Let’s face it, some of the things we ask of Jesus must lead him to think, “Really!?!
When we ask for a convenient parking space because we’ve over-scheduled ourselves, or we plead with him to pass a test for which we’ve scarcely studied, or promise to do better if we just get away with a repeated stupidity this last time, a little frustration from Jesus seems completely understandable.
But asking for more faith seems like a really Jesus-y request. That’s why Jesus’ response to his disciples in today’s Gospel can leave us a little puzzled. (Luke 17:5-10)
Instead of giving them the faith he wants them to have in the first place, he tells them what even a nanogram of faith could do, if they actually had a nanogram of it..
As if that weren’t bad enough, Jesus goes on to tell a parable whose point initially appears to be something like this: Don’t get all puffed up about the good you do. You’ve only done what God expects. There’s no extra credit for that.
Jesus has a radical lesson for his disciples–for us–in all of this. The life of faith is apparently not what we often think it is. Let’s take a closer look at the life of faith by exploring three questions:
First, what is faith?
Second, how does faith shape our behavior?
Finally, why does faith lead to a life of service?
Who, Not What
Now for the first question: What is faith?
In the movie “The Princess Bride,” the intellectually arrogant character Vizzini keeps saying that some future turn of events would be “inconceivable.” After a series of these inconceivable events in fact happens, his companion Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
That’s exactly what Jesus is saying to his disciples when they say, “Increase our faith!” Faith is not what the disciples think it is. And maybe it’s not what you’ve been thinking it is.
To get Jesus’ point, you have to place the disciples’ request in its broader context.
Jesus has been setting some pretty high standards for what it means to follow him. We’re responsible not only for our own behaviors but also for the kind of example and moral leadership we provide for others. He says, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:2)
As if that weren’t tough enough, Jesus goes on to make strenuous demands about forgiveness. He says, “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4)
In other words, repeat offenders get treated just like those with a first time offense. To paraphrase John Claypool, every second chance we give to somebody has to be just as good as the first chance, and we can never refuse a second chance.
This kind of life is a tall order. But the disciples utterly misconstrue the nature of the tall order. They hear Jesus demanding of them a life of superior moral achievement.
So, when they ask him to increase their faith, they’re asking something like this: Give me the strength and the self-control to do the things you command so that my moral achievements will win your approval.
In other words, they have completely missed the point.
Faith is not a power we possess to do God-pleasing things. Instead, faith is a relationship of radical dependence upon God in Christ through which God will do mind-blowing things.
Faith begins with our admission of radical powerlessness. As powerless, we give up the sad game of trying to win God’s approval and rely utterly upon his grace and mercy.
People of faith do not necessarily possess a morally superior will or a more theologically advanced mind or a purer soul. The quality of their life or mind or spirt does not make God owe them some reward.
On the contrary, people of faith have surrendered. What defines us as people of faith is neither the content of our religious documents nor the moral codes to which we adhere. Our status as people of faith is not the content of what we think theologically or morally, but rather upon whom we rely for the meaning and worth of our whole lives.
And this brings us to our second question: how does faith shape our behavior?
Some churches assume that what we believe is where everything starts. Along this view, we become members of a church by professing a creed or a confessional document or even a short statement like “Jesus is Lord.” What we do then follows from the ideas we accept as true.
That’s not really how it works for Jesus. I do not recall a story in which Jesus first interrogates a person about their theological concepts and then accepts them or rejects them as disciples. Jesus just says, “Follow me.”
He invites people into relationship with him. He doesn’t worry about what they think or how they’ve been acting up until that point. He just extends the invitation to follow him. To learn to rely on God like him, to serve others like him, to eat like him, to laugh like him, to weep like him, and to love like him.
Twelve Step Programs have lots of pithy sayings, and there’s one that captures what Jesus offers his followers. Fake it until you make it. In other words, hang out with Jesus and act like he does even though it’s not exactly natural for you and you have no idea why he does the crazy stuff he does.
How we think about things and how we feel about things will eventually catch up to our behavior, and our behavior is initially shaped by following along with Jesus and trying to do things the way we see him doing them.
For us today, that means that we commit to a Jesus-following community, a specific congregation. We participate in the ancient practices of worship and service and hospitality even before we know what in the world we’re doing. And in that stumbling along our very heart and soul are shaped by God’s own mission of reconciliation.
That is in fact how we become people who forgive and reconcile and welcome strangers. We do not see ourselves as moral and spiritual superstars. We are fragile, imperfect people through whom God operates. He works through us because we have given up on the toxic myth of going it on our own. We aren’t hung up on getting what we deserve. We’re cockeyed with joy from living on the basis of the undeserved gift of God’s love for us.
Servants of All
And that brings us to our final question: why does faith lead to a life of service?
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that following him means to embrace a life of servanthood. The particulars of the parable he tells about the master and the servant translate poorly into our historical context, but it’s essential message rings perfectly true.
That message is this: followers of Jesus always ask, “What is the good I can do?” instead of, “What’s in it for me?” We don’t ask the former questions because we fear that the latter one gets us in trouble with Jesus.
Instead, we no longer feel the need prove ourselves or increase our own worth. Once we recognize that Jesus’ love is a completely free gift, and that our value derives eternally and infinitely from his love for us, we are freed from the pressure of trying to measure up.
Likewise we are free from the bondage of assessing whether or not someone else is worthy of our service. We who have received mercy know that we never merited Jesus’ service to us. He poured his life out for us even though we could never and will never earn that kind of extravagant gift.
And so, following Jesus means to serve others because we have been served, because Jesus yearns to serve them, and never because we have deemed them worthy of our service.
We serve poor because they are poor, and God wants to serve the poor.
We feed the hungry because they are hungry, and God wants to feed the hungry.
We shelter the homeless because they are homeless, and God wants to shelter the homeless.
Just as Jesus died for us because we were dying, and God wants to give eternal life to the dying.
Being people of faith means to make ourselves available to God. We wait to be swept up into his mission of healing and redemption and reconciliation. We don’t seek to live like Christ to win God over. We begin to live like Christ because God is winning the world over through us.
An abbreviated version of this sermon was preached at St. Paul’s, Winnfield.