(Luke 17: 5-10)
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “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. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?
Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say,
‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”
As a result of the rapid post World War II technology acceleration, we have been able to enjoy “instant gratification” in many aspects of our daily lives. Our computers and I-Phones can connect us nearly immediately with people who live throughout our world. Access to world media events is nearly as rapid. All of this has led many people to a place of entitlement. By this I mean that we can come to rely upon, essentially expect, immediate attention and a positive outcome to so many of the matters that occur within the course of our everyday lives. We have come to simply take them for granted. In fact, we can even tend to grumble upon those times when our completely logical expectations fail to be timely and appropriately met.
So many aspects of our daily lives are subject to such an instantly gratifying outcome with little to no effort expended or personal cost required on our part. We may logically tend to apply these same expectations to our faith and our life as believers and followers of Christ Jesus. Our Gospel lesson today from Luke 17 verses 5-10 teaches us that doing so is a risky matter. Let me begin by framing our Gospel lesson for today within a wider scope. This lesson is a piece of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” It is similar in much of its content to Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus had just finished teaching his Disciples and followers about the importance of forgiving others. He said, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother [or sister] sins against you, rebuke him [her]; and if he [she] repents, forgive him [her]. And if he [she] sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him [her].” Jesus essentially taught his Disciples that forgiving others was not a sometimes matter they could pick and choose, but an always matter. Our lesson for today picks up the story text when, in response to this teaching of Jesus, the Disciples reply to him, “Increase our faith.”
Jesus just asked the Disciples to do a hard thing; to forgive others who offend and sin against them, even if they continue to sin over, and over, and over again in the same day. That kind of forgiveness is really hard to accomplish. It takes a great deal of spiritual energy and emotion maturity…and that takes a whole lot of time and some serious spiritual growth-work. We can all surely relate to that! The Disciples also knew how difficult this teaching of Jesus truly was just to hear, let alone to try to fulfill. So, they decided they needed a shortcut, a quicker path to the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching, and they chose one requiring less time and effort on their part. They had witnessed the miracles Jesus performed for others. Expecting that Jesus both could and would bring them a quicker way to forgive others of their sins and personal offenses, they simply asked him to increase their faith.
Be careful what you ask for…as it may not come in the exact form you expect. It has sometimes been my experience that when I have asked the Lord for help in some area of my lacking, I have received something different than I expected when I prayed for it. Take, for example, patience—I did not immediately receive patience when I prayed to God about needing patience. Instead, I received the opportunity to grow in patience through the life experience of waiting…and waiting. I very often choose the slowest checkout line at the store. Even if it appears to be short, several of the customers in that line have issues that slow it down, giving me plenty of opportunity to grow in patience as I wait for my turn at the checkout-out counter. The bottom line here, friends, is don’t choose the line I am standing in if you should see me in line at the local store! If you do, you will be sharing my life lesson of growing in patience too.
The Disciple’s experience with Jesus, when they asked him to increase their faith, was not so different from my own. Jesus did not wave his hand over them and miraculously increase their faith so that they could easily forgive others who sinned against them, as they expected. In fact, Jesus actually did quite the opposite. He openly criticized the Disciples for the little faith they were already displaying with these words, “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. Jesus was essentially telling his Disciples that a little bit of faith will actually manifest itself in great things. Expecting Jesus to increase their faith showed Jesus how little confidence, or faith, they truly had in their own faith. This poor display of faith on their part did not meet expectations, as only a mustard seed sized grain of faith would cause a mulberry tree to be uprooted and replanted in the sea. Now that is some grain of faith!
As we have discussed, friends, faith is a verb, an action word. In our lives we are constantly “faithing,” or exercising our faith like we do our muscles, in order to grow and strengthen it. And like muscle training, the no pain, no gain principle applies. Jesus knew that he would be doing the Disciples a dis-service to miraculously increase their faith so that forgiving others would be an easier task for them. The spiritual maturity and personal growth we build as we travel along our faith journey are an invaluable component of our preparation for our eternal life in God’s kingdom. There simply is no shortcut or substitute f or experience. And so, like the Disciples who needed to experience growth in their ability to forgive, I wait in slow lines to experience growth in patience. If you will take a few minutes to think carefully and reflectively about your life journey, I suspect that you will discover a growth need in your life that Jesus is helping you to overcome with experiential practice.
Building the kingdom of God, and growing our spiritual selves in preparation for this endeavor, is no small task. It is true that God’s grace alone, through our faith in the work of atonement for sin Christ Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, assures our eternal salvation as believers. But, that is just the beginning of our growth in faith along life’s journey. As we learned last week, Christ is the firm foundation upon which we build our life of faith. To build our faith, we must act by living and working in cooperation with the Holy Spirit Christ Jesus promised us would be our constant Helper. It takes only the faith of a grain of mustard seed to accomplish great things. If we nourish that seed in fertile soil, there is no telling what great works we can accomplish for the kingdom. But, we cannot expect to shortcut the process and avoid the personal life experience we need to grow our faith by simply asking Jesus to increase it. To do so is to shun the ongoing and perfecting grace of the Holy Spirit working to help us grow and mature our faith as Christ’s followers. So let us go forth to experience all of the growth our life’s spiritual journey of faith has to offer us. In this way, we will fulfill our eternal kingdom-building expectations. Amen!