Faith is a funny word, because it has two different but related meanings. First, there is faith as content, the “what” of what we believe. In this way, we in the church talk about the “articles of faith”: the affirmations we make about the things we believe. So, for instance, in a little while we’ll say together the Nicene Creed, an ancient summary of Christian belief; in this same sense we say the Apostles’ Creed at baptism and at confirmation, as we reaffirm our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s in this sense that a New Testament writer like Jude will write about “the faith…once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). Faith in this sense is about the “what” of what we believe.
But there’s also faith as action, and it’s in this sense that St. Paul addresses us today. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), Paul says, telling the Christians in Corinth and us as well that faith is not the “what” but the “way” we do something, the means by which we walk. It’s less content than means of operation, the path by which we get from one place to another. Faith is how we “do” things in the church.
St. Paul’s use of the metaphor of walking is quite intentional here, because he’s talking about the journey that Christians take from this life to that of the life to come. While Christians are “in the body,” as he says, they are “away from the Lord,” but they’re always seeking to be “at home” with Jesus (2 Cor. 5:6). Though he’s always with them, no matter where they are, Christians do not “see” Jesus and his kingdom visible in front of them. In this sense, we’re not yet at home, but still on the journey.
I said the two senses of faith are related. Faith as content is what gives shape to the life of faith. If faith is how we walk, then faith is also how we know which direction to take. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, as it says in the Gospel of John (Jo. 14:6), which means Jesus is the content of the life of faith, and the destination itself.
On this journey to Jesus, faith is essential. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Without faith, without trust in God, we would not be able to navigate in situations where there is no clear path ahead. “For who hopes for what is seen?” (Rom. 8:24), St. Paul asks in the Letter to the Romans. That capacity comes from faith, our trust in the God who is, first of all, faithful to us. It’s that trust, that confidence, in the things that are not seen, that allows us to move forward.
Faith is not just how we do things in the church, but also the way in which we know anything about God, the great Unseen, or about the need for the journey ahead. It’s how we know about Jesus. Without faith we would be clueless. Faith is also God’s gift to us, making possible a life of faith. We do not produce that capacity on our own.
The life of faith is exactly that: a life that we live now. St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans about “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5), which gives us a sense of the practical contours of faith, its hard edges. We have to listen carefully, in Scripture and in prayer, as we seek to do the will of God. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 3:22), Paul says elsewhere in Romans, pointing toward the trust in God that is required for the Christian life. Faith is the way we live now, for the sake of the life to come.
If we walk now by faith, it is for the sake of the destination. In other words, we are on a journey to God. In Psalm 27 it says, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord…” (Ps. 27:5-6). Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). Words really fail when we try to picture the vision of God, the beauty and purity of the Lord. Not only do words fail, but our imaginations themselves fail, as we try to describe what it is to be at home with Jesus.
In the meantime, faith is how we get there. Faith is how we build capacity for the vision. Faith is how we enlarge our hearts and minds to receive it. Remember, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Faith is knowing Jesus and putting our whole trust in him, while we journey, by faith, to sight.