Sunday, February 5, 2017

Increase our faith: Give us a mustard seed faith and a servant heart (Luke 17:1-10)

Faith is one of those slippery words that we use a lot but we don’t often tie down and define.

Faith…if I just believe something enough it will happen. We identify it with fervour and emotional intensity.

Faith… If I go to the right place, this service or that church or this conference, it will increase… because I know they’ve got it and it will come pre-packaged and user friendly… it’s like it is a commodity and I can go shop for it.

Faith… I belong to this group of people, we believe the same things we do the same things we keep the same rituals and observances, keep the same rules. With those things we can tell whose got faith and who hasn’t. Who’s in and who’s out.

Faith… We are loyal to the end. It’s our team, our group, our God. Like that faithful band who always buy a Warriors season ticket, who each year say ‘It’s our year this year’., but even if it isn’t they be back next year.  They believe they keep the faith… loyal to the core. Hey I’m a blues fan I feel their pain.

I don’t want to come off sounding cynical or critical here… but it’s important that we understand what faith is…Right in the centre of the bible passage we had read today the apostles ask the lord, ‘increase our faith’… and I feel that is an important message for us this year, for St Peter’s. ‘Lord increase our faith’…At the heart of our vision ‘that we are called to be a vibrant authentic sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring others to join us on that journey” is that we are growing as followers of Jesus. It is that our faith will increase. Lord increase our faith… It’s important that we know what that means and how it is worked out in our life together and individually.

We are working our way through Luke’s account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem.  An account that takes up the central third of the third gospel. It’s an account that focuses on Jesus teaching his disciples what it means to follow him. And it’s a journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross. We had a break in this series over Christmas and the holidays, and splash we came back right in the deep end, with Jesusteaching on finances.

Now as we get back into the swing of things for the year we come to Jesus teaching his disciples about faith, which forms the conclusion to a big body of teaching, that started way back with Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee at the beginning of chapter 14, or at least the start of chapter 15 where the sinners and tax collectors were gathered round to hear Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of the law stood back and muttered in disapproval. It’s been about hospitality and welcoming people in and how we treat them. In some ways, it has been about the practical outworking of Jesus own mission statement in Luke 4…from the scroll of Isaiah… The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

This section of teaching has been like a ping pong match. Jesus had been speaking to the Pharisees, then he is speaking to his disciples, the Pharisees interrupt so it’s back to them, and now it’s back to his disciples to summarize it all. In the west and in the modern era we are used to a more linear way of teaching, but what we have here is a more too and fro style of teaching. Question and answer, comment and comeback it’s a Jewish teaching style called midrash.

Jesus teaching here is in four sections, a warning, instruction, and then the apostle’s response and Jesus response with an exhortation and a parable about grace.

Jesus had been speaking to the Pharisees and religious leaders and now he turns to his disciples and basically tells them not to be like the Pharisees. He’s real and says there are things in this life that are going to trip people up. That’s the reality of life, as Jesus says in John 16:33 in this life there will be trouble, hardship, rejection, persecution, but we should not be afraid because Jesus has overcome the world. Here he is saying yes there will be temptation to sin and turn away from the faith, in the parable of the sower in Luke 8, Jesus had outlined some of those things: sin, persecution, concern for the things of this world money and wealth.

He then turns and warns his disciples that it would be better for them to die, have a millstone put round their neck and tossed in to the ocean, than make one of these little ones stumble. Down through history there has been conjecture about these little ones…  yes, it could be Christians who are weaker in their faith, it challenges us about our children. It does speak to and challenge people in church leadership and who teach, it warns against false teaching. But in the context of what Jesus has been teaching and the attitude of the Pharisees we’ve already seen who these little ones are.  This follows on from the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man, where Lazarus had been left in his poverty and powerlessness, ignored and neglected and written off at the gate of the rich man.  It carries on from the parable of the prodigal son where the older brother had stood off and refused to go in. We need to be on guard that we do not act in the same manner and way.

Jesus goes on to teach on forgiveness. He says if your brother and sister sin against you, rebuke them; we need to deal with wrongdoing, not just ignore it and write people off because of it. It is most loving to call them back to help them come to their senses. It’s interesting so much of Jesus teaching is like that, calling the Pharisees and religious to repent. Rather if they repent we forgive them. Seven times a day is not about keeping an account, just waiting that magical number comes along then we can refuse. It’s supposed to be a high and extraordinary number. It’s not a matter of maths however, as Joel Green says ‘it is the daily life of those orientated around the merciful God’.  Again in the context of the wider passage it finishes the parable of the lost son, it gives Jesus disciples the way to respond to those who would turn back to Jesus, not standing off with judgment, but to forgive them and welcome them in.  It calls us to be a community where our relationships to each other are not governed by grudges but by grace, where things are confronted and reconciliation is sort. Where forgiveness is offered because we are forgiven.

In light of that you can see why the apostles asked the Lord to increase their faith. To allow them to live like that. Because let’s be honest we need God’s help. This is where our definition of faith is important.

 Firstly faith is not about what we put in, but who we put our faith in. It is about having our faith in Jesus Christ. Secondly, it is about being faithful to that person. In Luke’s gospel to be a disciple of Christ is to hear Jesus teaching and put it into action, to obey it.  In the list of old testaent ehro's of faith in Hebews 12 we see that each of hese people lived heir lives faithful to knowing and trusting God.
On Friday as I started to write this message, in my daily bible reading was a passage from the book of Job. Job is a book that wrestles with what happens when trouble and suffering come into your life. In response to one of his friends who had come to comfort him, who represent the wisdom of the day, the pat answers about the innocent suffering, Job outlines his previous life. He had an intimate relationship with God, when he had felt his presence and grace surrounding him, and he goes on to talk about how this manifested itself in how he acted at the town gate. He was a respected elder involved in the judicial process, he talks about how that intimate knowing of God meant that he delighted to care for the fatherless, the widow, the stranger, the refugee, the sick and the poor and see they got justice. Faith here is knowing Jesus and allowing the love and grace and mercy to flow out into our lives, to the prodigals who need to hear a call to come to their senses and need to know forgiveness and welcome home when hey repent, to our gates and the Lazarus who lies there. Increase our faith is asking that we may be more faithful to the Jesus who has changed our lives.

In response to the apostle’s request Jesus tells them that even with a little bit of that faithfulness, as much as a mustard seed the smallest of all the seeds. I wonder did you notice the mustard seed in the image that we used on the cover of our service sheet and PowerPoint his morning.  With such a small amount of that faith they could uproot the mightiest of trees with the deepest roots and cast it into the ocean. Because it is a faith in Jesus Christ, God himself and it is a faith that will be manifest in reflecting Jesus love and concern for the least and the lost. I re watched the films ‘Selma’ about Martin Luther lead march for voting rights in Alabama, and Ghandi, about Ghandi’s movement for Indian independence. It was powerful to be reminded how their dedication to a just principle and the pursuit of non-violence could overcome institutional racism, and entrenched colonialism, and all the pressure, resources and violence that could bring to bear. On a large scale that mustard seed faith removed the proud well established sycamore tree and casting it into the ocean. On a personal level that mustard seed faith can do the same. Faithfulness to pray, to compassion and love, forgiveness and care in Christ.

Jesus second response was to tell a parable. Again taken from everyday life in first century Judea but quite foreign to us. A servant who went about his duty and then when he had come home, he shouldn’t expect the master to drop everything and make his dinner but rather continued to serve, to do his duty. The Pharisees thought that God would deliver Israel from roman occupation if they separated themselves out and kept the law, that they could put God in their debt. But Jesus tells his followers to follow his example and to serve God by doing all that God had told them.

People respond negatively to the idea of thinking of ourselves as ‘unworthy servants’, particularly in  an age where self-worth and self-esteem are important. Can I say It’s not putting ourselves down or grovelling or seeing ourselves as useless. In fact in the parable the servants have done the things their master expected they’ve served well. The reality is that in doing these things we do not earn God’s favour, it is not salvation by works. We are about our master’s work as we should be, because we love him and he loves us, and we know his grace and mercy and we live in a way that shares it with all around us.

I believe the call for us this morning from this passage is that God may increase our faith. Give us a mustard seed faith and a servant heart. That we may know God in Christ and God’s love more and more each day. That it would empower us to keep on showing compassion to those in need at our gate and forgiveness and reconciliation with the repentant. That our focus would be to be about our Lord’s business.

Increase our faith- that we may know you more, give us a mustard seed faith and a servant heart, that we may hear your word and obey it. That we may be a faithful people.

Increase our faith- that we may see those at our gate, in need both physically and spiritually  and with mustard seed faith and a servant heart show them love and compassion that the things that are entrenched and deep rooted holding them down may be up rooted and tossed in the ocean. Give us a mustard seed faith and a servant heart to care.

Increase our faith- to call people back to the truth, and meet them with forgiveness and welcome when they repent. Give us a mustard seed faith to speak of the grace we know and show it in how we care, love and forgive. To one another, and to all who you call to see as brothers and sisters.

Increase our faith- allow us to be faithful people. Give us a mustard seed faith and a servant heart, that we may people committed to your kingdom on a personal level, as we work in the community and as we face the city and nations gates in good times and when we are faced with things that would make us stumble.

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