John Thompson-Quartey: Lord, Increase Our Faith

You have probably heard the story before, but it is worth repeating. This is the story about David, a devout Christian man who loves nature so much that he likes to hikes in the woods. While hiking, he often fills the time with intercessory prayers for everyone in his life.

On one of his excursions in a deserted mountainous area, he tripped on the root of a tree and began to roll downwards toward the valley below him. As he tumbled downwards, he frantically reached out for anything he could grab on to. Fortunately for him, his hands grabbed a tree branch which he held on to for dear life. The only problem was that he was now hanging about two hundred feet and below him was a rocky landing. To let go of the tree branch could mean certain death or serious injuries. As he prayed for a miracle, he began to scream out loud for any passersby. As he screamed “Help! Anybody out there?” he thought he heard God calling him by name and asking him to let go of the tree branch. So, to be sure, he asked, “God, is that you?” The voice replied, “Yes, David; I’m here to save you. Let go.” So, David looked down from where he was perched at the edge of a cliff, and realizing he wasn’t going to get a soft landing, he looked up and asked, “Is anyone else up there?”

The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31)!

In today’s gospel reading, we hear the disciples of Jesus asking their teacher for more faith. One can tell from the kinds of questions that these disciples asked Jesus that they weren’t quite sure what they got themselves into when they signed up for this life of a disciple.

Today’s petition, “Lord, increase our faith,” is another example of their lack of understanding. And frankly, we can’t blame them, because just before this passage Jesus had overwhelmed them with some very scary sayings. They were headed toward Jerusalem and they knew something BIG was going to happen, but they weren’t quite sure how big, and how the events in Jerusalem would impact their lives.

You see, in the first four verses preceding this gospel passage, Jesus had just informed the disciples that occasions for stumbling were ahead of them, but woe to the one who will cause the stumbling, because it would have been for them as if a millstone were hung around their necks and they were thrown into the sea!

And oh, it gets better. Jesus tells them that when a brother or sister sins against them and repents, then comes to ask for forgiveness, they must forgive the offender, even if the offender kept offending, repenting, and coming back to ask for forgiveness up to seven times a day! Lord, have mercy!

No wonder the disciples were pleading to have their faith increased! For surely, they thought, it’s going to take a lot more than their friendship with Jesus to be able to tolerate, let alone maintain, a relationship with a repeat offender!

When Jesus called his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, none of them could have imagined what that really meant. Yet, they were heading towards Jerusalem, and it was imperative that they prepare themselves for what was about to happen when Jesus was no longer with them.

Again, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Perhaps the disciples of Jesus thought that faith was something like an asset to be accumulated. In other words, the person with the most faith gets the front row seat in heaven. There is an inherent danger in this assumption, because it would mean that if one could master the art of accumulating more faith, then one would be a better Christian. But here, Jesus dispels their erroneous assumptions. Jesus said, all it takes to do great things is a faith which is as tiny as a mustard seed.

Simply put, one must only have trust in God to work through them in extraordinary ways. According to the late theologian and priest, Henri Nouwen, “When Jesus talks about faith, he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved.” Nouwen goes on to write, “Whenever Jesus says to people he has healed, ‘Your faith has saved you,’ he is saying that they have found new life because they have surrendered in complete trust to the love of God revealed in him.”

Bishop Will Willimon of the United Methodist Church, a distinguished preacher, describes faith as “being in loving relationship with God.” He goes on to say that faith is a gift from God, and not something we have to work hard to get.

You see, the faith which Jesus is speaking about with his disciples is about trusting God with our lives, our very lives. It is about knowing and believing that God is faithful and will always remain faithful. It is about a relationship that is grounded in the knowledge that we are the beloved children of God, and there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from that divine love.

Thus, all the healing miracles that Jesus performed in his earthly ministry were manifestations of his total trust in God to use him as an instrument of healing – one life at a time!

For us then, faith requires constant trust in God through our daily acts of love and mercy shown to neighbor and stranger alike. Faith requires us to live fully and abundantly in a trusting relationship with a God who can use us in ways we can never imagine, to bring about transformation in the lives of others.

Here I am reminded of the woman who simply touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed. Remember what Jesus said to her? “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” And how about Zacchaeus who simply climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus, and this simple action earned him a dinner date with the master healer.

I once read faith as described as a muscle in our body. When it is in constant use, it builds up and gets stronger. But when neglected, it withers and dies. In his letter to his disciple Timothy, the Apostle Paul demonstrates how faith can be passed down from generation to generation simply by maintaining a trusting relationship with God.

Paul writes: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you” (2 Timothy 1:5).

The Lutheran pastor David Lose writes: “Faith is heading out the door each day looking for opportunities to be God’s partner and co-worker in the world: caring for those in need, protecting the vulnerable, reaching out to the lonely, befriending the friendless…. Just keeping the world going. It’s not heroic, but it is essential.”

Somehow, by telling his disciples that they only need a tiny faith to be faithful agents of transformation in the world, Jesus affirms our own daily lives and activities as opportunities for God’s grace to break in and transform lives around us. What may seem to you and me as mundane and ordinary, can be used by God as a moment of grace to change someone’s life circumstances.

The New Testament scholar Karoline Lewis suggests that the petition of the disciples, “increase our faith,” comes from fretting and not trusting God. She explains that it is the appeal born out of anxiety, which gives witness to our uncertainties.

Essentially, asking for an increase in our faith is like asking God to increase our bank accounts so that we can respond to the needs of the poor. Or asking God to increase the kindness in our hearts, so that we can show kindness to those who are miserable and lonely. Some people have the misperception that an act of faith needs to be costly or extravagant to merit God’s attention. But in today’s gospel, Jesus dispels that myth, and invites his followers into a trusting and loving relationship with God and neighbor.

I guess we can begin by living our lives with total trust in the God who called us his beloved at our baptism. A God whose love for us in unconditional, so that we can confidently love and embrace others, because he loved us first.

Indeed, it may seem to be a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet our God is a loving God whose only desire is that we may flourish.

And now to God, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and forever. Amen.