+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: Luke 17:6
Theme: Small Faith, Big God
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
The Holy Spirit and faith always exist in a cause and effect relationship. Human nature recognizes that to be exposed to God’s workings makes one vulnerable. The person whose mind and heart are ruled by sin will respond to God with fight or flight measures. In “fight mode” people either assert their self-righteousness or independence from God or both. In “flight mode” people seek to retreat from God’s presence and remain aloof from any contact. Only when the Holy Spirit, through repentance and faith, cloaks us with Christ’s own righteousness can we fruitfully suffer God’s exertion.
Faith trusts God’s motives but cannot alter them. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request for an increase in faith initially seems odd. He doesn’t give them any commitments. He doesn’t even commend their request. First comes the mustard seed analogy. This tiny seed has the potential to grow into a mighty plant. The apostles, though they don’t know it yet, already have enough faith to do great things for the kingdom. But these things aren’t as visible and measurable as they’d like. Preaching and teaching the gospel, forgiving sins, seeking the lost, and healing hurting souls are often not recognized as very impressive in the world’s eyes. In fact, the world often despises these things as a waste of time and energy.
Second is the story of the servant who comes in from plowing or tending the sheep. Even when the servant has spent the day laboring in the fields he may still be required to prepare the meal. It was a lesson of humility for the disciples. Jesus said, “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,’”1 The apostles were not to understand their vocation as a means of raising their status among others. Christians, likewise, are on the wrong track if they are motivated towards self-sacrifice and generosity by the hope of recognition. Christianity as a means to self-glorification is nothing more than a legalistic philosophy- and a bankrupt one at that!
So what is the place of faith? The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once said, “We clever humans prefer to treat faith as if it were something finite, as if it were something for the betterment and enjoyment of temporal life. It is supposed to bring us meaning and fulfillment and happiness and direction. This kind of religion is nothing but a deception.”2 Faith is not a tool to acquire earthly happiness. And our trust in God is not predicated on what benefits we think He can offer us- even if these are eternal blessings. We believe in God because His promises are true and Christ is truth. Everything is sorted out on that basis.
One of the great challenges in interpreting Holy Scripture is to distinguish between analogy and literal meaning. Here careful attention to Jesus’ teaching is the key. Often Christ speaks in parables as He did with the analogy of the mustard seed today. However, we cannot extend such symbolism too far. The Bible is not a compendium of spiritual analogies. It is the account of God’s activity of salvation in Jesus Christ. As such it is historical and literal. Christ was truly born, lived, suffered, died, rose, ascended, and will return- as the creeds summarize. Sin is not an analogy for bad luck, mistaken choices, or innocent victimhood. Sin is the tangible and humanly un-rectifiable consequence of separation from God. No one is exempt from the guilt of sin. The condemnation it imposes is real and will be eternally observable.
But the grace and forgiveness offered through Christ is no less real, no less literal. When the Bible says “that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them,”3 it is not using mere symbolism. Jesus is not simply a model for better human behavior. He is not an allegorical or mythical heroic figure. Christ truly restores us to fellowship with God through His blood. When the word of absolution is spoken, we are truly freed and forgiven, washed clean.
Christianity stands on these incarnational and redemptive promises. We are declared righteous and holy because of Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. We attain this justification only by grace and through faith. But the Christian lives no leisurely existence. The Holy Spirit daily renews, restores and leads us forward towards the reception of our baptismal inheritance. Sin and Satan rage against us with deception, temptation, and falsehood but when Christ comes again these will be completely vanquished. Believers will be resurrected and perfected in body and soul for eternity. Apart from these things, the church has very little to say.
Divine truth both confounds and transcends human wisdom. How privileged we are to have Christ condescend to us, not in imagery, but in reality. Holy Communion is an actual participation in the blessings of Christ’s salvation. It is not merely a representation of Jesus’ last meal with His disciples. To be sure the description of a Christ as the sacrificial Lamb is to be understood as a representation of all the animals slain on Jewish altars. In Christ, these sacrifices become obsolete. But when Jesus commands His disciples to drink of His blood any possibility of symbolism is ended. The Jews were told to participate in the Passover meal by eating the lamb, so the transition to eating Jesus’ body in Holy Communion was fairly straightforward. But the consumption of blood was strictly prohibited. Life was in the blood. Now Jesus tells them also to drink of His blood. This was a radical reversal. Those Christian churches who would drain Holy Communion of its blessing and power by not offering Christ’s body and blood- but only a memorial of bread and wine-cannot solve the paradox of the command to drink blood by calling it symbolism. Why would Christ tell His disciples to do something only symbolically that was always forbidden in actuality?
Dear friends, no Christian can use either the concern or the excuse that their faith is too meager. The mustard seed example applies to all. You are God’s child and you serve Him through loving your neighbour. Success does not depend on the fortitude of our faith but on the strength of our God. Lesser faith does not get you a lesser God. Neither does stronger faith earn you a stronger God. All depends on His grace and promises fulfilled in Christ. Paul reminds us today, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”4 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.”5 Amen.
+ in nomine Jesu +
Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
3 October 2010
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 Luke 17:10
2 Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations
3 2 Corinthians 5:19
4 2 Timothy 1:9-10
5 Hebrews 12:2