S. Pentecost 17.19 “The Faith Thing” Luke 17:1-10
I suppose ever since the beginning: Adam and Eve and the snake, Jesus and the Pharisees, the early church and Arius/Pelagius, the medieval church and the venal bishops of Rome, the modern church and well… the modern church; the Faith Thing has baffled and bewildered.
The snake convinced Eve (and Adam went along even though he knew better) that God doesn’t really mean what He says. That when God says “Don’t touch that tree or you will die. Just look at it and think of Me…” that He really means “Eat the fruit if you feel like it and pretty much do whatever you want and I’ll clean up the mess, no problem.” And you know how that worked out.
The Pharisees created the same gulf between says and means: God says: “you can’t serve Me and Mammon”. But they said “Ah, He says that, but He really means the richest, most powerful, and most popular person is the one God likes best and so must be faithful, must go to heaven.” And you know what Jesus thinks of the Pharisees (and if you don’t, check out Matthew 23!). Scriptures say Jesus is God, all the fullness of the Godhead, all of IT dwells in Jesus bodily. But Arius said, “Uh, yeah, God says that of Jesus, but He really means Jesus has some godlike qualities but he isn’t really God the way the Father is God, so we can’t rely on him alone for our salvation.” Pelagius, later in the 4th century, said pretty much the same thing. That worked out poorly, in case you didn’t know. Read up on Athanasius, the lone hero in that sad story…
The bishops of Rome from the 13th through 16th centuries were a sorry lot. Leo X, the pope in Luther’s day, was typical. A Medici 1%er, a venal fool who’d probably never cracked the spine of a bible simply didn’t care what God said. After Leo’s dad had purchased the papacy for him, Leo famously said “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Jesus says “I AM the LORD, the way, the truth, and the life.” But Leo heard it was in the Bible somewhere that “The Pope is Lord of heaven and earth.” You know how that worked out. Read up on Luther!
In the modern church, we’ve pretty much continued in Leo’s ways (I think Leo was ahead of his time, the first Modern Churchman). It’s not so much that God says one thing and we insist He means the opposite (as if God were George Costanza from Seinfeld in the famous “Mr. Opposite” episode) as that, with Leo, we really don’t care what God says anymore. We may have picked up the odd line or two from the Bible (at least we heard it’s in the Bible somewhere, like that famous verse, Matthew 29:53 where Jesus draws the line in the sand and says “If you want a piece of Me, come on over here and git you some.”) The modern church has thus created a gulf between what God says in His Word and what we figure Christianity really means.
We fall off the horse on one of two sides, either saying with Leo “Ah, faith can’t make you righteous. That won’t save you. Doing what the pope says, especially when he says “Give me money” is what saves. So get busy.” Or we say with Agricola and his antinomian band “Faith makes our justice or righteousness irrelevant. Faith means “God loves to forgive sins. You love to commit them. So go ahead, make His day, knock yourself out.” Thus, apostasy reigns…
But the Scriptures actually say something quite different than those two popular fallacies. Something that is not difficult to grasp if only you clear your mind and let God’s says equal God’s means…
Habakkuk is quite clear “The just [or righteous] shall live by his faith.” Luther grasps the meaning of this wonderfully when he writes: “Faith is a divine work in us that transforms us and begets us anew from God, kills the Old Adam, makes us entirely different people in heart, spirit, mind, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. Oh, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good. Likewise, faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them and is constantly active. Whoever does not perform such good works is a faithless man, blindly tapping around in search of faith and good works without knowing what either faith or good works are, and in the meantime he chatters and jabbers a great deal about faith and good works. Faith is a vital, deliberate trust in God’s grace, so certain that it would die a thousand times for it. And such confidence and knowledge of divine grace make us joyous, mettlesome, and merry toward God and all creatures.” (Formula of Concord SD IV:10-12).
“Joyous, mettlesome, and merry”. Isn’t that a wonderful phrase? Who wouldn’t want to be that? Well, the good news is this: Faith makes you that! Because it is God’s gift through His Word and His Word does what He says. I think this is the whole root of the problem: since few people believe Jesus is really God, they don’t believe that His Word does what it says. But if you believe Jesus is God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, you will recall how He made the heavens and earth: by just saying so! He says “Let there be Light.” And there was Light! So if He says “You are righteous” well, then!… you are, plain and simple!
In our Gospel, the disciples hear that those who cause offense [by their sin] would be better fitted with millstones and drowned in the sea than carry on like that. The disciples are like “Uh, increase our faith!” And Jesus says: “if you had mustard seed sized faith, you could command this mulberry tree to be pulled up and planted in the sea and it would obey you.”
Here is the crux of the whole Faith Thing: “Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous.” In Baptism, Jesus shared His dying with us that we would forever share His Holy and Divine Life. Every time His Word is proclaimed by His servants in our ears, the Promise is renewed and the miracle happens. Sinners are made saints. Unbelievers are made believers. For real not for pretend! Seriously! Faith makes us entirely different people in heart, spirit, mind and all our powers, makes us joyous, mettlesome, and merry no matter what comes our way on this old earth. Because we know we have an eternal Kingdom. Christ lives in us and we in Him. What could ever spoil our day?
In this life, we’re not altogether pure and holy, though. Because faith is not the Force flowing through us every minute. Sometimes sin seeps in. We are new Adams, new Eves; but the old Adam/Eve is still mucking around in our members. So… stuff happens.
The disciples saw that and said: “Jeepers! Give us more faith!” Jesus replies: “it only takes a spark… (kidding!), a mustard seed, actually. The tiniest little speck of Faith makes you Jedi, and the Force flows through you.” (NIV)
Faith always does The Good. Here’s the trick… Believe Jesus! Don’t look for The Good in you: Look for The Good in Jesus! Jesus promises: as servants obey their Master, good works follow faith. Believe Him! Faith never looks inward—never looks the gift horse in the mouth; faith is claustrophobic, seeks the vast, open spaces of Heaven, looks outward to Jesus and in adoration of Him, becomes exactly what it beholds.
Quit looking at you; fix your eyes on Jesus. Then you’re just; because then, you live by faith, and so… Peace, surpassing understanding, guards your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.