Sermon - 2nd October 2016
Trust in Faith: Faith in God
Scripture - 2 Timothy 1:6-10; Luke 17:5-10
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today’s Gospel reading begins with these words: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Make our faith greater.’” But what is ‘faith’? The dictionary defines ‘faith’ as the “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”; and, in the context of religious ‘faith”, “strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof”.
The apostles’ wish seems simple and straightforward enough. Or is it? Our dictionary definition of ‘faith’ mentions ‘complete trust’; and ‘trust’, by definition, is the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something”. All relationships are based on trust. Our individual life experiences form the extent to which we will trust others. Some of us are more willing and open to trusting others; others of us are more wary. If you have ever owned a pet, animals are similar.
Some of you may have had the experience of taking part in the team-building activity called Trust Fall, where team members take it in turns to fall backwards from a height, trusting that the others will catch them. Through this, and other activities, their trust in each other increases.
So if faith is our trust in God, how can we increase our faith? Jesus’ answer to the apostles’ question is not one that makes sense or is easy to understand. His allusion to faith as being like a very small seed is, on one hand, comforting if we liken our own feelings of insufficient faith to the tiny seed; however, Jesus’ next statement about ordering trees to move themselves and throw themselves into the sea is downright cryptic. In Matthew’s version of this exchange, Jesus also mentions faith moving mountains. Yet, history is not filled with recorded events of transplanted trees and mountains. Jesus was speaking figuratively.
But if He was speaking figuratively, what did He mean? What is the practical outworking of His teaching on faith? Firstly, we need to see the connection and similarity between the trust we have in others in our own relationships, and that our faith in God is another relationship.
Sadly, many of us have learnt from our previous church experiences and life experiences that we are insufficient: some of us bring the scars of a Bible that has been misused on us, particularly as LGBT people. Many of us have the experience that Christianity is all about guilt. These perceptions stand as barriers between ourselves and the God who loves us.
We also project our human values of materialistic success into the spiritual: the one with the bigger house, the flashier car, the more well-paid job; and we extend the analogy… the church minister or the elders must have more faith and are better Christians! No! Jesus’ comparison with the tiny mustard seed is not about the size of faith: it is simply this – your faith, whatever your perception of it, is enough.
You may have been told that your situation is because of your lack of faith. No! You may have been told that your continued illness is because of your lack of faith.
No! You may have been told that your non-straight sexual orientation or transgender is because of your lack of faith. No!
Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community in France, wrote these words about faith:
“Wherever you are on the earth, you wish to perceive the mystery that lies at the heart of your heart: do you sense within you, even fleetingly, the silent longing for a presence? This simple longing, this simple desire for God, is already the beginning of faith.” (in: “No Greater Love: Sources of Taizé”, 1991)
In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ answer continues, but it seems to take an unexpected turn when He speaks of how a servant or slave would expect to be treated at the end of the work day. What does He mean? The easier part to understand is who is the master, and who is the servant: Jesus is the Master; we are the servant. And maybe we feel uncomfortable with these labels in the 21st century. But what has this got to do with faith?
Let us return to the comparison of our faith or trust in God with our human relationships. Whether it is a friendship, romantic relationship, work place or social group, it is our shared interests or goals that bind us together. What is the work that Jesus, our Master, has for us, His servants, to do?
The answer to that question is more straightforward: our work is to do the work He did, summed up in the Commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” This has its practical outworking in meeting people at their point of need, whether it is helping the poor find food and shelter, being a listening ear to those in pain and distress, being alongside those who are ill and offering them practical support, speaking out against injustice, being a voice for the voiceless and standing up for what is right.
When we do these things, we do the same things Jesus did; our relationship with Him deepens, and affirms our faith. But in all of this, we need to remember that we are only doing what Jesus did, He who is the Servant King. Each week, at Communion, we recall the Last Supper. Sometimes, the prayer we use at Communion recalls how that meal began, when Jesus knelt and washed the Disciples’ feet, saying “I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)
Nevertheless, we should be careful not to fall in to the trap of thinking that doing more of such things for others somehow causes to have more faith in the same way that working more might give us more earthly wealth. Also, we maybe have had the experience of someone – even ourselves - trying too hard at a relationship. It does not work. If we go down this path, we return to the way of destructive guilt and self-imposed feelings of inadequacy. It is not about our human efforts.
And so, to the reading from St Paul’s second letter to Timothy, written from St Paul’s prison cell in Rome; however, Biblical scholars think that the book may have another author, given the stylistic and linguistic differences and different theological emphases. Who was Timothy? He was a young man from Lystra in modern-day Turkey who went with Paul on his missionary journeys: they parted company when Timothy became the leader of the church in the key Greek/Roman city of Ephesus. The key theme of the two letters to Timothy is keeping from straying from the apostles’ teaching.
The opening phrase in our reading from 2 Timothy:
“I remind you to keep alive the gift that God gave… for the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.” (2Ti 1:6-7)
Our source of faith is not our human will or strength, but God’s Holy Spirit, and we learn that this gift comes to us through God’s grace:
“He saved us and called us to be his own people, not because of what we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace.” (ibid. v9)
Grace is another one of those words which is used in churches all the time, but let us take a moment to think about what grace means. Often heard alongside ‘grace’ is the word ‘mercy’. I once heard a preacher explain these words in a very simple and straightforward way.
Mercy is not receiving what we do deserve.
Grace is receiving what we do not deserve.
We cannot make ourselves have more faith; we cannot do more good works to gain more faith. All we can do is to follow Jesus. We only have to take a brief look at the news to see that our world is full of pain and brokenness, because of human greed, selfishness and wrong-doing. The Bible has a short, simple word for this: sin. Instead of receiving our just rewards for sin, God shows us mercy… we do not receive what we do deserve.
God sent Jesus to teach us how to live, but He was more than a moral, ethical teacher: He came to die for us all, for all of our sins. In this way, God shows us grace… we receive what we do not deserve.
What do we receive by grace? What is it that we receive which we do not deserve? From verse 10 of our reading:
“[Jesus] has ended the power of death and through the gospel has revealed immortal life.” (ibid. v10)
This is the most amazing, most exciting and most important truth. Surely, we cannot keep this hidden; however, ever fewer people identify as Christian. The world in the past 70 years is so very much different from the world of the first 1900 or so years of Christianity. In other parts of the world, other world faiths such as Islam, Judaism are still passed down the generations; however, in the Western world, the religious faith passed down the generations no longer happens: individuals seek out their own path of belief, or none. Depending on our age, some of us may have been taken to church by parents or grandparents, and this began our faith journey which has brought us here today.
But how do we reach those who know nothing of Jesus? How can we bring them closer to the amazing truth: “[Jesus] has ended the power of death and through the gospel has revealed immortal life.”
We do this by doing what Jesus did. In verse 8 from our reading:
“Do not be ashamed, then, of witnessing for our Lord…”
In closing, a reflection on faith by Brother Roger of Taizé:
“You want to follow Christ, and not look back: will you dare to put your trust in the Gospel time and time again?
“Will you keep setting off anew, drawn on by the One who walks quietly beside you, never imposing Himself? The Risen Christ is present within you, and goes before you on the way.
“Will you let Him place a source of refreshment in the hollow of your being? Or will you blush with confusion, and even say: I am not worthy to be loved by Him?
“In the silence of your heart, He whispers, ‘Don’t be afraid; I am here.’
“Recognised or not, the Risen Christ remains close to every person, even those unaware of Him. He is there in secret.
“A fire burning in the human heart, a light in the darkness, He loves you as if you were His sole concern. He has given His life for you. That is His secret.” (“No Greater Love”, 1991)