The followers of Jesus have been listening to him teach about the kingdom of heaven being at hand, about what it means to follow him, about the cost of discipleship, about the pitfalls, and demands, of being a disciple of Jesus.
By the time we pick up the story in today’s reading, we might imagine that they’re beginning to feel a bit panicky and anxious about what they have got themselves into.
‘Increase our faith!’, they demand. We need more faith, bigger faith, better faith — as if faith was just another commodity that could be enlarged and improved upon; like a present day laundry detergent advertised as ‘new and improved; washes whiter; now even better at removing stains; comes in our biggest ever box.’
'Increase our faith!' Jesus chooses to respond to this request in a rather difficult and hard to understand way. To be fair, he has got a bit of form in this regard, which is presumably also part of his followers’ struggle to get to grips with what he expects of them.
‘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 17.6)
Ever tried that? Ever tried praying really, really hard to make something like that happen? A bush to transplant itself? A mountain to move? Come on! It only takes the tiniest bit of faith for that to work. A mustard seed is so small as to be almost invisible. Such a tiny quantity of faith should be easily manageable.
But garden shrubs don't shift themselves around when people pray, and I think Jesus knows this. What he also understands is that people desire faith as a kind of superpower, enabling them to do great things, all sorts of miracles and wonders. And he, rightly, doesn’t trust their motives for this one bit.
In fact, there are no shortage of religious leaders who claim to have exactly that kind of power. They are the sort of people who tell you that if you get ill, it's because you don’t have enough faith; that if you’re poor it is because God hasn't blessed you (which, of course, is your own fault too). Actually, the real miracle such leaders perform is the transfer of large amounts of cash from the wallets and purses of their hard-pressed followers into their own pockets, which is why these kinds of ministers usually live in mansions and drive luxury cars. They pass their mega-rich lifestyle off as a blessing, because they say God wants us all to be rich.
Funny, then, that Jesus himself was dirt poor, and spent much of his time in the company of other poor people, not making them materially rich but bringing them instead the spiritual richness and fulness of life that comes from friendship with him.
His followers were a real raggedy band, mainly composed of poor, uneducated hillbillies and rednecks, struggling to grasp all this conceptual kingdom of heaven business that Jesus kept telling them about. Not only that, but they went on to become the foundation of the worldwide Church today. These are the very people Jesus entrusts with continuing to spread the good news that he had told them about. Just like he trusts us to do the same. You don’t have to be Billy Graham, or a genius, or a millionaire.
It isn’t status, or wealth, or gifts or talents that makes you a faithful follower of Jesus.
It is living out your relationship with him.
His disciples didn't always grasp what he was talking about, but they trusted him. Faith is not something that can be quantified or measured. It's the same when someone is your friend, then they are simply your friend. That’s the relationship you have with them. You don't measure the size of it, or put a number on it. The only thing that can increase a friendship is the amount of time you spend with one another.
So when we say 'yes' to the invitation that Jesus brings to be God’s friend, then, through Jesus and the time we spend in his company, that friendship grows and increases.
Faith is persistence in reaching out to Jesus (Luke 5.17-26) and trusting in Jesus’ power and authority (7.1-10). Faith is responding with love to forgiveness received (7.44-50), not letting fear get the upper hand (8.22-25), and being willing to take risks that challenge the status quo (8.43-48). Faith is giving praise to God (17.11-19), having confidence in God’s desire for justice (18.1-8), and being willing to ask Jesus for what we need (18.35-43).*
Does Jesus see through his disciples’ request for greater faith? Maybe he understands that behind their question is an anxiety that they cannot do all that he wants of them. So they want the superpower; but Jesus wants them—he wants us—to simply trust him. He doesn't want us doing party tricks to impress our friends, as a way of selling God to unbelievers. That’s a human impulse. Jesus wants us to be his disciples, his friends; to discover what that kind of faith is like, an authentic faith, so that we can pass it on. Then we can share the invitation to be a friend of God, not based on flashy miracles, but on our own experience of having our inner-life transformed and of discovering that our best self is found when we give ourselves to God and to each other.
And that takes even less faith than the size of a mustard seed. However little faith you have, just live it out. It is sufficient. Active faith that is really, really tiny will still be blessed. Don’t worry about whether you have more or less than others. It isn’t a competition.
St Paul writes in his letter to Timothy that God, ‘…saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.’ (2 Tim 1.9, emphasis added). We don’t need the superpower, because God does the heavy-lifting for us.
Faith isn’t something to be sought after for our own ends. It is given to us so that we can join in with the work of God in the world — of building towards the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom, as we read elsewhere in the gospels, is like a fantastic party where everyone is invited. The poor, the disabled, the misfits, the shunned, the loners, the thugs who pretend they aren't really frightened, the ones with the weird personality, the ones who are a bit bonkers, the bad haircuts, the speech impediments, the flat-chested and the tiny-willied, the ones that will never win a beauty competition—even the fat, balding, grey-haired, gay ones from Scotland—and all the other superficial stuff people get all hot and bothered about.
Jesus paints a picture of the kingdom of heaven, not as a place full of shiny, beautiful people who reek of success, but of the very people the establishment and the rich look down on. We're all invited. And, like any good teenager, when we discover this great party, we should immediately text all our friends and invite them too, until we've torn the house apart.
And don't forget, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus talks about isn't just some after-life paradise. It is something that exists for us here and now, and we're all welcome.
Faith equips us to serve God in building towards this vision, and to continue the work that Jesus has started. And that doesn't require superpower levels of faith. That just needs you to start acting out your faith—your relationship with Jesus—however inadequate you feel that is, confident in the knowledge that it will be blessed by God.
* Audrey L. S. West, et. al., New Proclamation: Year C, 2010; Easter through Christ the King, David B. Lott, ed. (Fortress: Minneapolis, 2009), 234.