1Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
In the biblical passage this morning the disciples receive a couple of very difficult lessons from Jesus. First he says, woe betide that person who causes some little one to sin. Better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around your neck. (But who among us by poor example or incautious word has not, perhaps, had a bad influence on someone.) Or if someone sins against you seven times in a single day, but comes back each time and asks for pardon, a Christian must forgive the person. The disciples very understandably say, “Lord, increase our faith!” In the context, what they seem to be saying is, “Lord, what you’re asking is very difficult. We can’t do this on our own. We are going to need a lot more faith if we are to be expected to succeed. Lord, increase our faith.”
They seemed to think that if Jesus could somehow pump them up with more faith, then they would be okay – like pumping air into a deflated tire. But curiously, Jesus’ response is not that they need more faith. Even faith as small as a mustard seed would be sufficient to uproot mulberry trees and hurl them into the sea. Jesus, of course, is speaking figuratively here. He has no interest in uprooting trees and planting them on the ocean floor. The point is that the quantity of our faith is not the problem.
In fact, in the Gospel stories we see a fairly wide spectrum of faith. Jesus seems to have particularly prized the childlike faith of some of his followers. And to those he healed, he often said, “Your faith has healed you.” In other words, the miracles of Jesus were not entirely his; they depended to some extent on the faith of those who received the miracles. Jesus marveled when faith appeared in unexpected places: the Roman centurion who told Jesus he needn’t bother to come to his home, he could just send one of his emissaries to heal his servant. And Jesus said, I have not found anyone in Israel with such faith. Then there was the Canaanite woman. He put her off at first – perhaps just testing her – telling her that he had only come to serve the lost sheep of Israel, not the surrounding dogs, i.e. foreigners. But the woman persisted, showing great faith, and she won Jesus over. “Woman, you have great faith!”
But then Jesus would also be surprised by not finding faith where he most expected it. His home town of Nazareth rejected him, and he performed few miracles there. John the Baptist questioned him; the disciple Thomas doubted him; Peter cursed him; Judas betrayed him.
What should hearten us is that Jesus honored the faith of anyone who came to him – no matter how small their faith might have been – even a very emotional father who cried, “I believe, help though my unbelief.”
Believing the Faith
What does faith mean? Faith means, first of all, believing a certain set of data. Some churches make this fairly voluminous and exacting. But most agree that a Christian must at least accept the statements found in the “Apostles’ Creed.” One must believe that God is triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One must believe that God created the universe, that he so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son into the world to be a ransom for many. One must believe that the Holy Spirit is present in our lives, leading us to become the people that God wants us to be. One must believe in a resurrection and a final judgment.
Some people resist accepting all of this. One thinks of St. Augustine who was raised in a Christian home, but rejected Christianity. He then went on an intellectual odyssey that touched on all the other possibilities of his time: Neo-Platonism, Manichaeism, Astrology, agnosticism. But he found, one by one, that they were all false. Then he finally came back to the faith, writing in his Confessions, “You have made us to be restless, until we rest in you.”
More recently, C.S. Lewis also went on a journey of faith in which he sampled the various isms of his time. He recorded his experience in two books: The Pilgrim’s Regress, and Surprised by Joy. He records in the latter that when he had finally passed from atheism to theism to believing in the God of the Bible, “he was the most reluctant convert in all of England.” Perhaps he felt like Peter after Jesus had given a very difficult lesson and the crowds had abandoned him, and he asked his disciple, “And will you leave me, too?” To which Peter responded, “But Lord, we have no where else to go.” For some Christians faith comes about because of the lack of good alternatives.
This last week I read the spiritual autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, entitled Orthodoxy. He was a British apologist for Christianity, who also went on a spiritual odyssey, only to discover the lack of good alternatives to Christianity. Chesterton was a great big man of 300 to 400 pounds; he had pink skin, a great mustache, wore a pince-nez, and had an infectious laugh. He was a great debater in person and in print, and he took on the proponents of Christianity’s competitors in his day. He debated George Bernard Shaw, who argued that there is a “life force” that is leading man to become a “superman” – and later he would find much to like about the Nazis. He took on H.G. Wells, who saw all of human history as an evolutionary march to enlightenment – a view that the events of the 20th century would later refute. He took on Sigmund Freud, who believed that one day humanity would free itself from the repression of the subconscious – we’re still waiting.
Chesterton dismissed all of these things as hopeful fantasies, and history has confirmed his judgment. Instead Chesterton came to believe that such apparently reactionary and dismal concepts as “original sin” and “the last judgment” were the only things that really made sense of our world. He said that in his spiritual journey he was like a great explorer who had set out to discoverer new lands. And after sailing against wind and tide, and getting turned around, he came ashore to a new land, planted the British flag, and then discovered that he had landed in South England. The truth, it seemed, had lain all before him, but he hadn’t seen it. The Christian faith is like that. It is the great truth that lies all before us. But human beings are always exploring the newest isms, only eventually to find them bankrupt and then to rediscover their own true land.
Faith Means Trusting God
Faith, of course, is not simply a set of doctrines – the Faith. Faith also means believing in those doctrines. Or, in the case of Christianity, it means trusting in a person.
In 1999 John Kennedy, Jr., died on a flight from Essex County Airport, New Jersey, to Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy had attempted something very difficult: flying at nighttime when there was cloud cover or haze, so that he could not see either the sea or the night sky. In such conditions a pilot has to rely completely on his instruments. You might think that a pilot would know if his plane was level or not simply from the equilibrium he gains from his own inner ear. But this is not so. Without visual markers, such as the horizon, the mind can be easily fooled. If a pilot is off by even one degree on a downward trajectory, the plane will eventually crash. To avoid spatial disorientation, pilot training courses often have pilots wear a special mask, so that they can only see the instruments. Spatial disorientation may have been what happened to Kennedy. His instruments said one thing, but his senses told him something different. Despite the evidence of his own senses, he should have trusted the instruments.
Our relationship to God is like that. We are flying on a cloudy night when we can’t see land or sky, our own resources are inadequate, and our senses will deceive us. We need to trust God. Trusting God, of course, is not really like trusting an instrument panel. God is a person, and we can trust him as we get to know him as a person. When Moses asked who God was, he said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” In other words, he is a God with some history with us. And we know him supremely in the person Jesus Christ.
When I’m waiting for someone at a restaurant and the person is an hour late, if I know that the person is habitually late and untrustworthy, then I might be angry at the person, and I might loose all confidence in the person. On the other hand, if the person is always on time, if the person is always trustworthy, then I will have to think that something happened to delay the person from getting there: an accident or some unforeseen problem. In the same way, in our lives when something bad happens, we may not know why this thing has occurred, but we should know that God is still trustworthy, that there is some unseen reason that will explain everything. Scripture tells us again and again, God is not like man, who lies or changes. God is constant. His purposes do not change. He is utterly trustworthy. The author of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”
The place of doubt
The same author says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Because we believe in an invisible God and in things – past, present and future – that we cannot see, faith always contains at least an element of doubt. The theologian Paul Tillich has written, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” The reformed minister Frederick Buechner has written, “Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.” Some of our greatest Christian leaders have been people who have at times struggled with doubt. We have recently talked about Mother Teresa, but there are many others: such as Martin Luther who struggled against doubt and depression for much of his life. And there are many biblical characters who at times questioned and rebelled, but ultimately remained loyal: Adam, Jacob, Job, Jeremiah, Jonah, Thomas, Peter.
In many cases doubt can be a destructive force that leads a person away from faith. But in many cases doubt has led people to explore their faith, to investigate alternatives, to seek new understanding. The result has been that their faith has been strengthened, and all of us have been enriched. The church, it has to be admitted, has taken some foolish stands in the past: opposing medicines, supporting slavery, insisting that the earth is at the center of the universe. Often it has been the doubters who have called us to task and made us stronger. We should not fear coming to God with our doubts and questions. An atheist who doubts does not suddenly become a Christian. A Christian who doubts does not suddenly become an atheist. Such a person is not disloyal, only human.
One final word on faith. In our society, we usually think that a person must first study the evidence, analyze the facts, and then come to a conclusion about the truth. In Christianity this is also true to an extent. We do have to weigh the evidence before making a decision. The problem is that the evidence is never definitive, and if we wait for conclusive proofs, we will never begin the journey. To this problem Jesus said something very important: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). Jesus has reversed the way that we usually approach things. He says that we must first act, and then we will discover the truth. Christians through the ages have affirmed this: trust and obedience come first, and knowledge comes later. In other words, we get to know God only by doing his will.
Faith, then, by its nature requires us to act before we have full knowledge. The Good News is that it is not the quantity of our faith, but its quality that God values. And the quality that he values in our faith is that we trust him even though we don’t see, even though we grope in the darkness. Even faith as small as a muster seed is more than sufficient … if we are willing to act on it.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2008 Michael T. Parker