Collect for Trinity XVIII
ALMIGHTY God, you have built your Church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. Join us together in unity of spirit by their teaching,
that we may become a holy temple, acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Jeremiah 18, Vv 1 - 11
Philemon Vv 1 - 21
St Luke 14, Vv 25 - 33
I take as a text a few words that we heard read in our Gospel proclamation; ‘The Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith”.’ We heard the latter five of ten verses that Saint Luke put into his Gospel at the beginning of chapter seventeen between the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (sometimes called Dives) and the miracle of the healing of the ten lepers. In these few verses we learn a lot about faith. The disciples who came to Jesus with this request obviously had a basic understanding of ‘faith’ – they knew what it was and they knew they had it; they just thought they ought to have more of it! ‘Lord, Increase our Faith.’ Luke is the only evangelist to claim to put his writings into what he calls, ‘an orderly account.’ We may assume from this assertion in the opening verses that there is some semblance of chronology in his Gospel, perhaps more so than in others. If this is indeed the case then these same disciples would recently have listened to parables about The Great Banquet, the Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The Lost Son, The Shrewd Manager (who we heard about from our preacher two Sundays ago) and the Rich Man and Lazarus. All this happened just before they made their request - ‘Lord, Increase our Faith.’ On the strength of this analysis we should, perhaps, ask why the disciples thought that they wanted their faith increased. Did they think that the shepherd in the Lost Sheep story had more faith than them in being able to find the ‘sheep that was lost’? Did they believe that the Shrewd Manager, in his dealings with his contemporaries, would keep his employment because of his superior faith? Could a Rich Man arrange for his brethren to avoid the hell-fire punishments because of his supreme faith in his arguments with Abraham? It may well be that they thought along these lines – hence the request, ‘Lord, Increase our Faith.’
We should at this point ask what faith is. Dictionary definitions include: a belief in a truth; loyalty to a person; a body of dogma; a set of principles. Synonyms include: trust, assurance, belief, confidence and reliance. As an extension of these meanings, Christian faith is defined as a secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will. Its Latin root is in the word fides and it is interesting to observe that a stained glass window on the south side of our nave is a figure identified simply as Fides, or Faith. Faith is an expectation that some event will be fulfilled. This is the faith shown by waiting at a bus-stop or on a station platform, believing that the timetabled transport will arrive. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the Word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible’. To the Christian, then, faith is a belief in the word of God and the love of God: faith underpins belief. The love of God cannot be explained to us, its totality and comprehensiveness surpass our human understanding. But, do we need an explanation? As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, ‘To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary: to one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It is that all-embracing faith in the love of God that is the essential witness of the Christian believer.
We could ask what the disciples expected from Jesus in answer to their request that he increase their faith. Did they want more faith, simply in terms of quantity? Were they looking for a better quality of faith? Did they want the simple faith, that they already acknowledged that they had, to have a greater capacity for action or extent of vision or depth of love? What did they mean by, ‘increase’? The answer that Jesus gave them indicated that the amount, the actual quantity, of faith is completely unimportant. If they had faith the size of a mustard seed, he told them, then they could say to a mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and cast into the sea,’ and it would be done. Sayings of Jesus involving a ‘mustard seed’ occur twice in Matthew and Luke and once in Mark. It is implied in each of them that the mustard seed is minutely small and yet grows into an enormous tree. The emphasis here, however, is not on power, the power to move a tree, enormous or otherwise; it is on the accomplishment of the apparently impossible – the faith that physically moves a tree, or a mountain, or whatever. The answer that Jesus gave to his disciples is that even the smallest increment of faith can have the most startling of consequences.
What are we to make of the concluding four verses of our Gospel reading? Jesus obviously had more to say on faith in our relationships with God. He told his disciples another short parable about an agricultural servant. ‘Suppose,’ he said, ‘one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep.’ The tasks may vary, but the servant’s response toward his master is common to them all. The point of the parable concerns the proper attitude of faith in a servant concerning his service to the master. Jesus clearly rejected a servile attitude of doing only the minimum expected and doing that only grudgingly. On the basis of this we are obviously expected to put in more than a basic ‘eight-hours’ or our one-hour of worship on Sundays. Jesus wants all of us and all of our lives dedicated to his service; and that freely, not sparingly, given.
Then there is the matter of God’s timing. ‘Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit and eat”.’ We have to remember that we have to work to God’s clock, not our own. We will get our food and God’s other gifts in God’s good time. Jesus is reminding us that impatience is inconsistent with faith. God is in control and his needs take priority over ours. We must never question God’s timing nor grumble about it. It’s his work that we do as his servants. We are not in a position to argue or complain with the way that God has decided to accomplish his work through us. The work comes first, not the benefits! Then there is the danger of us seeking recognition in what we do for God. Jesus said, ‘Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?’ We must not make the mistake of thinking that we deserve some sort of pat-on-the-back or special credit for what we do in God’s name. As we heard, Jesus said, ‘Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit to eat”? Would he not rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; then you may eat and drink”?’ Would he thank the servant for doing what he has been told to do? We must not expect then to receive congratulations, or some kind of special treatment, when all we are doing is what is expected of us? The cornerstone of our faith must be to acknowledge that we belong to our Lord and our purposes must be entirely his purposes. What, then, is expected of us? What tasks, we may ask ourselves, still remain to be done? Is our faith related to the tasks God has given to us, or is it orientated to our needs and wants? We may be hungry or thirsty or ready for a break, but do we still accept that God’s work must come first? There must be an understanding that we don’t deserve any of the gifts that God gives us, but an equal awareness that, while, yes, we are here to serve him, Jesus has made himself our servant by dying on the cross for our sins. Whatever meals and periods of rest that Christ gives are undeserved and unearned by us, yet he does give us those meals and rest periods, and, indeed, gives us of his very self, and that never more so than by the essential nourishment of our immortal souls in the spiritual food offered in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.
Earlier in his Gospel Luke quoted Jesus saying, ‘Blessed are the slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.’ We are often inclined to ask God to increase our faith – we consider, like the early disciples, that we have insufficient for the tasks that lie ahead. Let us pray that we may think carefully how our Christian faith is to develop so that God’s kingdom may be extended, that his work may be done and that our own agenda is not fulfilled at his expense. We pray then that God will make our faith sufficient for the work that lies ahead and give us willing and contrite hearts and minds to accomplish it, to his everlasting glory and the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom.
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