August 21 Worship

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, great is thy faithfulness. These words come from this morning's opening hymn, and beautifully reflect the theme of the day as we continue our Fruit of the Spirit sermon series. We also sang I Would Be True and, from the UCC's New Century Hymnal, It Is Well with My Soul. The scripture reading came from the seldom-visited Third Letter of John. 

Here's a video of the entire service (click on "read more"), and beneath that, a manuscript of today's sermon on faithfulness.

Fruit of the Spirit 7: Faithfulness

The fruit of the Spirit we’re looking at today is the seventh one: Faithfulness. Faithfulness is a concept we find throughout the scriptures, and it’s probably more important in the Old Testament than the New. There are actually at least a couple of words that might get translated as faithfulness, but the one I’m looking at today—the one found in Psalm 25:10, which we read in our call to worship—is‎ אמת‎‎. This word occurs well over a hundred times in the Hebrew Bible.

Obviously, this is a different language from what we find in the New Testament, but there are a couple of things I want to say about the Old Testament form of the New Testament word. First of all, it’s not always translated as faithful or faithfulness. In fact, in a lot of Bibles—especially older ones—it’s translated as true or truth. This difference is pretty easy to understand.

When some loud braggart tries to put me down
and says his school is great,
I tell him right away, ‘Now what's the matter, buddy,
ain't you heard of my school? It's number one in the state.'
So be true to your school.
—Beach Boys (1963)

When אמת is translated as truth, it’s not talking about truth vs. falsehood. It’s talking about loyalty or (of course) faithfulness. We can see this in the old-fashioned words of a wedding ceremony when the bride and groom say to one another, I pledge thee my troth—troth being just an archaic form of the word truth. And this word is found at the root of a word we still use: betrothed. Once you get to the state of being betrothed, you have stated that your days of playing the field are over: You’ve found the person you’ll be faithful to.

So when we think of this word, we probably tend to think of people being true to each other, or—in the case of the Bible—people being true to their God. But in the Old Testament, this word doesn’t really describe people all that often; it almost always describes God. It is God who is faithful to Israel.

This is very different from the idols of the people. Whoever gets their hands on a god made of wood or stone or precious metal can supposedly manipulate that idol to do whatever they want. The statue doesn’t care who’s praying to it or offering sacrifices to it. So if an army conquers a city and comes into possession of its gods, then those gods will do for them whatever its previous owners imagined they could do for them.

Israel’s God was very different. Israel’s God could never be represented by a statue or a picture or any other object. And so no one could possess Israel’s God. And Israel’s God couldn’t be manipulated, but was faithful to the people God had chosen. If a people worshiped an idol, then there could be distance between them and their god. But no distance could separate Israel from the one God. They could be carted off to the ends of the earth—and sometimes they were—but their God was no less faithful to them over the distance of a thousand miles than God was present right on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

So the foundation for the true meaning of faithfulness has been laid by Moses and David and the Hebrew prophets: God’s faithfulness is no less wondrous than God’s power, and no less radical than God’s love.

So now let’s move forward in time to the New Testament. And if various Hebrew words are translated as faithfulness in English, then we have the opposite problem with Greek. Here we only have one word, but it’s translated in two different ways. The Greek word is πίστις, and it’s found almost 250 times in the New Testament.

If it’s that common a word, then surely it must be one of the most important concepts in our religion. And, of course, it is. Its most basic translation is faith. It’s the word used in Ephesians 2:8—By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. The New Testament takes the Old Testament concept and kind of turns it around. God is still faithful, but in the New Testament we see the mirror image. It is our faith in this invisible God that we concentrate on. If God is radically faithful over distance and time, then we need to understand that it is our faith in God’s faithfulness that allows us to be in relationship with God. Because God is faithful, in God we trust. Remember that the next time you look at a quarter.

So faith is central to our whole belief system—our faith not only in the existence of a faithful God, but in the idea that God has come to us in the flesh to show us the meaning of life and love. That’s the most important way this Greek word πίστις is use in the Bible.

It’s used in another important way, though, and that’s the way we’re using it in the fruits of the Spirit. Paul reminded us in Ephesians 2 that faith is a gift of God. When we have faith in God, it’s not something we’ve just imagine, made up, or forced our brain to think. It’s something that God has planted within us. That sounds passive: We believe in something we can’t prove.

But there’s an active side to faith as well. And when faith is active, we can think of it in terms of faithfulness. I can have faith in God, but when that faith is put to the test, I can intentionally be faithful to God. Though faith may be a gift, we can actively choose to nurture it and to make it a priority in our life. And this is something we do every day, whether we acknowledge—or even know—it or not. Every day, at any moment of the day, I can choose faithfulness to God, or I can be more faithful to whatever’s most convenient, whatever I think I might enjoy more, or whatever I think will profit me more. Needless to say, faithfulness to God often comes in second, or third, or even further down on the list.

But just as with the other fruits of the Spirit, this isn’t just about me and God or you and God. Just as importantly this is about me and you, as well as us and them. And that’s really what that passage from the Third Letter of John is about. It’s about a dual faithfulness: Faithfulness to the truth (and remember how truth is one of the synonyms for faithfulness we find in the Old Testament), and faithfulness to other people—that is, faithfulness to being kind and generous and helpful when others need us. Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you (v. 5).

Whenever Paul tells us that God is faithful, he uses the same Greek word. And we, who were created in the image of God, are called to that same faithfulness, using that same word. We reflect God’s image whenever we are faithful to our partner, to our family members, or to our friends. We also reflect God’s image whenever we are faithful in our service, whether that’s service within our church community, or out there in the community. We reflect God’s image whenever we are faithful in our giving. We can be faithful in our speaking, but no less so in our listening. We can be faithful in our presence—whether that’s our presence in worship or our presence by someone’s side.

The fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness, and as creatures made in God’s image, there is within each of us the capacity to be faithful. This is as true of atheists as it is true of people of faith. But let us, as disciples of Christ, allow our trust in God to inspire us to be faithful toward each other, toward the people in the world around us, and toward the choices we make, the words we speak, and the deeds we do.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening Jr.