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, do we begin to hear an emphasis on faith's content instead of faith's actions.

So doctrine and dogma had not yet crept into Sunday's three readings.

Faith wins

In the second reading (Hebrews 11:1-2,8-19), 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 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" means the Old Testament. 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 author of the second reading states the obvious: 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 1930s 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."

I have mentioned before that 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's raising Jesus from the dead.

Time brings deeper insights.

Trusting God

No wonder the historical Jesus centered His ministry on the conviction that God is present and working in our lives (Luke 12:32-48). We're 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.

That latter kind of trust, as the author of the first reading writes, carried the Israelites into a "glory" they never could have imagined (Wisdom 18:6-9). More happened to the Chosen People than they ever anticipated.

Early Christians expected Jesus' quick return. But, by the mid-80s, they began to suspect they would be in "the faith business" for the long haul. That new dimension demanded they acknowledge God's working in their lives in a new way. He is not just going to be the force who suddenly appears to escort the faithful to heaven; He's already giving us a "kingdom" right here and now.

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.

(8/9/07)