The disciples’ request to Jesus to increase their faith at the beginning of our Gospel reading comes after Jesus shared with them some challenging teaching about forgiveness. If we glance back in the Bible to the beginning of the chapter we can see it was certainly a hard message, “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Have we always been willing and able to demonstrate that kind of patient forgiveness, and to demonstrate it repeatedly?
I’ve thought about this a great deal. I know I have a very pronounced sense of justice and can be strongly opinionated about whether something is morally or ethically right or wrong. Living in a time where there seems to be very little accountability doesn’t help either. But it’s important that I qualify what I mean by a pronounced sense of justice in a number of ways:
- There is a profound difference between being judgemental and having a strong sense of justice. I am not saying I want to decide what consequences should be imposed to bring about justice; I have no desire, no qualifications and actually no right to appoint myself as some judge or arbiter. Ultimately that right belongs to God. What I am saying is that when a wrong is committed, there should (in my opinion) be accountability and consequences. That’s why restorative justice for example makes a lot of sense to me, in which perpetrators are brought face to face with the people they have wronged. They become much more aware of the impact of their actions and the consequences thereof.
- We are called to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak with a prophetic voice and take a stand against social injustice, oppression and persecution. It’s really important to try and understand and empathise with the context in which people we encounter in our communities might find themselves. We can be far too quick to jump to assumptions and judgement calls about people, perhaps people who in reality don’t know any different, don’t know any better and don’t know how to speak up and speak out. We must be prepared to speak out for those who have no voice. In the past I’ve had some involvement with the Wellsprings Bradford charity which hosted various Welfare Reform Impact Bradford sessions in which some myths about people on benefits could be set out. It also helped to bring some understanding of the nature of oppression that comes out of bad implementation of benefits reforms. That’s one of the many reasons why the work of the foodbank here is so important.
- It can be incredibly challenging for us not to try and determine whether someone’s repentance is genuine. Have we ever felt remorse about doing something wrong, and then found ourselves sometime later doing precisely the same thing again? Was the remorse and repentance we felt insincere or genuine? The point I am making is that if our only measure of repentance is if people don’t ever sin again, then our only conclusion would wrongly be that people haven’t ever genuinely repented. At the end of the day only God knows our heart. When I look back at my walk of faith there are things I used to do which I simply don’t do now – one example of this would be that before I became a Christian I wasn’t averse to swearing. I just don’t swear anymore. There has been a heart and mind change in me that has made that possible; but it didn’t happen overnight. There are other things which are works in progress, perhaps areas of my life where I know I need to improve which I invite Jesus to help me deal with. In both cases I know genuine penitence. Lord, give me strength to prevail and grace and mercy when I fail.
- Finally I don’t think we are always able to forgive in our own strength. That’s where faith comes in, a radical faith. We see that in action when Christians are able to forgive people who have committed horrific crimes against them. That comes from us having a total and unconditional dependence on God and total unconditional submission to Him and obedience to His will.
With that context in mind, let’s take a look together at the illustrations Jesus gives. Well firstly he shared an illustration about us having faith as small as a mustard seed. It’s an illustration he also used in Matthew’s account where he said to them “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have 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 to you..” And here he says “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.”
I am sure you’ve heard before about how small mustard seeds are; Jewish texts compare the knowable universe to the size of a mustard seed to demonstrate the world’s insignificance and to teach humility. Mulberry trees can apparently grow as high as 35 feet. So the point Jesus is making is that the apostles didn’t need much or even more faith; a tiny seed of faith would be enough, if it were alive and growing because it is God’s power that works miracles. The limit on what we can accomplish for God’s Kingdom is often limited by our faith.
The next illustration that Jesus shares speaks into the nature of our Christian service. We are not in Christian service because of what we get out of it; we cannot enter into discipleship with a sense of conditional entitlement. We are in Christian service because it is privilege. We do not do what we do because of vanity, pride or the pursuit of praise and recognition. Our service is not something extra done for God; it is the duty of anyone who desires to be Christ’s follower, coming from a place of knowing that the primary reason for our existence is to worship and be in relationship with God. Do we have that understanding and sense of duty in our walk of faith?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in this crazy mixed up world there are 5 things we can pursue together in our faith as we seek to run the race. Those 5 things are clear from our Psalm today:
- Trust in the Lord…and do good;
- Take delight in the Lord…and he will give you the desires of your heart;
- Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun;
- Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes;
- Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.