Readings: Habakkuk 1.1-4,2.1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you would say to this mulberry tree be uprooted and planted in the sea and it would obey you.
That’s one of the sayings of Jesus that has always bothered me. There’s an element of guilt: my faith doesn’t feel even that big…
You know of course that a mustard seed is proverbially the smallest of all seeds.
And somewhere in my mixed up feelings about what faith might mean is a very old feeling. A feeling that faith is about believing six impossible things before breakfast.
So what else can I say about this saying of Jesus?
First it is hyperbole. In middle eastern culture you talk in extremes. Very unBritish. We do the opposite. Traditionally we like to play things down. And why a mulberry tree – were they sitting underneath one enjoying picking the ripe fruit – and getting themselves covered in the red juice? I like that idea because it reminds me there’s usually a touch of humour in the things that Jesus said.
Second lets look at the Greek word Pistis that here is translated as faith. It’s worth looking because translation is difficult. There often isn’t an exact equivalent in English. And often the Greek word has a range of meanings. A range of meanings that are just not there in a single English word.
So what about pistis? In classical Greek it means something like a Warranty or a Guarantee. But as you probably know the Greek of the New Testament is not classical Greek.
In New Testament Greek pistis can mean faith, and it can mean trust, and it can mean loyalty. Of course if you were speaking Greek pistis contains all of those meanings. It’s difficult to get ones head round that. But just notice what it feels like to change the beginning of the creed from I believe in one God to I trust in one God. And then to I am Loyal to the one God.
Does it feel different? It does to me. And in a few minutes when we come to the form of the creed that we use in the current service book notice what it says. It says “do you believe and trust….?” So it does include two of the three shades of meaning.
And then there is a third thing I want to say. It’s a point that William Tyndale made a long time ago. William Tyndale was one of the first people to translate the bible into English. He was faced with the problem of which words to use to represent the Greek words in the New Testament. And to a large extent his choices were followed in the Authorized version –that is the King James Bible.
And the translation we use here now– the New Revised Standard Version –it mostly follows the same tradition.
So William Tyndale knew the New Testament very well. And he said his studies led him to believe that faith is a gift of the spirit. It is not something to be achieved. It is not our failure if we find faith or belief or trust difficult.
Now let me tell you a story. A story about something I did years ago which changed the way I thought about faith or belief.
At the time I was the doctor on a ward in Keynsham Hospital. The patients in that ward were all women who were severely disabled by illnesses like multiple sclerosis. There wasn’t much I could do for them medically: it was mostly about good long term nursing care. One of the nursing assistants was a member of a Catholic Charismatic prayer group. The idea came to her that we should take some at least of the patients from the ward to Lourdes. And being a persuasive sort of person she got enough people to agree with her. And she got together enough money. You could say that was a measure of her faith. So that is what we did. There is a trust which still exists to takes groups to Lourdes in what they call a Jumbulance. A Jumbulance is a specially built coach with 8 ambulance beds for the disabled and 16 ordinary seats for the helpers.
Lourdes has a lot of challenges for an Anglican. Like what am I to make of Bernadette Soubirou, the teenager who reported her encounters there with the Virgin Mary? And did I really expect any of our patients to have a miraculous recovery?
Thinking of Bernadette – I’m sure she had profound spiritual experiences that changed the course of the rest of her life. And when she tried to describe them she used a cultural framework she was familiar with. But it is not one that is familiar to Anglicans so it feels very strange. Spiritual encounters like hers are difficult to communicate but I am sure God was there in her experiences.
And no – there were no miraculous recoveries. But when we got back we noticed how the people we called the unable were more responsive and more alert. We didn’t call them patients. What I think had happened was this. The unable were enabled to have a more normal life outside the institution. For that week they shared a life with the able. Very like what happens in a L’Arche community.
I might say that the able were doing love. Or I might say we were doing faith: by our care. And it didn’t matter that some were Catholics, some were Anglicans, some belonged to other Christian Communities – and some would not call themselves Christians at al.
There is a tradition in some Christian churches that insists that faith consists in accepting particular dogmatic statements. Like the long form of the creed that we use for some of the year. The one that’s called the Nicene creed. Or like soon to be St John Newman’s hymn we sung just now. These dogmatic statements are actually metaphors, metaphors that were formulated to express the experience of Christians. They are not literal truth.
A metaphor may work in the sense that it expresses something which cannot be stated literally. Like poetry. But equally they may not work. Maybe they are about an experience I have not had. Or maybe the language of a particular metaphor does not resonate with me. Or maybe it does.
So I would say that Christian faith or trust is not about accepting particular forms of words. It’s actually about encountering the living Christ. It’s about the experience of a personal encounter. It’s a way of being.
And it’s about the effect this has on the way we are and the way that we live. It’s about two related transformations. There’s an inner transformation, which is concerned with the way we see ourselves. And there is an outer transformation which is concerned with how we live and act as a community. And the two do go together and interact with each other. The inner is about how we feel accepted and loved by God. And without that inner transformation what we do as a community will have an edge to it. It will tend to feel a bit forced as if we are doing it somehow to make ourselves feel better. There is a saying which I think is attributed to G K Chesterton. I’ve tried and failed to find the exact words. In essence it says She is devoted to helping the poor – you can see it on their faces.
When I was wondering how to end this sermon I came across a talk given by Henri Nouwen. He gave it four months before he left academic life to go and live in a L’Arche community. I’m going to end with two extracts from that talk:
When we pray frequently and know that God is in us here and now, we are very attentive to others because we are less preoccupied with ourselves. We are less worried about ourselves and if we are not very worried about ourselves we see other people more clearly. We see their struggle. We see their beauty. We see their kindness. We see that they are not trying to hurt us but that they have their own problems. We are much gentler, because we are in the presence of the Spirit. We realise these people are also struggling.
This is one of the greatest and first rewards of following Jesus. Suddenly, the Spirit in you sees the Spirit in them.
It is very freeing to know that the presence of God is practised by acts of grateful service. It makes all the difference. Prayer and service are what life is about. It is how the Spirit of God reveals God to you. Prayer and service are at the heart of following Jesus.