By Julia Gatta
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Luke 17:5)
The last time I preached on this text, which was in my parish church back in Connecticut, I did something I rarely do when preaching: I started off by asking the congregation a question I thought I already knew the answer to.
“Were there any members of the congregation,” I inquired, “who had an unshakeable faith, the kind that Jesus describes in today’s gospel, and if so, would those persons please stand up?” To my immense bafflement and a bit of chagrin, a young man about 20 years old rose to his feet.
I knew this young man. He was sitting with his parents and two younger siblings. He rarely came to the parish church these days because his relationship to his folks through his teen years had been so stormy that he moved out early, took up residence in the next town, dropped out of high school, and now worked for Pizza Hut.
After acknowledging his admirable faith, I somehow recovered my rhetorical thread — my little ploy having failed miserably — and pressed on with my sermon on faith. But the reason I remember this incident so vividly was not because this religiously confident young man stole my thunder but because a year and a half later he was dead from a drug overdose.
What a mystery is the life of faith. We scarcely know our own hearts. How closely faith and despair (for surely, that is what addiction betokens, at least in part) keep company in our souls. “Increase our faith!” the apostles plead. It’s an entreaty that scarcely has any context; part of a series of loosely strung together sayings that Luke presents as teachings along the road to Jerusalem; remembrances too precious to lose, like juicy tidbits of wisdom that we’ll squeeze into a footnote, if need be, just to make sure they’re in there.
“Increase our faith!”: the prayer lacks a context because any context will do. Almost anything might trigger such an urgent longing. Habakkuk is jettisoned into the painful questions of theodicy by pondering the aggressive policies of the Chaldeans, just as contemplating the catastrophic results of contemporary empire-building might drive us to cynicism, the hard edge of despair. Or the loss of a troubled child, such as those parents in my congregation ended up facing, might press our faith thin; or simply the wear of the daily round. “Increase our faith!” It could be our prayer anytime, all the time.
And how very nice it would be to have our faith increased on demand. How comforting to have the thorn of doubt removed, once and for all, or at least for a good long time. If we had more faith, then we could act more faithfully, more courageously, more consistently, more confidently. Then the sacrifices might feel like they really counted for something. Then our hearts wouldn’t be so divided; temptation might seem a bit less attractive; we could preach the gospel without wondering sometimes whether in fact we really believe a word of it.
“Increase our faith!” That’s our prayer, too. But Jesus will have none of it. It’s not that our faith has no growing edges — far from it! It’s still in a kind of embryonic state. Yet Jesus replies to the apostles’ prayer — and notice, it’s the inner circle who feel this deficiency in faith — by insisting that they’ve already got all that they need to get started. Like a genetic blueprint, the tiniest seed of faith — not the full-blown foliage of faith — will do. Faith in the germinal state, a mere mustard seed, is all one needs to have faith take off. What the apostles must do is simply act on the gift already in their possession: “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.”
Jesus’ response catches us off-guard. We thought we were being honest, humble even, by acknowledging our interior destitution, just how fragile and feeble our faith really is. Jesus is saying that we can’t wait until all the data is in, weighing up the pros and cons of believing. We can’t wait until we feel ready, until we’ve stockpiled enough faith to start acting like people of faith.
The only way to increase our faith, Jesus seems to be saying, is by using whatever little faith we’ve got. And to drive home his point, he insists that even a teeny-tiny faith the size of the proverbially small mustard seed could uproot the tree with the proverbially most tenacious roots and plant it in, of all unlikely places, the sea. The most miniscule faith, if exercised, can accomplish the seemingly impossible. Use it or lose it. Use it and it will grow; in fact, it might flourish.
Even someone like C.S. Lewis, who became through his writings a renowned modern apologist for Christianity, was only able to recommend the possibility of faith to others because he came to faith so gradually. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts his movement from utter unbelief to Christian believing. Luther once said that when God speaks to babies, he babbles.
By the same token, one might assume that when God speaks to intellectuals like Lewis, he will speak the language of philosophy and literary culture. So Surprised by Joy takes the reader step by step through Lewis’s intellectual pilgrimage. Yet the striking thing about it, at least to me, is not so much the way one idea led to the next but the way Lewis allowed himself to follow through, facing the consequences of each stage in his intellectual development. He was a most reluctant convert. He didn’t want to get there from here; in fact, he didn’t want to get to anyplace in particular at all. He just took each step as it came along, as honestly as he could.
Of course, not even C.S. Lewis was all intellect, as we know from his subsequent personal history. But in the course of his conversion during the 1920s, a telling incident occurred on his way from philosophical Idealism to theism, one that demanded more than logical reasoning. It required a choice. “I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus,” he writes:
Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I was aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corselet meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think … perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, “I am what I do.” Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt” (p. 123).
Lewis was being invited to use his granule of faith, his mustard seed, to make a choice. He opened the door to he knew not what. By so doing, his faith was increased, refined, expanded.
All this hits even closer to home, for many of us here, when we turn to the counsel presented in today’s epistle: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” Timothy is urged to blow on the fading embers of grace, to fan it once again into fire. In 2 Timothy we hear the worries and wisdom of either Paul or someone assuming his mantle, intent upon the business of shaping a new generation of leaders for the church.
And just what is our author at pains to convey, especially to those of us who, like Timothy, have received or will receive the commissioning that comes with the “laying on of hands”? The gospel teaching that we don’t have to wait until we feel ready, worthy, strong enough, brave enough, faithful enough to do the work of Christ and serve as his witnesses. “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands,” he writes, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
Mature faith isn’t discovered by digging into ourselves to find out whether it’s there. We are delivered, thank God, from the bottomless pit of subjectivity, from reliance upon our shifting feelings. As in the case of C.S. Lewis, emotion has little to do with it, at least at first. Instead, Timothy is counseled to recall something as simple and objective as an “outward and visible sign”: baptism first, and then the laying on of hands and the prayer that went with it. We are to turn our attention to God and his gifts, to the divine faithfulness that is constant and sure.
Eventually, the church would so embrace this teaching that she could assure her members that sacraments administered by notoriously unworthy ministers would still convey grace — even, in the Donatist controversy that occasioned this clarification, when the sacraments were administered by apostate ministers. What a relief. God is faithful even though we are not.
“Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us,” urges the author of 2 Timothy. It is a treasure that we know is contained in mere earthen vessels. And so by meditating on the faithfulness, mercy, and generosity of God, and then by acting upon this grace, our faith is indeed increased.
The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta is the Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology in the University of the South’s School of Theology.