonment, confiscation of property.  This had led to defections and a loss of confidence. The temptation for them is to abandon their faith in Jesus Christ and to fall back to their former position within Judaism in the hope of greater security. 

The author distills into a single sentence what he believes his hearers need to hear. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Every word has been carefully chosen and weighed to draw attention to the characteristics of faith relevant to their situation. Two words are key to understanding the whole chapter, if not the entire letter.

If we look at other versions, we find rather different translations:

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  KJV

“Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see.”  REB

‘Assurance’ in our version translates ‘hypostasis.’   This means literally: ‘that which stands/lies under.’  It has the sense of reality, substance (in contrast to what merely seems to be); of the realization of something; of a guarantee, of a title deed (recording ownership); of foundation, substructure; and finally and more subjectively, of assurance, confidence, being sure. 

You will recognize the word “substance” from the Nicene Creed which we recite at the Eucharist. Hypostasis was the word the Church chose to express Christ’s divinity, his oneness with the Father: “of one substance with the Father”. It refers to the very essence or substance or being of God. It points to a reality which does not owe its existence to human awareness.

Assurance captures the human dimension of faith, of embracing and trust and tenacity, but the context and the primary meanings of the word show that this subjective sense is dependent on the objective givenness of God. More is involved here than ‘believing makes it so.

Faith joins the subjective – how I feel – and the objective – what I base my faith on: “Faith is the  substance and the assurance of things hoped for.”

The second key word – elegchos – is one more at home in a courtroom.  It can be translated as ‘proof’ or ‘demonstration‘: it means ‘conviction,’ in the sense of a court’s finding of guilt, rather than a firm belief on our part.  “Faith is the reality, the certitude, the proof of things unseen.” Our certainty derives from that.

For the author of Hebrews, faith is the belief that ultimate reality lies not in the here and now or in things visible to sight, but in things yet to come and things that cannot be seen.  Faith believes that God “is” – exists, is real, even though cannot be seen, and that God rewards those who seek him, even when that reward is not forthcoming in present age.  Faith is the means, the lens, by which we see the as-yet-unseen heavenly country, the future inheritance of the faithful, “from a distance.”  (11.13, 16)

Faith does not make real something that has no intrinsic reality of its own. It recognizes that what God promises is more certain, better, greater, and more lasting than anything offered by the “fleeting pleasures of sin” can offer (11.25)

Faith demonstrates the existence of a reality, which we cannot perceive through our physical senses. It furnishes evidence concerning events as yet undisclosed because they belong to the ultimate future. When faith has its source in a direct, personal encounter with the living God, life is given a positive orientation toward God and his word. We trust God and his word as the basis for our lives in present and future.

The writer follows up this understanding of faith with a catalogue of figures from the Old Testament.  They are models of faith in action: witnesses of its power to transform and re-direct life, even when the rewards promised are not experienced in this world. For Hebrews, these repeated demonstrations of the effective power of faith under the old covenant are not just history. They testify to the character and possibilities of faith for the Christian community. What was possible and true in the past is possible and true now and in the future.

While the author looks to the past, to the history of God’s people for his examples, faith is for him is forward-looking, directed to the future. He finds in faith a substantiation of hopes as yet unrealized and events as yet unseen. It is the future, and not the past, that moulds the present. By conferring upon the objects of hope the force of present realities, faith enables the people of God to go forward in the certainty of their future realization.

The men and women celebrated all placed their faith in realities which for them lay in the future.  They found in faith a reliable guide to the future, even though they died without experiencing the fulfillment of God’s promise (11.23, 39).

Anaphora, repetition for the sake of remembrance and transformation, which we see in Hebrews,  is what the Church still does as it celebrates in its calendar and liturgy the  exemplary lives and deaths, the prayers and teachings of its saints. We practice anaphora as we celebrate their memory, hear their stories, read their writings, say their prayers, meditate on their lives and deaths; seeking in our reflection how we might imitate them, not in some dressing-up, make-believe sort of way, but living in their spirit in our time and situation.   The Church does so for the same purpose – not to look backwards to some golden age or to retreat into some fantasy world- but to look forward in hope, and in that hope to act as the saints did.

The Greek-speaking Church took that word anaphora for the central prayer in its principal act of remembrance: the Eucharist. So the Eucharistic Prayer, what came to be known in the West as the ‘Canon of the Mass,’ and in the Prayer Book as the ‘Prayer of Consecration,’ is called in the Eastern Churches, the Anaphora. 

In this act and prayer, in word and sacrament, repeated Sunday by Sunday, day by day, the Church remembers Jesus and his life of absolute faith in the Father.  It is our living encounter with the one who Hebrews calls “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” the one who leads us forward to our goal, which has power to turn our present lives to the future and to shape them so that our actions are directed to that future which is the kingdom of God.

As our memories are filled with his story and teaching, our imaginations impressed by it, we are persuaded of the reality of this life-changing hope by our repeated encounter with Jesus. Our lives are pointed to the future to which he leads us. We do not know exactly what the future looks like and what it holds for us, but we can have hope that because it is Christ’s future we can go forward in the same faith which motivated the holy ones of old and new covenants.