Readings: 2 Timothy 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10
We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in our sight O God, our rock and our sustainer.
A few days ago I was sitting on the bench at the entrance to the Gardens, waiting to meet a parishioner. And this guy came up to me and said how much he liked the cross I was wearing and what faith was I?
And the conversation progressed – he and his mate asked if they might sit, and as they shared a wine out of the brown paper bag with each other, we discussed God, the church, religious hypocrisy, spiritual clarity and responsibility. They were seekers, explorers of spirituality, askers of the hard questions in the midst of, and shaped by their brokenness. I have to say it left me feeling humbled, a little confused and very aware of a special moment of encounter with God through these two men of faith.
Some might say their faith was not strong else they would live a better life.
Some might say their faith was not facilitated by doctrine and community – and therefore suspect.
Some might simply say – yuk – they smell bad and choose to walk away.
I say they were people of faith.
So how do we understand faith? Especially in the light of the Gospel passage today where we are told we only need faith as small as a mustard seed to tell a tree to uproot itself and plant its roots in the sea. Hints of miracles fed not by our efforts at building our faith but by God working with what we have.
As Paul says to Timothy …’not according to our works but according to [God’s] own purpose and grace. Paul also talks about the faith of Timothy’s family and that all faith is the gift of God.
When the disciples ask for more faith to counter the troubled times ahead they are acknowledging, understanding two things:
One; that faith is a gift that only God can give, certainly not a result of any work on our part to complete the ten-steps-to-greater-faith programme. Faith is not something that belong to us. Too often we talk about our faith in God, in Christ with the emphasis on the ‘our’. Faith is not a possession but is God at work in us.
Two; that, in faith, nothing is impossible for God.
Their conclusion therefore: more faith has to be the answer to their impossible future.
Well done, disciples. A B+ pass at least.
Jesus, however, sees a good teaching moment – and grabs it with both hands. Jesus sees they are still measuring their effectiveness as people of faith by how strong they think their faith is as a Christian. Jesus wants them to understand that their faith in fact needs to be ‘in’ Christ to do what is needed with whatever faith they have. Reformed theologian Margit Ernst-Habib puts it like this: When the disciples ask for greater faith, knowing that difficult times lie ahead of them, Jesus responds by asking for something small: a trusting faith the size of a mustard seed, so that the faithful follower might not look to [themselves], judging [their] own faith, relying on its strength or being scared by its weakness, but look instead at the one [they] follow. [They] know that [their] faith is in that sense not [theirs], but the work of the Holy Spirit binding [them] to Christ.’
Jesus is asking us to refrain from thinking that the volume, efficiency, and efficacy of our faith has a direct and measurable impact on the work of God in this world. It does not. Trusting faith as big as a mustard seed, when it is held in the hope of Christ, will equally move mountains and part the waters.
This understanding helps us unpack the somewhat disconcerting statements that follow – that of humbly accepting your lot in life, expecting no thanks or reward for doing the work that is, after all, expected of you. Rather we can begin to see that even the slave, the lowest and least, receive God’s grace in Christ as a gift and an extraordinary recognition of their worth. Human merits make no difference to God’s work in and through us, thanks be to God.
In a sense this frees us up from holding our precious faith in a bank vault, adding to it and building it up as we can. Instead we are encouraged to throw our tiny seeds around with gay abandon – never sure of the details of the harvest but knowing that in the love of Jesus, it will be abundant.
We do have to be careful reading this passage, don’t we? It is too easy to read it as Jesus is mocking the disciples, ‘If you only had some faith you would understand this…’ shaking his head at their lack of faith. Rather, it seems to me that Jesus is encouraging both his disciple of then and of now to realise that even ‘this much’ faith is enough – that we already have enough faith to do whatever is required of us.
Faith is a way of life, where we look out for each other, safe in the knowledge that, in the unfailing generosity of God’s grace, what we do and who we are will be enough.
As Paul encourages Timothy so may we encourage each other to trust in God through the love and faith that are in Jesus Christ.
As I remember those two men I met on a park bench and heard of their faith in Christ, as they earnestly sought to share their beliefs, we trust that God’s work is being done.
As we continue as community here in Opoho remembering to be content with what sometimes seems like a mustard seed of faith, we trust that Jesus Christ will flourish his word and work here abundantly.
As we remember all the different expressions of faith across cultures and countries and over time and the ways in which these communities express their faith (large or small) in Christ Jesus, we trust in the wonderful diversity of God’s people.
And as we gather round this table today, we trust that we who have faith in the living Christ, know the presence of God transcending all boundaries, one people together. Amen.