5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 6 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. 7 "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'? 8 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'? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 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!' "
Reflection: What is faith? It’s such a difficult concept to describe. The author of Hebrews suggest that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But we also know that faith is more than abstract assurance. Faith has teeth that sink into us, take hold of us somehow, and point us toward God. Faith instils convictions and is itself conviction. Faith is tangible. And yet, it is still more.
In the passage from Luke 17, the apostles seem to be unsure of what faith is. They do think, however, that they need more of it. “Increase our faith!” But Jesus tells them that even a little faith, the size of a mustard seed, is enough faith to do incredible things.
But what is faith? I grew up thinking that faith meant ascribing to a set of beliefs. I remember a little of the classes I was required to participate in before I was confirmed into the church. Actually I remember more about the dreams I had before the day we were confirmed – my mother had made me a lovely new dress for the occasion and a new pair of shoes was purchased – my first court shoes. These were the subject of those dreams – as I walked from the vestry to the front of the church, I simply couldn’t keep those damned shoes on my feet.
What I do remember of those classes was that we learned about the creeds, specifically the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. And we had to memorise the Apostles Creed to say in the confirmation service.
This is typical of what Harvey Cox calls the Age of Belief that dawned when Emperor Constantine made his shrewd decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire.
Prior to this time, a buoyant faith propelled the movement initiated by Jesus and his immediate disciples. Despite experiencing both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living spirit of Jesus united Christians with each other, and faith meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.
Within a few short decades of the birth of Christianity, the seeds of the Age of Belief were apparent. Church leaders began formulating orientation programs for new recruits who had not known Jesus or his disciples personally. Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.
During the closing years of the 3rd century, an elite class, soon to become the clerical class, began taking shape and these church specialists distilled the various teaching manuals into lists of beliefs. But even then, a range of theologies thrived until Constantine decreed that the formerly outlawed new religion of the Galilean should now be legal with him at its head.
His tactic did not save the empire from collapse and it proved to be a disaster for Christianity. It’s enthronement actually degraded Christianity. From an energetic movement of faith, it solidified into a phalanx of required beliefs thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalism for centuries.
The empire became ‘christian’ and Christianity became imperial. People scurried to join a church they had previously despised but now bore the emperor’s seal of approval. Christianity froze into a system of mandatory precepts that were codified into creeds and strictly monitored by a powerful hierarchy and imperial decrees. Heresy became treason, and treason became heresy.
Christianity came to dominate the cultural and political domains of Europe and its colonies, and it endured for roughly 15 hundred years until the combined challenges of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, secularisation, the 2 world wars, and the anti-colonial upheavels of the 20th century.
That is not to say that there was nothing good about this time, because Christian movements and its people continued to live by faith and according to the Spirit. But most people accepted the official belief codes of the church.
We now stand in the midst of a new era, one that looks more often than not, to the early church and the ‘age of faith’ for inspiration and guidance. This is not surprising – there are some striking similarities between the first and the emerging third age.
Creeds did not exist then – they are fading in importance now.
Hierarchies had not appeared then – they are struggling now.
Faith as a way of life or a guiding compass has once again begun, as it did then, to identify what it means to be Christian. The experience of the divine is displacing theories about the divine.
This passage from Luke presents ‘faith’ less in terms of our assent to certain Christological propositions – doctrine in other words – and more in terms of our steadfast devotion to Christ. That is steadfast devotion to the Christian life.
I can see this development in my own life. Whereas once I thought there were certain things I had to believe in order to be considered Christian, I now understand it more as devotion to following the Way of Christ – that is to live the Christian life.
Once I understood that Christianity is not a creed and that faith is more a matter of embodiment than abstract propositions, things changed. I began to look at all kinds of people in a new way. And while some were what I might have once thought of as ‘believers’ some were not. They were people living life as modelled by Jesus even though they didn’t claim to be Christians. To me, they seem to exemplify the Christian life better than some of the taut fundamentalists I know, who are so concerned with being doctrinally correct. And I saw people who claimed to be Christian who lived lives that lacked any sense of compassion or justice, and were by any measure completely self-serving.
In her collection of letters, named Come be my Light, Mother Teresa confessed that for years she had harboured troubling doubts about the existence of God, even as she worked ceaselessly to relieve the anguish of he sick and dying in Calcutta. Her confession evoked a howl of criticism and claims of hypocrisy. In the midst of public comments, a student named Krista Hughes made a telling comment. “Mother Teresa’s life”, she wrote, “exemplifies the living aspect of faith, something sorely needed in a society where Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how she or he lives. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
God is present to the world in and through people. When we participate in God’s work in the world, God’s presence becomes visible. The world sees God’s presence among us and through us and joins in with God. And the world is changed. This is faithful presence. This is what the church is called to do. This is how God has chosen to change the world.