WHAT IS FAITH?
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON October 3rd, 2010
Luke 17:1 “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’”
What is faith? In terms of the apostles’ question to Jesus, it seems to be a gift, a strength, or perhaps, even a power they were after. Were the 12 asking for more of this gift, this power?
By contrast, in 2 Timothy 1:1-5, we have a different take on faith. Here St. Paul is writing St. Timothy, the young minister who he had trained. St. Paul indicates, not only that St. Timothy had a sincere faith, but that it had been given to him by his mother and grandmother. In this case, faith is not a power given, but something handed on to him. In fact, Timothy seems to be a third generation Christian, and his faith has been taught and shown by his family – particularly his mother and grandmother.
In this case, it is about what Timothy believes and how he practices that faith. So in these 2 readings we have two understandings of faith. Firstly, the faith we believe. Secondly, the faith that does something for us, or for others.
The faith we believe, as in the case of Timothy, is summed up in the Creeds, especially the Nicene Creed, which we say Sunday by Sunday. This faith has been handed on to us, generation after generation – just as Timothy’s faith was handed on to him by Lois and Eunice.
On the other hand, the faith that does something is a different matter all together.
Hebrews 11:1 states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The ‘conviction of things not seen’ are the things we believe – like the Creeds. Faith that is ‘the assurances of things hoped for’ is not quite the same. That faith is the faith we have when we pray. We pray for so many things – some of them come from our hearts, sometimes, in desperation. We hope our prayers will be granted. Sometimes that means praying for a miracle. Ultimately, we know that it’s in God’s hands. Sometimes the answer may be, ‘no,’ or ‘not yet.’
Take for instance the prayer of the prophet Habakkuk (1:1): “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and thou wilt not hear?” That’s when we need faith that is best described as hope and courage.
I think of our parishioners who have experienced sickness and death of loved ones, or the faithfulness of those who sit at bedsides, offering silent prayers, and sometimes tears. In a society that demands instant gratification, prayer requires patience. During its course, our faith can be tested.
There is a narrow gap between the faith that hopes for something and the faith that believes something. Sometimes, when our hope and our prayers are disappointed, the faith we believe can seem empty and even hopeless. In their disappointment, some people stop going to church.
I’m not sure what sort of faith the apostles were talking about when they said to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Perhaps it was faith to perform miracles, or to be wonderful preachers, or just to be better apostles, to performd the ministry that Jesus had laid upon them.
Whatever they wanted, Jesus’ answer is fascinating. He says their faith can be as small as a mustard seed, but it could uproot a sycamore tree. Then Jesus tells a story about a slave being content to serve, doing ordinary things and tasks for his master. On the one hand Jesus seems to be saying:, be content with what you have, just get on with doing your job. On the other hand, he seems to be saying to the apostles: your faith is already enough, no matter how small it is. This seems to be the message he gave to the apostles – and also to us.
What is interesting is the comparison of a mustard seed and a sycamore tree. A sycamore tree is grand, upright, and beautiful in its own way. Perhaps, you’ve seen the result of mustard seeds here in Southern California – planted by the Franciscan missionaries centuries ago. The point is not just that the mustard seed is small, but what sort of seed it is.
Jesus spoke about a mustard seed on another occasion, when He told a parable about a man who planted a mustard seed in his field. It was a symbol of the Kingdom and its growth. When Jesus told that parable, it was shocking to the crowd – a shocking image of the Kingdom -for in Jewish law, it was illegal to plant a mustard seed. That’s because the mustard plant was actually a weed. It grew, and spread, and took over, killing other plants. Of course, that’s a good image of the spread of the Kingdom – it just keeps going. But that image did not conform to Jewish law. It was almost an unclean image.
I’m sure the Pharisees that heard that heard that parable would have rather he used the image of a rose bush, or something beautiful like that. But no, Jesus chose a weed. What if I said the Kingdom of Heaven is like Cannabis!!!! Some people may think that Cannabis is a part of heaven – but it’s a strange analogy that Jesus gives of heaven.
Nothing Jesus says is without meaning or teaching. At the time of Jesus, Israel was waiting for the Messiah and the re-establishment of the kingdom of David. The image we find in scripture for this kingdom is the cedar tree – the grand tree that Solomon brought from Lebanon to adorn his temple. It was an image of strength.
The Pharisees wanted a strong kingdom, and a ruler that would expel the Romans. That is the image of the Kingdom that people had in Jesus’ time.
Maybe that’s what the apostles had in mind when they asked Jesus to increase their faith? To make them strong like the cedar tree. The authorities were not looking for a weed as an image – and neither were the apostles. It was not only puzzling, it was almost offensive.
Like all those Old Testament prophets, Jesus was being a prophet. From the small seed of a despised plant, an excluded plant, Jesus says growth will come – like the Kingdom. The Kingdom will come from a small seed. The Kingdom will spread from a small band, who stand before him, asking him to increase their faith. He says to them: you are like the mustard seed. Not only do they have enough faith, says Jesus, they are enough for God’s purpose. And so are we.
We need to see this as a prophecy for ourselves. Big things come from small things. The Kingdom will grow in us and through us if we are people of faith.
That is why faith is connected to the mustard seed by Jesus. As small and insignificant as we might think we are, we are already big enough in faith. Jesus is telling us that faith is like a mustard seed – and the Kingdom will spread by our faith, just as it did by the faith of the apostles.
Let the final word about faith come from the Prophet Habakkuk (2:4) “But the righteous shall live by his faith.”
That is what we are called to do, to live by our faith – and to live in faith.