[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]
Through the years, one of the most common things I’ve heard Christians say--or caught myself thinking--is this: “I wish I had more faith.” Many times, this is the expression of a real Christian desire.
But, other times, let’s be honest, those words are an excuse.
“I would forgive X, if I had more faith.”
“I would do more for the poor, if I had more faith.”
“I would love others as God has loved me, if I had more faith.”
“I would share the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, if I had more faith.”
People who otherwise proudly assert their maturity and competence to live grown-up lives, claim that their faith is too small and too immature to do what God calls every believer in Jesus Christ to do, to live as His disciples.
The unspoken conclusion of our “I wish I had more faith” statements is often really, “And since my faith is too small, I’m going to just ignore God’s will for my life.”
One of the biggest reasons that the Church is not fulfilling the only mission Jesus Christ has given to it--to make disciples--is that we in the Church, who are quick to turn to God when we get into scrapes, in our sinful hearts, don’t want to do what our Lord has commanded us.
Like Adam and Eve, we still would rather be God than obey God.
And, we would rather play Church than be the Church.
But, unwilling to own up to these truths about ourselves, we play the humble card whenever confronted by the things that God calls us to do and blame our disobedience to God, not on our willfulness, but on our lack of faith.
The excuse of small faith is nothing new. Just before the section of Luke’s book that makes up today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gave the twelve disciples a daunting set of instructions. You can see them in Luke 17:1-4. Jesus says: “It is impossible that no offenses should come [In other words, Christians, because we are saints and sinners, will fall into sin. It’s inevitable.], but woe to him through whom they do come! [When a supposedly more mature Christian, who should know better, is the means Satan uses to tempt a less mature Christian into sin, the mature Christian has done a terrible wrong. Jesus goes on.] It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him."
In these four short verses, Jesus tells those of us who follow Him that we are to avoid causing others (or ourselves) to be tempted into sin; we are to have the courage to rebuke fellow believers when they have fallen into sin and have refused to repent; and we are to declare God’s forgiveness to repentant fellow believers, even if they commit the same sin repeatedly and repent repeatedly...even when their sin has been against us.
This is tough stuff! No person in their own power can possibly fulfill these commands of Jesus.
That’s why the reaction of the apostles--the twelve disciples who Jesus was preparing to take leadership of the Church in the first years after His death, resurrection, and ascension--is predictable. Look at verse 5 of our Gospel lesson: “And the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’"
“How on earth are we going to manage to do those things?” the disciples seem to be asking Jesus. “We’re going to need a lot bigger faith than what we’ve got right now.” Whether the disciples are giving humble expression to a real desire for greater faith or making an excuse for disobedience to Jesus' hard commands, we don't know.
Whatever the case, Jesus will have none of their protests. Look at what He says in verse 6. “So the Lord said, ‘If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’”
The problem with the apostles isn’t that their faith is too small. A mustard seed is notoriously tiny. Yet, Jesus says that even faith the size of a mustard seed has the power to move a circumstance or a problem which, by comparison to the seed, is the size of a mulberry tree.
As I’ve said before, “A little faith in a big God is all we need.”
A little faith in the God Who created the universe, Who took on human flesh, bore our sins on the cross, and rose from the dead, Who promises His presence with us always and promises that all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus, God the Son, will have eternal life with God, is all we need to know our sins are forgiven, to deal with the tough realities of this life, to obey God’s will for our lives, to have the strength to resist temptation, to have the character to confess our sin to God.
Anyone who can say truthfully that they believe Jesus Christ is Lord and that He has conquered sin and death, even if their rational mind may sometimes doubt, has faith.
It may be a small faith, like the faith of the man who implored Jesus to cast demons from his son and confessed to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief.” But it’s faith! And faith does things!
Our faith may be as small as that of Naaman, the Syrian commander whose true story is told in 2 Kings, chapter 5, in the Old Testament. Naaman had been stricken with leprosy. A Hebrew slave girl told him that the prophet Elisha, in Israel, could speak with God and remove Naaman’s leprosy. When Naaman, a man accustomed to commanding armies and having people defer to him, wasn’t even met by Elisha, but by Elisha’s servant, with a message from Elisha that he should dip himself seven times in the insignificant Jordan River to be healed by God, Naaman was skeptical, to say the least. His faith in Israel’s God was tiny. But desperate, armed with only his tiny faith, Naaman obeyed and he was healed. Faith does things!
The problem for the apostles in facing Jesus’ call to keep from causing others to sin, to correct fellow believers when they fell into sin, to forgive the repentant, or any of the other things Jesus was preparing them to do as His followers, wasn’t the size of their faith. It wasn't the magnitude of their trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ that was the disciples' problem. Their problem was their unwillingness to obey the Lord in Whom they claimed to believe.
The problem for us in doing the things our Lord calls us to do--love God completely, love neighbors as we love ourselves, spread the good news about Jesus, feed the hungry, help the poor, work for justice in our world, forgive as we’ve been forgiven, obey the Ten Commandments, live under the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of God’s Word in the Bible--is not the size of our faith, but our inborn, sinful unwillingness to obey the Lord in Whom we claim to believe.
Jesus hammers this point home in verses 7 to 9 of our Gospel lesson. He says: “‘And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and sit down to eat”? But will he not rather say to him, “Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink”? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.’”
Faith, real faith, big or small, comes down to this: a willingness to obey the call of the God Who was willing to give His all, even His life on the cross, for us.
When God’s Spirit convicts of sin, faith obediently repents and prays for the power of the Holy Spirit to help us from committing the same sins again.
When God’s Word commands us to love God, love neighbor, make disciples, we seek God’s help to obey.
Maybe you and I will never have the faith of a Mother Teresa who, despite her doubts, went to extraordinary lengths and made extraordinary sacrifices to obey the command Jesus issues to every disciple to be His ambassadors in this world. But God will never hold us accountable for the faith we lack. God only expects us to exercise the faith we have.
He calls each of us to manifest His grace in our lives by obeying His call to us.
DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND: We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. We cannot be saved by our works. But the one who is grateful for God’s eternal salvation in Christ will be ready to obey God’s call. Jesus’ earthly brother, James, writes, “Faith without works is dead.”
In verse 10 of our lesson, Jesus says that, like the servants in a first-century Judean household, “...when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'"
People of faith, big or small, don’t obey Christ’s commands, to get credit or bragging rights.
The apostle Paul writes in Romans: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded...For we hold that one is justified [made right with God] by faith apart from works of the law.”
The one with faith in Christ seeks to obey Christ even if their faith is small. And the one with faith in Christ seeks to obey Christ because it’s only right for a servant of the God Who died and rose to give forgiveness and new life to undeserving sinners, to obey His call.
A few months ago, I publicly thanked a member of this congregation for doing a ministry others might not have so willingly done in service to Christ and His Church. Later, that person approached me and said: “Don’t ever thank me like that again. I don’t need thanked.” This person is a servant who, because of faith in Christ, seeks to obey Christ’s call, not to be noticed, not to get brownie points with God.
The next time you’re confronted with God’s call to do something that may seem beyond your ability to perform or beyond what others might expect of you, don’t ask for more faith. Ask only that God will help you to obey Him and His will. Simple obedience is what the grateful follower of Jesus owes to Him, not as a means of securing a place in His kingdom, but as a means of thanking Him that by His shed blood and self-sacrificed body on the cross, Jesus Christ has already won a place for them in His kingdom.
Here’s what I believe: God gives us precisely the faith we need to do anything He calls us to do. And so, what every Christian needs more than increased faith is increased obedience to God, His will, and His commands. The reason for this is simple: Our faith increases every time we dare to ignore our own desires and impulses or the temptations of the world or of Satan, and instead obey God, surrendering our lives and wills to Jesus Christ alone.
Obedience, not as an obligation, but as a grateful response to God’s amazing grace, is the life to which you and I are called. This side of our own resurrections, we will never obey God perfectly. But it is only the person who seeks to live obediently to the Savior Jesus who lives their faith.
May our prayer always be not just, "Lord, increase our faith." But, "Lord, increase our obedience.” Amen