Hespeler, 28 January, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Luke 17:5-6, James 2:14-26, Psalm 26:1-12
hen I spoke to him about his role in the church, asking if he might like to increase his participation in some way, he became very quiet – uncharacteristically quiet – and his face visibly dropped. “I don’t think so,” he said in a small voice “I’m not a very good Christian.”
      Not a good Christian? How could he possibly think something like that? He was about the kindest and most thoughtful man I had met in many years. He was a committed father and husband who always tried to do his very best for his family. He was generous, sometimes t o a fault. Most of all he was thoughtful and engaging when it came to questions about God, the world and his place in it. I loved to discuss with him as he sometimes pushed against my thoughts in provocative ways.

      But there, it seems, was the nub of the problem. He explained that, while he did love talking about Jesus and enjoyed thinking about various stories and passages in the Bible, he wasn’t entirely sure if he believed all of that stuff. “Oh, I love the stories about the virgin birth, the time when Jesus was walking on the water, the whole transfiguration show, I just can’t be sure that it all really happened like that. How can I be a good Christian if I have doubts?”

      That is a conversation that I must have had dozens of times, in various forms, in my career. I have been told by people of every shape, size, age and gender that they cannot be good Christians because they have doubts. Of course, I have also had at least as many with people who come at me from completely the opposite end of the spectrum, who have proudly told me that they have never entertained any doubts whatsoever – that they read something in the Bible or hear a good sermon and just believe it all without question or hesitation.
      I don’t personally have a problem with either type of person. They are both beloved of the Lord. But that is not how it is generally seen in the church. Somehow we tend to see the Christian who never has any questions or struggles with any doubts as the stronger, better and more mature one, while the one who admits some doubts is seen as weak at best and sometimes accused of not being a Christian at all.
      That’s right, even if someone is absolutely arro­gant about what they believe – even if they use their beliefs to mock or abuse people that they don’t like for some reason – that is to say if they show anything but the fruits of the spirit, anything but “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” – they are seen to be excellent Christians because they are so certain about what they believe. Somebody else, who may have all of the fruit, can be looked down upon because they lack certainty.
      But I guess we can’t do much about that, can we? We are taught that the one thing that is most essential to Christianity is faith. We are told over and over again in the scriptures and in the teachings of the church that is it not about what you do, certainly not about your religious practices, it is about faith. And faith is all about being certain, isn’t it, I mean especially about being certain of impossible or unlikely things?
      That’s what I always thought that Jesus meant when he said, “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.” I remember when I was younger I would read that passage and I would go out and find a mulberry tree somewhere. Well, actually not a mulberry tree because I honestly don’t know what they look like or even if they grow anywhere around here. But I would find something – a blade of grass, a bit of fluff, a small stick and I would stare at it because I thought that Jesus had said that I just had to believe that I could do it – that if I could just screw my brain up into the right attitude without even the slightest trace of doubt anywhere inside me – it would move.
      It never did – not even a millimeter – but that didn’t really matter, didn’t negate what Jesus had said, because surely all it meant was that I must have doubted just a little, that it was my fault that the mulberry tree didn’t move.
      I didn’t question it then, but I have since wondered whether I might just have misunderstood what Jesus was really saying there. Was Jesus really saying that faith was about being completely certain and banishing all doubt? And was he really suggesting that the thing that I needed to have faith in was my ability to make the mulberry tree move? I have since begun to think that maybe I did misunderstand Jesus’ meaning.
      The first thing I note is that the image that Jesus uses to talk about faith is kind of interesting. He says you need faith “the size of a mustard seed.” He goes out of his way to find an image of something that is really small – kind of ridiculously small. In fact, in another parable, Jesus even called the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds on the face of the earth (though that is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration). That tells me that, whatever Jesus meant by what he was saying, he didn’t mean that you had to have a large amount of faith to move mulberry trees. On the contrary, maybe he was even saying that the less you had the better.
      How could that be? It seemed to go against everything I thought I knew about faith. How could Jesus possibly be giving encouragement to people who had little faith? And how could such a small quantity of faith (potentially all mixed in with doubt) possibly make the mulberry tree move? It didn’t make sense. But perhaps faith didn’t mean what I always had thought that it meant.
      I credit the passage we read from the Letter of James this morning with helping me to better understand what Jesus may have meant. In this letter, the author goes on at length on the subject of faith and he doesn’t seem to be overly impressed by the faith that he has observed in some people – particularly with those who profess to believe important things but it doesn’t really show up in their actions. But someone will say,” James complains “‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” What he is saying here is that he is not overly impressed by what people believe, especially when they don’t do anything with it. In fact, he makes that quite clear when he goes on to say sarcastically, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.”
      I don’t think that he could really put it clearer. You can believe all kinds of true things about God – that God exists, that God is one. You can even believe all kinds of dubious things about God: that God is made of green cheese, that God is a forty-five year-old truck driver. James doesn’t care what you believe about God. James cares what you do about what you believe and it will be in how you live out your faith that you will show James that you have faith, not by how certain you are about the things that you believe.
      When I put together the words of James with the illustration of Jesus it becomes clear to me that I had misunderstood the nature of faith. Faith really has nothing to do with how certain you are about what you believe and thus about the size of your belief. Faith can be small – as small as a mustard seed – because it is not about how much of it you have.
      The catechism defines the true nature of faith as it is understood in the New Testament quite well: “Belief or faith is a wholehearted trust in God.” It is about trust, not just about believing a bunch of things about God or being certain about those things. It is the same kind of trust that you might put in another person – someone that you felt that you could have confidence in because you knew that they would never let you down.
      Because it is defined as trust, we realize that the object of faith matters a great deal more than the quantity of faith. You have to put your trust in someone or something that is reliable. Say, for example, you need to take a flight to go somewhere. When you get on the plane you are placing your trust in the airplane, in the mechanics who maintain it and the pilot who flies it. If that trust is well placed – if the plane is well-built, well-maintained and well flown – how much faith do you need to have for it to get you to your destination? Not much. All you need is enough faith to get yourself on the plane because, if you have zero trust, I tell you that nothing is going to get you on that plane. But if you have enough to get on the plane (you know, small like a grain of mustard) and even if you are trembling with fear and full of doubts, your fear and your doubts won’t affect the flight of that plane, will they? That’s all up to the plane, the mechanics and the pilot. Your part in flying someplace (apart from paying for your ticket) is to chose wisely in which airline you are going to put however much or however little faith you have.
      But let ask you this: who is more likely to choose wisely when selecting an airline – those who just decide to be certain that the first one they see will be fine, or those who have enough doubts and questions that they are willing to do some research and ask some questions first? Yes, the latter group may take longer to decide and they may never get all of their questions answered or all their doubts calmed, but whose advise would you really rather take?
      That’s why I think it is time to lay aside this notion that the elites of the Christian faith are those who are always certain about what they believe and don’t have doubts or questions. It is certainly time to put aside the notion that those who do doubt are inferior in their faith. It doesn’t matter how much you believe, it matters who you trust. And that trust can be mixed with as much or as little doubt as is appropriate to you.
      Are you someone who has naturally gravitated to the Christian faith – who always just knew that it was true? Have you heard the stories of the Bible that seem impossible and your reaction has always just been, “Wow, that’s amazing! Just think that it happened just like that!”? I have known many Christians just like that and, you know, I have known them to be wonderful people. There is a beauty and purity to their worship and praise and I know that God loves them.
      Are you someone who, on the other hand, continually struggles with questions and doubts? Do you hear some of the fantastical stories of the Bible and your first reaction is to say, “I don’t know how that could have been”? Well if you can learn to trust Jesus even if you have doubts and even if your questions might never be completely answered, you are no less of a Christian and no less beloved of God than those in that first group. In fact, you are probably a fascinating person to discuss God with and I somehow think that God really likes that about you.
      Both sorts exist; both sorts are beloved of God and, most of all, both sorts are needed as well as every sort of person in between. That is because it doesn’t matter how much you believe or how little you doubt. It matters who you trust. That’s all that matters even if that trust is mixed with doubts and questions. That’s what Jesus was saying. It’s what James was saying too. It’s time we started to accept it. And it is especially time for us to treat every individual’s approach to the faith with respect.


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