INCREASE OUR FAITH!
“You just gotta have faith.” That’s a popular sentiment in our society. By and large, people believe that faith is an important virtue worth having. The problem is that we get so caught up in determining what faith is, and if we have enough of it.
This is nothing new. Jesus’ own disciples struggled with the very same issues. They often heard Jesus talk about faith. They knew it was something they wanted, but they weren’t quite sure what it was, or if they even had it.
Sometimes, we feel the same way. We wonder if we are truly faithful believers, and deep-down we long for some tangible, outward proof to assure us that we have enough faith. So we say with the disciples, INCREASE OUR FAITH! We’ll look and see if that is an appropriate request. Lord-willing, we will consider these two points: 1) Why the Disciples Made this Request, and 2) How Jesus Responded.
1) Why the Disciples Made this Request
Have you ever felt completely inadequate for a task? Sometimes people ask things of us that we just don’t think we’ll be able to accomplish. For example, I remember the first time one of my nephews tried to ride a two-wheel bike. His mother was determined he would ride that bike. My nephew was uncertain, though. Time and again, his mom would show him what to do, but he was afraid. He didn’t think he could do it. And the more his mother demanded, the more impossible the task seemed. He was afraid because he was uncertain of his own abilities.
In the gospel for today, we find Jesus’ disciples experiencing the same fear and anxiety. The reason is that Jesus had just given them some steep instructions. He said, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves. I your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” Jesus gives two directives: don’t be a stumbling block to someone else’s faith, and, forgive others. Those are steep directives. And when the disciples looked at themselves they insisted that they weren’t up to the challenge.
Still, Jesus is serious about this command. These words apply to us as well. Our example, whether in word or deed, should not cause others to be trapped in sin. Now, Jesus admits that sin will be committed, but that does not mean his people are to take a careless attitude towards giving offense.
We live in a society that would like nothing more than for us to undermine our faithful walk with God. “C’mon! Everybody’s doing it!” That’s the great mantra, which bombards us everyday. From the television to the Internet, we find all sorts of traps that would ensnare us, and in the process, trap others. As Christians, we wear our faith on our sleeves. I’m sure it’s no surprise to our friends and neighbors that we are believers. Yet, when those same people see us saying or doing things that are contrary to the Christian faith, it will lead them to wonder about our sincerity, it will lead them to wonder about our Lord, and it may even lead them to do or say the very same things, since they saw us do it, they’ll assume it must be alright. Jesus’ warning hits home. He says, “Watch yourselves.” This requires faith.
Now, for the other side of the coin. Jesus says that when people are a stumbling block to us – when they are tempted by sin – we are to forgive them. When someone’s sin troubles us, it is never easy to forgive. But Jesus wants us to forgive and to do so even when it is difficult to do. And so in an attempt to casually listen to Jesus we say, “O.K. I’ll forgive this time, but once is enough.” Our Savior confronts that attitude straight on. Jesus mentions the hardest case of all – a fellow Christians who sins against me not only once, not only twice, but seven times, and all in one day! – Jesus says, “It doesn’t matter. If he comes back every time and says, ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me,’ forgive him.” What Jesus is telling us is that we are to be willing to forgive one another no matter how often we sin against each other.
When we consider Jesus’ words, we soon find that the disciples were a lot like us. They felt that if they could have more faith, they could be better disciples. We think like this too. We often look at our life and we are not pleased at what we see. We get this sense that we could be doing better. So, we say to ourselves, "If only I had more faith. Then I could be a better disciple." And we say to God the same thing the disciples said - Increase my faith!
It’s as if we say to Christ, “I’m not able to do all of this. You didn’t give me enough faith!” Notice how Jesus responds to his disciple’s request. He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” I don’t think this was the answer the disciples were looking for. We might have expected Jesus to pray for them and to ask God to grant them more faith. Instead Jesus gives them some irony to chew on. Jesus was implying that the disciples did have faith at least as small as a mustard seed - a mustard seed being the smallest of all seeds. It’s as if he were saying, "You do have faith. And even if it is small, you can still do great things!" In other words, "You already faith! You just aren’t using it!" The disciples were asking for the wrong thing. They didn’t need to increase their faith - they needed to increase their faithfulness.
Faith is a gift from God. He gives us the amount of faith that we need and it never runs out. To ask God to increase our faith is kind of an insult. He’s given us faith. The key is to go ahead and act in faith; to be faithful. To be faithful means to look to the Lord, to listen to his promises, and then to trust and obey him. If we spend too much time looking at the size of our faith we will be disappointed with what we see. The when the Lord urges us to be faithful – to act in faith – we’ll try to excuse ourselves from doing what the Lord asks, saying, “Oh! My faith is too weak!” Jesus emphasized that even a little faith can accomplish much.
2) How Jesus Responded
What Jesus is saying is that the quantity of faith is not as important as whether faith is present at all. It’s like being pregnant--either you are or you aren’t. There is no such thing as being a little pregnant. In the same way you either have faith in God or you don’t. If we do, then God will work amazing things in our lives. He will lead us to be faithful and forgiving of others.
Now, we need to keep in mind that faith is not something we can create in ourselves. Faith is created by the commands and promises of God. God creates and sustains faith through his Word and sacraments. Faithfulness to God is the result of our faith. We will guard our words and actions, so that we don’t lead someone else astray. We will strive to forgive those who sin against us. The reason is that we have faith. This is our way of responding to God’s great love for us.
This God-given faith is what enables us to be faithful; to live out the grace of God without regard for ourselves. Jesus illustrates this thought with a parable: “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?”
The simple point our Savior makes is that as long as there was work to be done –whether in the house or the field – it was the servant’s responsibility. He was to serve the master. The master owed him nothing. When we are faithful to follow God, we aren’t given a medal. When we do good works for God, it doesn’t help pay for our salvation. No, faithfulness is merely part of our job description. It’s expected. A servant is expected to serve. A Christian is a servant and therefore a Christian is expected to serve, to be faithful.
Yet, it is impossible to serve God as he expects. We are sinful and weak. That’s exactly the point Jesus wants us to take home with us. When we try to look to our lives as proof of God’s favor and think he owes us something, we’re tempted to fix our eyes on ourselves thinking we’ve been good enough or done enough to earn a reward from God. This is not faith because we can’t ever be sure that we’ve done enough to please God. Now faith is being sure and certain. It’s trust and confidence. A faithful Christian is one who admits, “God doesn’t owe me anything; in fact, I sin all of the time and deserve his wrath.” When we realize that, then grace becomes so precious.
In his grace God tells us that he loves simply because he loves us. We live by faith in that we believe this truth. God has proven his love for us. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I am a sinner. Jesus saved me! Those words work and strengthen faith. We have faith because God is faithful. He keeps his promises. Heaven is yours and mine! When we have the faith and confidence to trust God’s faithfulness, then we can dare to be faithful for him.
Our Savior urges us to simply use what we’ve been given. God’s grace is all-sufficient. There is no reason for excuses. Rather, there are only opportunities. God places us among each other to serve as a source of encouragement and forgiveness. We are all weak and sinful. We say and do things that only hurt each other and ourselves. God recognizes this. And that is where his grace enters the scene. His faithful love compels us to love each other, even we who are so unlovable. It’s faith in God’s grace that enables us to do such things. That faith may be tiny as a dust spore, but it is faith in a great and gracious Savior-God. A faith that rests upon this foundation is strong, because God is its strength.
“You just gotta have faith.” Those who say that often look to themselves as the foundation or basis for faith. That’s not the case, though. The source of our faith –whether great or small --is Christ Jesus. Yet, it is true. We must have faith. Jesus insists, “You gotta have faith,” but he doesn’t leave us to look ourselves for the source of that faith. Instead, Jesus completes that important sentence, proving his grace. He says, “You just gotta have faith, and I’ve given it to you!” Amen.