Saturday, October 1, 2016

Imagine That

Luke 17:5-6
World Communion / 27th Ordinary Time
October 2, 2106
William G. Carter

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The 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.”

It’s comforting to me that the very people around Jesus wanted more faith. Maybe we’d like to believe the first apostles were spiritual superstars, and according to some legends, they were. But that simply was not true. In a flash of true honesty, we hear the first followers of Jesus ask for more faith.

We don’t know what prompts the request, and we don’t really need to ask. Walking with Jesus could be really demanding. He told all those parables that sounded delightful, but made people mad. He placed high demands on those who were closest to him. And some days, he said things that pushed people to the limit.

Just listen to what he’s been saying right before this request. If someone hurts you, you must forgive them if they repent. If someone sins against you twice in the same day, and turns to make amends, you must forgive them. And if someone sins against you seven times in a single day, and turns back to you seven times, you have no choice: you must forgive. Any questions? Yes?"

"Lord, that’s impossible to do. Could you increase our faith?"

Perhaps it is a feeling of inadequacy. Travel with Jesus, watch what he does, listen to what he says, and you can begin to feel inadequate. "Be on your guard," he said. "Everyone stumbles when they follow me, but woe to you if you cause somebody who follows me to stumble. It would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck, and you were thrown into deep water."

Oh my goodness. I reflect on all the times that I led somebody astray or gave them bad advice, and I’ll be the first to cry out, "Lord, I need more faith."

It is difficult to be a Christian, to live like a Christian. It’s all too easy to give in to the cynicism of our surroundings. If there’s a dark cloud over your head, you might universalize the experience and declare the world is falling apart. Hope slips away. Anxiety becomes a habit. You are tempted to give up. The last act of defiance is a protest cry, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Anybody can make that request, especially those who were closest to Jesus. The Gospel writer calls them “apostles.” How interesting – that’s what the followers of Jesus were called after the resurrection. They were not merely disciples, because, technically speaking, disciples are students and tag-alongs.

Apostles, on the other hand, are those who are sent out on his behalf. Apostolos is a Greek term that comes from the flower garden; it's a hardy plant that sends out a runner. It extends itself outward, with strength and confidence. For Luke, the apostles are given the power to go out to preach and heal (9:1-6). And yet, these very same apostles come up short. Maybe it's too hard to heal, too difficult to preach. Maybe the world is doing everything it can to get them to stop. So they say, “Increase our faith.”

In a world like this, the fact that anybody believes in God is a gift. We take that for granted, but it's true. The apostle Paul once said, "Nobody can believe that Jesus is Lord, except by the gift of the Holy Spirit." Faith in Jesus is not a natural habit that we are born with. It's not like infant who was born already knowing how to suck her thumb. No, faith is something else. It is a gift, and we are always in the posture of receivers.

Henri Nouwen once wrote we get faith only when we unfold our clenched fists into open hands of trust. Faith is always a gift, given from the heart of God into our open hearts. That's why the apostles said, "Lord, give us more." Whatever the reason, they came up short. Their account at First Fidelity and Trust had been drained dry. They wanted the Lord to make a sizable deposit in their names. “We want more faith.”

What Jesus had to say, both to them and to us, is not a word that provides any immediate comfort. The apostles want faith, but it sounds like Jesus rubs their noses in their own inadequacy. "You know," he says, "if you had just a little bit of faith, you could work wonders. If your faith was about the size of a little bitty mustard seed, you could say, 'Jump!' And that mulberry tree over there with its extensive root system would leap into the air and land in the sea."

“If you had a little bit of faith,” Jesus says, "you could do that.” They wanted more faith, and Jesus says, "If you had any faith, you could transplant a tree to the Mediterranean."

Now, I don’t have to tell you that’s ridiculous. Who wants to plant a tree in the bottom of the ocean?  Elsewhere when Jesus talks like this, he talks of moving mountains. Take a second to let that sink in: who wants to move a mountain? I have been to the mountains of British Columbia; those mountains are so big, it might take 90 minutes to simply drive around one of them. To move it is an act beyond the limits of reason and a physical impossibility. And that is precisely the point Jesus is making.

You see, they are having a conversation here about what faith really is. Faith is not merely an anchor in distress or a feeling of security in times of change. It is not a shot of adrenalin when you're weak, nor an inoculation against doubt, nor even the comfortable assurance of a large crowd that agrees with you. In this text, faith is the ability to see something that the world regards as a fantasy.

Transplanting a deep-rooted tree? The world says you can’t do it. Moving a mountain? The world says that’s impossible. Yet as Jesus points us to the reality of God, he invites us to envision something new, to hear something unheard of, to discover a way out of darkness even when all the exit doors are locked. That’s the Gospel – it is possible to forgive and to keep forgiving. It is possible for the hungry to be fed. It is possible for the people who have been put down to be lifted up. These things are possible because true faith can see it.

Give us more faith? “You already have enough faith.” That’s what he is saying. Gospel faith is not something we store up and increase. It is a seed planted within us as we hear of a God who makes all things new. It’s a gift. And in this text Jesus says, "You have it." 

Let me explain. The Greek language has two different clauses that begin with the word "if." The first goes like this: "If I were you, and I'm not, then I would go to church more.” That kind of “if” expresses a condition contrary to fact (`if I were you` - and I'm not).

But the second kind of “if" is a phrase that expresses a condition according to fact. It goes like this: "If Jesus Christ is our Lord, and he is, then we had better join him in his work." The phrase in our text is the second type. You could translate it, "If you had faith (and you do), then you could transplant trees, move mountains, and raise the dead with a single word."[1]

You see, Jesus is not chastising the apostles for their shallow spirituality. Rather he affirms that they already have an ample supply of the very resource they seek. For whatever reasons, these apostles sense their spiritual inadequacy. Yet Jesus invites them to join in reciting the first creed spoken in the Gospel of Luke. It's the word that an angel said to his own mother: "With God, nothing will be impossible." (1:37) God has come to us in Jesus, and now the Gospel can continue to work the grace of God.

As Jesus said to the followers of John the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the sightless can now see, the crippled can walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22) Imagine that!

I have a friend who’s a poet. He says the human imagination is a muscle. It needs exercise to get it in shape. It needs to be utilized in order to be useful. And if our imagination can be rooted in our faith, then the work God does through us will only be limited by rule of God over us. If the society is mean-spirited, we can work for justice and compassion. We can raise our children in uncertain times. We can have hope for the world even if the people running for office act like nincompoops.

Because of God’s grace and power, we don’t have to be confined by the foolishness and cruelty of this age. Imagine that! We can live in the grace of Jesus Christ. And that seed of faith has already been planted in us.

So we come to a Table. Someone hands us a little piece of bread and we imagine it as a banquet. We glance around the room to see familiar faces, yet faith says all the saints of God are dining with us. We take the little cup of dark liquid, and we trust that in the blood of Jesus, all sin is forgiven and nothing shall keep us from the love of God, nothing at all. Just a little seed of faith is sufficient to welcome heaven here on earth, and that makes all the difference. And it’s enough to welcome the loving rule of God into every corner of our lives.

I know there have been times when I have prayed with the apostles, "Lord, increase my faith." But every time I do, I get the same answer. God says: "What are you going to do with the faith I've given you?"

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation:The Gospel of Luke (Westminster John Knox) p. 200

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