Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2022

Jesus has given us a pattern for living and for loving.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian and Almoner

Sunday, 2nd October 2022 at 11.15 AM

This morning’s Gospel is about the seriousness of Christian discipleship, the weightiness of the task in hand. It is about faith and duty, and packs quite a punch in its concluding line. There is no real comfort or encouragement here beyond that sense of fulfilling what is right.The apostles ask Jesus, ‘Increase our faith.’ Now although this text seems to be taken from a rather disconnected series of sayings, it appears from the Gospel that the context of the request is that of learning how to forgive. The previous verses of Luke 17 are focussed on how and when to forgive. If repentance, then reconciliation – even if the person sins seven times, keeps on offending, and keeps on asking for forgiveness, you must forgive, says Jesus. It is in response to this challenging teaching that the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith.

The image Christ uses for what is possible with faith is a hyperbolic one: you can almost see him rolling his eyes as in response to their request he reflects on what is possible even with a small amount of faith! Even with a little, distilled, focussed faith, great things are possible. But the inference in the text is that the disciples don’t have this. On one level it’s quite a deflating story. The disciples need to learn what faith is, and why it matters. Faith may be gift, but it is also duty. And our participation in the gift is active rather than passive. In short, it is not enough to say ‘Lord give me a bit more of this and then it’ll be OK’; rather faith is gift and it is decision.

St Bonaventure was the thirteenth century saint who developed the Franciscan intellectual tradition. What St Francis of Assisi had felt and lived, Bonaventure thought. For St Francis, all was mystical wonder, love, contemplation; Bonaventure – known as the Seraphic Doctor, due to his angelic insight – knew that it was also essential to develop the mind. Theology needed to work with the heart and the gut. For Bonaventure, beauty is deeply related to truth, and therefore he draws a parallel from the act of making something when he discusses the pattern of a Christian life. “Every artisan” he writes, “aims to produce a work that is beautiful, useful and enduring; and only when it possess these three qualities is the work highly valued and acceptable. It is necessary to find three parallel elements in the pattern of life: ‘to know, to will, and to work constantly with perseverance.”[1]

Faith is gift. But it has to be worked out. I well remember as a University chaplain that in response to the question of religious affiliation, people would quite frequently say, “Well, you have faith, I don’t have that”, as if faith was a kind of vaccination you could get, or a visa to travel to a particularly remote country. Conversations would typically turn once it became possible to explain that faith was also decision. An act of the will, consciously engaging with the beauty of the gift. As Bonaventure has it, ‘to know, to will, and to work constantly with perseverance.’ Yes, faith is stirred within us, a gift; but it is a gift offered to all rather than a few, and demands the assent and engagement of the mind, the imagination, and the heart.

There is a beautiful tradition in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, that at the elevation of the Eucharistic Bread – the Host – the priest would gaze up at the host, and pray silently, echoing the words of the Apostle St Thomas, “My Lord and my God! Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” Faith is active and decisive, and needs to be renewed not only at every Eucharist, but when we get out of bed each morning. God will not annihilate our free will, which would destroy the very gift God has given us in creation; rather, we are called to partnership and to commitment, as we grow in the Body of Christ, the Church. Our minds, our imaginations, our sense of wonder, all playing their part as we learn again and again to choose the gift of faith, and create the conditions for its nurturing. Writing on the prayer of consecration in the Eucharist, and in particular at the moment when the priest elevates the Eucharistic Gifts for all to see, Adrienne von Speyr, the Swiss mystic and friend of von Balthasar, reflected, “to have faith is no longer simply to hold something to be true: faith becomes the eye that beholds the mystery.”[2] It is that mystery – the whole of Christ’s ministry – that will energise us for discipleship. Faith is how we see, how we understand. In the scene we heard today in the Gospel, the apostles want to use a shortcut: they ask Jesus for a little bit more faith so that they can attempt a bit more forgiveness. He tells them that they need a full blown mentality shift. That is not what faith is. We are active participants in receiving the gift, and as we receive it with open hearts and open minds, with the imagination and the intellect fuelled, we will discover not only that it is possible to forgive, but that we ourselves are forgiven in that act, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer.

The second half of today’s Gospel makes clear that both the injunction to forgive and the journey of faith are not simple suggestions, but are rather commands relating to duty. If you want to be in Jesus’s orbit, you have to take seriously the implications of what is always going on around him, as he liberates, heals, reconciles. Again, here is where the rubber of action hits the road of life. ‘We have done only what we ought to have done’, the slaves who have served the feast proclaim. This sounds like quite a harsh tale when heard in today’s context. But we easily miss a key component: in the ancient world, the slave belonged to the Master. There was a relationship of ownership. It is this image that Christ plays on. Later in the New Testament, St Paul will theologise how the Christian has had her or his ownership transferred to Christ, how this new life is the context for everything else, how the Christian individual becomes alive in a new way within the Body of Christ. Therefore, duty is something which emerges naturally from this relationship. ‘We have done only what we ought to have done’ – in faith, in forgiveness, in life-in-Christ. For all this, we need to decide. We need to commit, again and again. And that is the work of all our senses, all our faculties. The gift of faith is unlocked, activated, by our assent and by our commitment. That is the duty of those privileged enough to hear the Gospel and its relentless Good News: to know it, to will it, and to work constantly with perseverance, each day.

Jesus has given us a pattern for living and for loving. Learning this pattern is an act of faith. Each day, we will need to pray, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’

[1] St Bonaventure On the reduction of the arts to theology, tr. Zachary Hayes OFM, St Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 1996, p. 51

[2] Adrienne von Speyr The Holy Mass, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1980, p.61