This is one of those instanced in which I’m not entirely sure I agree with what I have written. I recently was rereading Stanley Hauerwas’ and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens and noted their sharp critique of Tillich as accommodating to the modern worldview, trying to make Christianity intelligible to moderns. Hauerwas and Willimon clearly illustrate in this section that they are very wary of such attempts, and the verdict is still out for me on what I think about that. So, treat this as a musing not really a sermon.
This was given in La Nueva Vida Baptist Church (Pickens Co., AL) through a translator on 3 October 2010, which is why it is so short. It has been significantly modified in grammar, content, and structure from its original form.
The apostles say 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.”
Luke 17:5-6, NRSV
The passage for this morning is a common and simple one; in some respects, that might catch us off guard. A few passages in the Bible are somewhat iconic when we talk about faith. Among them is the mustard seed passage in the lectionary for today, but Hebrews 11 also comes readily to mind. Hebrews 11 attempts to identify what faith is, something that would be valuable for us to understand before we attempt to understand what a mustard seed-like faith looks like.
The author of Hebrews speaks of faith as the “assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen.” S/he describes the heroes of the Old Testament having such a faith. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, among others are described in this hall of fame of faith. Faith is best described, I think, in this portion of the chapter:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Having faith means looking forward. Saint Paul describes it in a similar (but very different, at the same time) manner elsewhere, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). That is what faith is in some limited respect, not dwelling on those places from which we have come, but looking forward to where we are going. But what do we have to look forward to?The author of Hebrews calls it “a better country.” In other words, we do not look to the future of this country or any other nation of the earth, but we look forward to our citizenship in heaven. It is to this kingdom we owe our allegiance above all others. But how do we look forward?
We look forward to this coming kingdom by bringing it about now. The kingdom is not just something after life, but it is here and now. In serving the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked; caring for widows and orphans, we bring about the kingdom of God. That is how we look forward, greet, and receive the promises of God “from a distance.”
This is what faith is, I argue. In faith, we live the kingdom of God among us. In faith, we live as Jesus taught us.
Understood another way, faith is about what we are ultimately concerned. Paul Tillich claims as much in Dynamics of Faith: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” Faith is making something your desired end above all other ends, your Aristotelian aim, your goal above all other goals. Faith is to invest everything in something which is the ultimate concern.
What does that look like? What are some examples? Greed makes money the ultimate concern; greed has faith in money. Selfishness makes the self the ultimate concern; it has faith in the self. Patriotism (or nationalism, whatever you want to call it) makes the State (or country, or nation, whichever) the ultimate concern; patriotism has faith in the State. For the Church, our ultimate concern is nothing short of God and his kingdom; in that, we have faith in God.
To make something which is not God the ultimate concern, or to have faith in something other than God, might be something called idolatry. So, have faith in what is right or have faith rightly. Be careful about what you have faith in.
The disciples in today’s passage ask Jesus to increase their faith, and his response may indicate that they might be asking the wrong question. For they ask for an increase in faith, but Jesus says that even the smallest amount of faith is capable of great things. If they ask for more faith to do great things, and Jesus replies that they only need a little faith to do great things, do the disciples even have any faith at all?
Is this Jesus’ criticism of the disciples? Do they have Christ and his kingdom as their ultimate concern? Is that how they lack faith? Do they lack a faith that can be given by Christ or is their decision to make him their ultimate concern the only remedy to their lack of faith? They must choose.
They cannot presently do great things, like tell nature to move at their whim, because they lack faith altogether. Are we inhibited from doing great things for the kingdom because of our ineptitude or is it a lack of faith? Are we inhibited from serving the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for widows and orphans because we lack faith? Are we inhibited from bringing about the kingdom because we do not have God as our ultimate concern?
Understanding the kingdom of God, I think, only comes about when you make it your ultimate concern. It seems unintelligible otherwise. The kingdom only comes about when you have faith in it. Why do you think the kingdom is explained in parables? Jesus says, according to John’s gospel, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:12). Only when the disciples make the kingdom of God their ultimate concern, will they be able to understand “heavenly things.”
Likewise, you cannot participate in the kingdom of God without having faith in it. You cannot understand, define, or partake unless you have faith. For this reason, only Christians can truly talk about the Church, the kingdom, and the obligations of the Christian. For this reason, I use the term often attributed to Søren Kierkegaard to talk about the kingdom: leap of faith. In making a leap of faith, we have faith in God and are able to participate in him and his kingdom. Only when we have faith can we understand.
Consequently, however, once we make the kingdom of God our ultimate concern, our lives do not make so much sense to those who do not have it as their ultimate concern. Our lives become unintelligible if not understood in light of the Gospel. Indeed, Stanley Hauerwas says of his own life that he wants “to live a life [that] is unintelligible” if not because of Jesus Christ. That is how we are ultimately concerned. That is how we have faith. We have faith by acting out of our ultimate concern in our lives. We have faith by making choices and committing actions because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That is how you have faith the size of a mustard seed.
Posted on 18 October 2010, in Bible, Church, Devotional, Scripture, Theology and tagged Alabama, Better Country, Christ, Church, Citizens of Heaven, concerns, Dynamics of Faith, Eschatology, Faith, Gospel, greed, Hebrews, Jesus, John, Kingdom, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, La Nueva Vida, Lectionary, Luke, mulberry tree, mustard seed, Parable, Patriotism, Paul Tillich, Pickens County, selfishness, Sermon, Stanley Huarwas, ultimate concern, William Willimon. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.