“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 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.
7 ‘Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? 8 Won’t he rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”’ ” (Luke 17: 5-10)
Why did the disciples ask Jesus: “Increase our faith!” ?
Clearly they figure that what he’s asking of them is beyond them. And that’s the summons in the first paragraph (17:1-5) to live in community, to live in forgiving love together, to truly be a family.
But why is that so hard? Why is is such a challenge to be attentive that your words and deeds do not mislead a brother or sister and cause them to fall? And that when a brother does sin you do what you can to lead him to repentance and then forgive him and keep on forgiving him?
The disciples shake their heads, realising that this life in Christian community goes beyond what they can accomplish on their own. And so they ask: “Increase our faith!”
But Jesus is -as always- both encouraging and challenging. He says that the least amount of faith – a speck of it!- can accomplish the apparently impossible. The saying about a tree thrown into the sea is just so familiar to us that we have clear forgotten how light and funny it would have originally sounded. We ask ponderous questions about the relative sizes of mustard seeds and mulberry trees until both point and purpose is lost in what a friend of mine calls “blether,” (A long-winded discourse with little substance”).
Why is it “blether” to worry? Because Jesus is here, clear, capable and decisive. “Why do you fear” the sea-storm when Christ is in the boat? Faith is not a magical Something that we have to dredge up out of nowhere to get things done; it is absolute confidence in a Person. And he promises to never leave us, never to forsake us, but to stand by us, to direct us, and to be there for us.
And this is the faith that you have. You do have faith in Christ! And so life together is not beyond your reach.
You do have the capacity to love, as the new person you are in Christ. Here’s how it goes: God loves and forgives you, because of what Christ has done for you. God has gifted you with the Holy Spirit making you God’s child, giving you the gift of faith, and giving you new power to love and forgive others. The Holy Spirit calls you into community; he has brought you into the church. You do have faith, and that includes faith for living in community.
Sure, that faith needs strengthening and nourishing, week by week in fellowship, worship, word and sacrament; and also day by day in prayer, Bible study and the conversation of good friends . Our very life together is a whole 24/7 thing of love and care and forgiveness.
But it was this last word that so alarmed the disciples. Increase our faith Lord, because I just don’t know if I can forgive and keep forgiving! Seven times in a day? Impossible! In another exchange, Jesus actually makes a joke of it: “Not seven times but seventy times seven!”
It takes a long while to realise that this is how God has treated us.
That’s what the Bible says, you know. In the last verses of the prophet Micah, it says: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
Did you hear that? The Lord casts all our sins into the depths of the sea, never to be dredged up again! What wonderful good news this is! Your conscience is clear. Your slate is wiped clean. This is what the death of Christ your Savior has accomplished, something you could never do. Jesus Christ the Son of God has won the forgiveness of your sins and the sins of the whole world. “Father, forgive them,” he prays for us. And he teaches us to pray, “Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The cross of Christ is all about forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration. The Christian church is all about forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration. God has reconciled us sinners back to himself. He raises us from the deadness of sin and unforgiveness and isolatedness by raising us up with Christ in Baptism and placing us in his family, the church. This is where we have brothers and sisters all around us to put into practice the love and forgiveness and care we have learned from God.
This is our calling, and the faith God gives us enables us to do it.
Now one more thing in this passage. It’s this last saying of Jesus about the unworthy servants who have only done ther duty. That’s us. We don’t merit any special favours from God for passing on the forgiveness God has first extended to us and also empowered us to do. That’s just normal duty in the Christian church. We’re simply doing what we’ve been commanded to do. But the amazing thing is, God is so gracious that he does invite us unworthy servants to come and recline at table, as his special guests.
Every time we take communion, we remind ourselves of both the first invitation of Revelation 3:20, that Jesus will come in, once we open the door, and eat with us; and also we ponder the last invitation, to the eternal, heavenly feast to come, the wedding feast of Christ in his kingdom, which has no end.
But when we live in love, the party is on. Right now.