Long before people of faith were introduced to specific dogmas and doctrines, they demonstrated their faith by how they lived their lives. Only toward the end of the period in which the Christian Scriptures were composed - especially in the "Pastoral Letters" - do we begin to hear emphasis on faith's content instead of faith's actions. Fortunately faith's content dimension had not yet crept into today's three readings.
In our Hebrews pericope, the writer spends verse after verse encouraging us to continue living by faith even when the odds of achieving the goal which faith tantalizingly sets before our eyes seems impossible to achieve. For the sacred author, one only need flip through the pages of Scripture to be assured that, in the end, our faith will win out.
Of course, for the authors of the Christian Scriptures, "the Scriptures" are the Hebrew Scriptures. (Not before the third century would Luke's gospel, for instance, be put on a biblical par with Jeremiah's prophecies.)
Faith revolves around looking beyond our own lifetime. Speaking about Yahweh's promise to Sarah and Abraham that they one day would have "descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore," the Hebrews author states the obvious, ". . . These (Abraham and Sarah) died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised . . . ."
A priest friend once remarked that only his coal miner father's faith in a better future could explain why he so often went out on strike during the 30s and 40s. "He never did make up the money he lost by missing all that work," the priest said. "My dad put up with that nonsense for the sake of us kids, so we'd have a better life."
In one of my most commented-upon columns, I mentioned it takes five generations of monarch butterflies to complete the amazing migration cycle with which we're all familiar. No one butterfly ever sees more than a small part of the trip. Such a limited experience in an overall experience applies to humans as well as butterflies.
Though the Genesis authors knew nothing of an afterlife, the Hebrews author can judge Abraham and Sarah's actions from the viewpoint of eternity, and even look at Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac from the perspective of God raising Jesus from the dead. Time brings deeper insights.
No wonder the historical Jesus centered his ministry on the conviction that God is present and working in our lives. We're not only expected to trust that our actions eventually will achieve our goal, we're also expected to trust that God is doing things in our lives today on a level we might not be able to perceive. This latter kind of trust, as our Wisdom author writes, carried the Israelites into a "glory" they never could have imagined. More happened to the Chosen People than they ever anticipated.
Luke's community also fits in this category. Like all early Christians, they expected Jesus' quick return. But by the mid-80s, they began to suspect they'd be in the faith business for the long haul. This new dimension of faith demanded they acknowledge God working in their lives in a new way. God's not just going to be the force who suddenly appears to escort the faithful to heaven. God's already giving us a "kingdom" right here and now.
The problem is that we've constantly got to get rid of the things in which we've already placed our security in order to benefit from the new security of God's kingdom. It takes a lot of faith to do that.
Many of us would rather just hold onto the old vision, go around lamenting, "My master is a long time a coming!" instead of noticing and being grateful for the new way in which God is continually working in our lives.