If You Only Had Faith… (10/10/04) Lk17:5-6
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The texts you heard read from the lectern this morning are from the 17th chapter of Luke and 17th chapter of Matthew. In each case, Jesus says something about faith that many of us find troubling. In Luke’s story, the disciples simply say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” In Matthew’s story, a disciple asks Jesus why he—Jesus—was able to cast a demon out of a boy, when the disciples failed in their attempts to do so.
In both situations, Jesus seems to berate the disciples for not having enough faith. According to Luke, Jesus tells his followers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” In Matthew’s story, Jesus explains why his disciple was unable to cast the demon from the possessed boy. Jesus says, “It is because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
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We will look closely and try to understand what Jesus meant with these very difficult sayings, and we may or may not be successful. But first we should consider the wretched theologies that have grown from what surely must be misunderstandings about Jesus’ words.
First, let’s make a bold statement: Bad things happen to good people. We see it all the time. Wonderful, caring, loving people get sick and die. A jetliner crashes and the lives of dozens of beautiful human beings are extinguished before their time. A parent looks away for an instant and an innocent and beloved child steps in front of a car.
To paraphrase the obscene bumper sticker, fertilizer happens. We’ve been thrown into this world without a road map and without an instruction booklet. And life is a glorious thing, but we can’t hide from the fact that bad things happen all the time. Really bad things. To people we really love. And when these tragedies occur, nothing is more frustrating than hearing some well-meaning friend, or nurse, or minister, recite those words of Jesus. Have faith! You can move mountains if only you have enough faith! Translation: If this disease takes the life of your child, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.
That’s got to be about the most insensitive and cruel thing you can say to a person who is going through a tragedy: have faith and everything will be fine—the plane won’t crash and the disease will go into remission and the brain injury your daughter received in that car wreck will just disappear like magic, unless of course you don’t have enough faith. That is nothing but cruel nonsense, and I cannot believe Jesus ever wanted us to look upon our tragedies in that way.
We hear about these situations all the time. A person who was raised in a fundamentalist or charismatic church develops brain cancer. He is told that he will survive—if he has enough faith. When the disease is diagnosed as inoperable, he is given only months to live, the message he receives from his church is clear. This is all his fault. Why, if he had faith the size of a mustard seed he could say to that cancer, be gone! and he could resume his happy and healthy life.
Now, let me say something about miracles. I know that the majority of mainline ministers in the theologically liberal wing of the church tend not to believe in miracles. I am not in that group. I do believe in miracles. I believe I have witnessed miracles. But there is one thing I know for sure. Miracles are not under our control. The power to perform a miracle lies in the hands of God alone. We can pray for what we want to happen. We can pray for mercy, and healing, and love. Through the power of prayer we can align ourselves with the spiritual forces God has built into the universe and become a part of God’s healing power. There is power in prayer. But we cannot make miracles happen with our prayers, no matter how sincere our faith. Some things are in the hands of God alone.
I know in my heart that this is true, and if I know this, I am confident Jesus knew it too, because his wisdom so far outshines mine that I dare not say his name and mine in the same breath. So what do we do with these sayings of Jesus? What do we say to the nurse who tells a grieving family that their soon-to-die child will be fine if only their faith is pure? Isn’t she simply saying what Jesus said to his disciples when they asked him about faith?
The Apostle Paul says, Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three. These are the three foundations of our religion—faith, hope and love. And we Christians are better at sorting out hope and love than we are faith. We don’t argue too much about hope. We might occasionally disagree over what to hope for. I never have understood that faction of the Christian faith who hopes for the end of the world to soon arrive. But still, we know what the word “hope” means, and whether we are hoping for world peace or for the end of the world, we seldom argue over the nature of hope itself.
And love? That’s a more difficult concept. Paul tells us that God is love. Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbors, and we’ve covered every base in life that needs to be covered. Christians believe love is something more than a chemical reaction in the brain. It is the very power that called the universe into being in the first place, and it is the power that holds the universe together, moment, to moment, to moment. Love is the cause of, and the reason for, the universe.
Love really is a difficult concept for us to get our minds around, but we don’t spend much time arguing about it. Hope and love—we don’t hear too many people speaking out against hope and love. But that leaves us with faith.
Now the arguments can begin! What is faith? There are two very broad ways of defining faith. Sometimes, faith refers to what Christians call revealed truth. That’s why we have all those creeds and confessions—confessions of faith. There are lots of creeds and confessions, and denominations argue over which ones are the real truth. The most common and accepted creeds are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which came about very early in the history of the church.
I’m going to read the Nicene Creed, since it is considered “truth” by most of the church. And let me remind you in advance, as Congregationalists we are not a creedal church. We are a covenantal church. We make a covenant—an agreement—to share our faith journeys together. We don’t claim we can determine with certainty which creeds and confessions are true and which ones are not. Some people mistakenly think that means Congregationalists reject all the creeds, and that is simply not true. We neither accept nor deny the creeds. We teach the creeds, and leave it to the conscience of the individual Christian to sort out the truth. And so, this is the Nicene Creed, written in the 4th Century, as the church attempted to come to some sort of agreement on what it means to be a Christian. The Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
You’ll notice the movement of the creed. It is a list of things Christians believe, first about God, then about Jesus, then about the Holy Spirit, and then about the church. That is the typical movement of a creed. And believing those things and practicing the religion that comes from believing those things is one definition of faith. A denomination determines which creeds and confessions are correct, and how to carry out its beliefs in worship. And it becomes, simply put, the Christian faith—or at least that denomination’s version of the Christian faith.
But there is another meaning behind the word faith. In that first way of thinking, faith is objective. It is something we can see and explain. But the other meaning of faith is subjective. It is internal. And this is the faith that Jesus talks about. This faith involves a personal commitment to God. This is not faith in the way one practices religion, or faith which results from believing the right things about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This faith goes much much deeper than the practice of religion, or the intellectual acceptance of certain ideas about Christianity.
Listen to Jesus: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” What is Jesus asking of us? He is certainly not talking about the practice of religion or the acceptance of the some creed that will be written hundreds of years after he is killed. He is not talking about that objective kind of faith. He is certainly not saying, “If you were a Presbyterian instead of a Lutheran you could move mountains around at will.” (Won’t the Presbyterians be thrilled to learn they are the ones who figured out which creeds and confessions are actually true!)
No, Jesus is talking about a personal commitment to something much bigger than ourselves. Now, I’m not going to stand here and put some sort of spin on Jesus’ words to make them say something they don’t really say. Jesus says faith can move a mountain. But instead of analyzing that with our scientific minds, lets look beneath the surface and see if there is some truth in that statement that we can accept.
I struggled with this passage, and after reading all the commentaries, and wrestling with all the possible meanings, I came up with three things—three truths—that I believe Jesus is trying to convey when he claims faith can move mountains.
The first truth is this: God is with us, and all things are possible for God. God is with us, and all things are possible for God. I cannot believe that when Jesus made his statements about mulberry bushes and mountains that he ever wanted us to think our faith is a tool we can use to manipulate God. There is no way Jesus was indicating that if we have strong faith, and the correct type of faith, God becomes a puppet we can maneuver around at will. But there are some things we can safely think about Jesus. Jesus believed that human beings do not get to make the rules for God. Jesus believed all things are possible for God. Jesus believed that God is with us, always, and that we should always have faith that God is indeed with us.
The second truth we find in Jesus’ words about faith moving mountains is this: Don’t too quickly accept the way things are. Don’t too quickly accept the way things are. It is okay to pray for change. It is okay to pray for miracles. And it is certainly okay to work at changing the world. Jesus was not a fatalist. It is impossible to imagine Jesus singing that old Bruce Hornsby song, The Way It Is. That song says, That’s just the way it is—some will never change. Jesus did not accept the status quo. He challenged every power that stood between a human being and an abundant life. He fought them all! The political powers—he refused to consider Caesar the highest authority. The religious powers—he refused to allow the laws of his religion to stand in the way of compassion. The spiritual powers—he stood against evil and cast out demons. The natural powers—he healed the lame, the sick, the blind.
In those words of Jesus where he claims faith can move mountains, we should not ignore those two truths—that all things are possible for the God who is in our lives, and we should not too quickly accept the way things are. But the third truth is the most important: Faith is the most powerful thing in the world. Faith is the most powerful thing in the world.
And I believe that is the primary meaning behind Jesus’ words about faith that can move mountains. Faith—the absolute commitment to God, to our Creator, to the Greater Good of All Creation—that faith overcomes every evil—even death. Because faith is more than believing, more than the practice of religion, more than a deep spiritual feeling.
Faith is the conviction that the universe is a good and worthwhile place. Faith is the conviction that this world is indeed held in being by a benevolent power beyond the ability of our imaginations to comprehend. Faith is the conviction that every evil, every tragedy, every heartache, every tear, every mountain this world throws in our path is ultimately overcome by the love of God.
And no, we can have all the faith in the world and still not make things turn out the way we want them to in this world—not in this crazy, beautiful, mean, joyful, frightening, hateful, loving, world. If we could think things right we wouldn’t need faith. If we could imagine a better future and that’s all it took to make it happen, we wouldn’t need faith.
But this is the world we’ve been given. And it is a world filled with mountains—mountains that often don’t move no matter how hard we pray, how much we hope, how sincerely we love. But not a single one of those mountains will move—ever—if we don’t have faith. And even those mountains that we cannot move can be scaled. We can climb over even the biggest, cruelest, most hellish mountains life places before us… but only with hope, love, and faith.