(Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40)
Today we will be focusing on a scripture passage that is familiar to many: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). In fact, we will be focusing on two particular words of the passage, and those words are “assurance” and “conviction.”
As I was preparing to write this sermon by reading a commentary on this passage, I ran across the following statement: “The [New Revised Standard Version’s] translation of Heb. 11:1 is familiar but highly problematic, because two of the crucial words in this verse are exceedingly difficult to translate in this context.” Those two crucial words are “assurance” and “conviction.”
When we read the Bible we read it, of course, in English, but the original text was written in other languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. When we read the Bible in English we are reading a translation of these original languages. The translators, of course, do the best they can to translate correctly, but not every word has a direct translation into another language, so the translators end up interpreting what they think the original writer was trying to communicate.
It turns out that there is more than one way to translate the words “assurance” and “conviction,” which in Greek are the words “hypostasis” and “elegchos.” Imagine my surprise when I went on to read that my former New Testament professor, Harold Attridge, persuasively argues for a different translation of these words than the one we are used to. (I got a little thrill as I realized I had studied with the man being quoted in the commentary I was reading!) Harold Attridge argues that the best translation of the word “hypostasis” in this passage isn’t “assurance,” but “reality.” Instead of saying, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” this translation would say, “Faith is the reality of things hoped for.” And the best translation of the world “elegchos” isn’t “conviction,” but “proof.” Instead of saying, “the conviction of things not seen,” this translation would say, “the proof of things not seen.” If we put together the two halves of the sentence, it would say, “Faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.”
This translation of the sentence puts a whole new spin on what faith is. Faith is not only about feeling certain about something, but about acting certain about something. It is not only about believing with our hearts and minds, but believing with our bodies and lives. It has something to do with how we behave, what choices we make; in other words, how we live.
Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, in Mark 1, said that the kingdom of God is at hand, meaning that the kingdom of God is already present. We are to repent – to turn back to God – and to believe this good news (Mark 1:15). We are to believe, not only with our hearts and minds, but with our bodies and lives. We are to live as if the kingdom of God is among us already.
We see what living as if the kingdom of God is present is like in the lives of the faithful who have gone before us. Look at Abraham: He obeyed God when he was called to set out for a place that he was not to receive as an inheritance and not even knowing where he was going. Abraham not only believed the promises of God with his heart and mind, he believed with his body and with his life, also. And because he believed with his body and with his life and set out for the place God had told him to go, he helped move forward the vision of God for his people, even though he, himself, did not live long enough to receive the promises. He did not inhabit the land promised him – for the Hebrews didn’t enter the promised land until Moses led them to it – nor see the descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand. But if he hadn’t obeyed God and done what God asked him to do – if he hadn’t had faith – there may not have been a promised land or numerous descendants. Abraham’s faith – both the believing with his heart and mind and the believing with his body and life – actually helped fulfill the promises of God in the long run.
And what does Jesus say to his disciples in the passage from the Gospel According to Luke? “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven . . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:32-34). Behave as if the kingdom of God is already present: Sell your possessions and give alms. If the kingdom of God is present, why do you need to store up treasure as did the Rich Fool? Instead, faithfully – that is actively – share your riches and thereby participate in creating the kingdom of God.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we share our treasure and thereby participate in creating the kingdom of God, then our heart is not invested in the things that will pass away, but in the thing that endures, which is the kingdom of God. Maybe that is what is meant by being dressed and ready for action: We act as if the kingdom of God is already present, we make decisions and choices based on the belief that God is active, present, and in charge in our world, we live as if the master has already returned.
One of the sayings in 12-Step programs is “act as if.” You may not feel that you can recover from whatever it is you need to recover from, but act as if you can: come to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps, take things one day at a time. Before you know it, “act as if” has become the reality, you really have begun to recover, your recovery is getting stronger every day, and you’ve become the person you were acting as if you could be. Well, that’s what it’s like with faith. Act as if the promises of God have already been realized and before you know it you have participated in creating their realization.
The scripture passage for this week prompts us to ask ourselves where in our lives we are not living as if the kingdom of God is already present. Is there some way of thinking and believing that limits how we behave? Are we thinking small when we could be thinking big, and therefore acting small rather than acting big? Are we feeling bad when we could be feeling good, and therefore acting badly rather than acting well? There is a quote that goes likes this: “You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking . . . We were born to manifest the glory of God within us.” And I would add, “and within the world.” Where in each of our lives are we lacking faith, and so not creating the reality of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen?
It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, but if we don’t hold out our hands to take it from him and then treat it with the care and respect it deserves, what will happen to it? When we live as if the kingdom of God is already present, our lives become the reality of things hoped for and the proof of things not seen. Others can look to us to see proof of God, just as we look to Abraham and the other ancestors of our religion to see proof of God. There is a saying that goes like this: “Our changed lives may be the only gospel some people will ever read.” Let your life be the good news; let your life be the reality of things hoped for and the proof of things not seen; let your life be an illustration of the kingdom of God. “Act as if” until it is. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Pastor of Canton Community Baptist Church, at the First Congregational Church, Canton Center, CT, on Sunday, July 31, 2016, the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost.
 Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C. p. 465.
 Marianne Williamson.