Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 3 October 2010
3 October 2010 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster
Readings: Hab 1: 1-4; 2: 1-4; 2 Tim 1:1-4; Luke 17: 5-10
The Gospel reading this morning began with ‘the apostles’ saying to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith’. The answer they are given is very strange: ‘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.”’ If I had asked – as we have just asked in the Collect - for the Lord to increase my faith and I got that answer, I would think it was no answer at all. Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He says, ‘If you had even the tiniest bit of faith, you could do the most extraordinary things.’ How does his answer in any way help to increase my faith? I’ve been puzzling about this through this week, since I began to reflect seriously on this gospel reading.
I think there are three clues in this text, and some more in the reading we had for our epistle. The first is the use of the word ‘apostles’ where we might expect to hear about ‘disciples’. An apostle is somebody who is sent with a message to communicate. Luke uses the words ‘apostle’ and ‘disciple’ interchangeably. In chapter 6 of Luke’s Gospel, we read, ‘During those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.’ (12-13). Later on (chapter 10), we read of seventy who were ‘sent on ahead of Jesus’ to preach the gospel. It must have taken a lot of faith, a lot of courage to preach the message of Jesus when people had hardly even heard of him: no wonder the earliest followers of Jesus asked for the gift of faith – they were being challenged to do things way outside their comfort zone, things that led them into difficult and dangerous situations, things that might cost them their life. We are told the seventy came back rejoicing, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ Jesus responded, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.’ (10:18-19)
The second clue to the meaning of our gospel text is that the Greek can be translated both, ‘Increase (or add to) our faith’ and just ‘Give us faith’. Both make sense. If the request is simply, ‘Give us faith’, perhaps Jesus’s answer is not so odd. Maybe he is saying, ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can do extraordinary things. … I sent out seventy of you, and you have already done extraordinary things, so you must have at least a tiny bit of faith.’ That would be a very clear answer to the request, ‘Give us faith’. Jesus is saying: ‘You have what you asked for, but you haven’t noticed’. Perhaps he is also saying, ‘Don’t get hung up on how much faith you have or haven’t got. You’ve got some, even if it is only a tiny bit, and that’s enough for the Lord to work miracles through you.’ I’m not sure about this, but I think it’s one way of interpreting what Jesus says.
A third clue about how to read this text is the fact that Jesus is called ‘The Lord’, as he frequently is throughout Luke’s Gospel. We are so used to this that we are no longer surprised by it, but it’s an extraordinary title for him to have. In some contexts, the Greek word for Lord is simply the title for an important person, somebody you would call ‘Sir’. In other contexts, this word ‘Lord’ is the word you would use for an earthly ruler. Caesar is called Lord. In other contexts, it is the word you would use for God. God is the Lord. So, here we have at one level a request – a naïve but sincere request from the disciples to Jesus. At another level we have a request from the apostles to the Lord. It’s a request which any Christian, sent out into challenging and sometimes hostile world, could make to God in prayer: ‘Lord, please give me the faith I need to do your will.’
I want to suggest that this story, which is told rather differently in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, makes a lot of sense if we read it at two levels. There is the level of the disciples coming to Jesus asking for strength to fulfil the tasks he is giving them. But the story has been remembered and handed down within the Church. Now it is a story for the whole Church to tell the whole world: it is a story for a faithful, apostolic church, sent to preach the gospel to all nations. At a second level, this is a story about the need for faith in an apostolic Church.
Here, our second reading we heard helps us. Paul writes to Timothy, ‘I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.’ When Paul talks about faith being passed on from generation to generation, he uses a lovely word: the faith first ‘took up residence’ – the idea of living in a house is there – in Timothy’s grandmother Lois, before being passed on to his mother Eunice and now to Timothy. What has happened in Timothy’s family has also happened in the whole church. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, the Church is called ‘the household of faith’ (2:19). The laying on of Paul’s hands had been important for confirming Timothy’s membership of the household of faith. Now, in testing times, Paul wants him to rekindle the gift of God – the gift of the Holy Spirit – so that he has power and love and self-discipline for the tasks ahead.
Paul’s approach gives us an answer to the prayers for faith we all make from time to time. He advises Timothy, ‘Don’t cut yourself off from the family of Jesus, stay within the household – but be outward looking’. Within the household, amongst your sisters and brothers and elders in the faith you will be strengthened. The faith that keeps you within the household, even if it’s a tiny as a mustard seed, is vital, - together we can uproot the dead wood of human hatred and bitterness, and cast it into the sea. Together we can move mountains. Or, at least, the Lord can move mountains through us’
Which brings me back to the second part of our gospel reading. When extraordinary things happen, as in the life of the Church they surely will, we shouldn’t get overexcited and say what fantastic faith we now have. The faith that moves mountains is the faith we share, the faith of the Church, the faith that now ‘lives’ in us. I guess we shall always feel, when we look at ourselves, that we haven’t really got the faith of a mustard seed. When Jesus is asked about faith he sidesteps the question, leaving us to work out an answer for ourselves. The Gospel goes on to talk about obedience. Within the household of faith, we are there to do what the Lord asks of us, we are there to serve. As Jesus puts it, ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’ Rather than fussing about how much faith we have or haven’t got, we can draw on the faith of the apostolic Church to which, through God’s grace we belong, as we got on with the business of faithful Christian living.