Readings: Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53
In a society where people are on the move in all kinds of ways—with frequent changes of jobs, careers, schools and homes—relationships too are often understood as things that will change. I know how I feel today but how do I know how I will feel next year? How do I know what the future will bring? I like being with this person now but how do I know that it will be the same in ten years time? We cannot know how we will feel next year nor do we know what the future will bring. It may seem foolish then to commit ourselves until death, to say we will be faithful to one person all our lives, to give ourselves without reserve to marriage, to religious life, to priesthood.
Foolish though it may seem, this is the kind of commitment for which the human heart longs, a personal relationship that will be complete, enduring, unique and faithful no matter what next week brings, no matter what the future brings. In sickness and in health, for better, for worse .... There is a nobility in these phrases, an ideal to which everybody responds. Somehow, deep inside, this is what we really want even when we sympathise with those who have found it too difficult.
Another word for it is ‘truth’. Moses gives us an identikit picture of God’s character in Exodus 34.7 which includes the phrase ‘rich in kindness and faithfulness’. This phrase finds its way into the gospel of John as ‘grace and truth’: though the law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ (John 1.17).
Shakespeare is in the same general area with his famous piece of advice, ‘to thine own self be true’. To be faithful means to be true to my relationships. To be true to myself means to honour my commitments. Why? Because my commitments are central to the truth of who I am. The ways in which I have promised to be faithful make me to be the person I am. To be faithful then is to be true to myself.
But to make that kind of commitment in the first place we need to look beyond ourselves, not just to the other person or persons to whom the commitment is made, but to God, the source of all truth. There is a link between faithfulness and faith. We cannot be faithful if we do not have faith because it is faith which enables us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our companions and partners, to God who is faithful love.
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of this gift of faithfulness. We are to keep running steadily in the race we have started (Heb 12.1). Yes, I would like to do that. But how can I do it, if it gets very difficult, if it seems impossible and I want to turn back, if it seems I may have made a mistake. Hebrews continues: let us not lose sight of Jesus who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.
We are accustomed to understanding the solemn commitments of Christians as sacraments, not just legal or social arrangements but religious undertakings too. God is a party to these kinds of commitments. I do not mean that God is standing over us like some judge or policeman insisting that we honour our contracts. What I mean is that the nature of the God in whom Christians believe is ‘faithful love’. This is what God is. Kindness and faithfulness. Grace and truth. God is the one to whom we look for the grace to be true to ourselves because God can only be true to Himself.
Jesus kept going, through suffering and even death, because he kept an eye ‘to the joy which was still in the future’. None of us is spared anxiety in deciding, tedium in persevering, temptation to turn aside, worry about the future, questions about the past. To keep an eye to the joy which lies in the future means to keep God in mind, the source of all grace and the goal of all desire.
I do not mean that when times are tough we should simply grin, bear it and wait for better days. What I mean is that in striving to be true to ourselves we must never forget who we are, children of God, followers of Jesus Christ, building with him through our choices and commitments a civilization of kindness and faithfulness, of grace and truth, of love and justice.