Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.
And that’s when the disciples crack. That’s the line. That’s when they blurt out: “Lord, increase our faith!”
It’s like they’ve reached a point where all the stuff that Jesus is telling them, and calling them to do, just seems like too much. He’s been going on for days about money and how we are supposed to live with it if we have it, saying things that are bound to get us in trouble with our financial advisors.
Before that it was the weird social fabric of the kingdom of God, made up of ingrates and ne’er-do-wells, and lost folks, and ones not smart enough to stay where the getting is good. Those are the kinds that God apparently has a thing for. And before that there was the stuff about hating our families and picking up our crosses and narrow gates and heavenly parties full of people we’d really rather not invite.
And things were still ok, but when he tells us that we’re responsible to guard the faithfulness of others, and not just that, but we have to forgive someone seven times a day, if they ask us to, that’s apparently the line. That’s it. If the disciples are going to do this Jesus thing, they’re going to need a little more than they’ve got. And I’m kind of on their side, here.
Being a disciple of Jesus seemed like a good idea when he orchestrated a miracle catch of fish, way back on the beaches of Gennesaret. Being on Jesus’ side felt like a good choice at the time. But things have been building up and suddenly the disciples are deeply aware of how ill-equipped they are on their own, to see this thing through. I mean, they’re just fishermen and bean-counters from Galilee, a former prostitute or two and some idealistic teenagers who wanted to get out of Capernaum for a bit of adventure. They’re not spiritual warriors. Most of them dropped out of Sabbath school as soon as they were old enough to do something else. They just don’t have what it takes to live like Jesus expects them to live.
There are so many days when I totally get that. There are so many times when I kind of wish I didn’t know what Jesus thinks about things like money, and relationships, and service and generosity and what constitutes true greatness, and—heaven help us—forgiveness, to name a few. When I think back to the excitement of the days when Kate and I were first leaning into a real faith, or my first day of seminary when I imagined that Jesus and I were going to take over the world, there are moments when I wonder what on earth I was thinking. The singer Steve Bell talks about being surprised in the early years of having children by what he calls the “realities of family life.” He says he figures that romance is a drug that God washes over our brains to get us to do stuff we would never do if we had any idea what was coming. Some days that feels a little bit like what faith does, too, when we first fall for Jesus.
I trust I’m not the only one who feels that way from time to time, or a little more often than that. When we really listen to what Jesus has to say, when we really pay attention to the stuff he calls us to do—the way he expects us to live with God and neighbor, the kinds of folks he wants us to let in, how we’re supposed to be with our stuff and our time and our energies—I think it’s not too hard to understand where the disciples are coming from. If you want us to do this stuff, Jesus, you’re going to have to increase our faith. We’re gonna need a miracle (especially if you want me to forgive that person). I mean, we’re only human, right?
And to that Jesus says that if we only had faith the size of a mustard seed (which is real tiny) we could tell one of those trees over there to go plant themselves in the Burrard Inlet and it would happen. It feels like a scolding, doesn’t it? I think I always feel it that way. I’ve never had someone hear this story and then go out and try to boss a tree around, which may suggest that most of us are not super confident about the size of our faith. I don’t think I’ve ever read this passage and thought to myself, “O good. I have at least that much faith.” It always feels like Jesus is calling me out.
But the thing is, in Greek, the language that St. Luke tells this story in, there are two distinct ways to say “if.” It’s a distinction that’s lost in English. One is, “if…but you don’t.” The other is “if…and you do.” If you read the daily devotional for this passage this week, you’ll know that we’re dealing with option 2. Jesus isn’t chastising the disciples for the weakness of their faith. He’s insisting that they really do have everything they need, to do what he’s calling them to do.
To state the obvious, I think the tree bit is some pastoral exaggeration. I don’t think he literally meant it. But the sort of wide-open, generous, God-shaped lives that Jesus gets us into can feel just about as impossible.
And Jesus believes we have everything we need to do it. “Only human” isn’t an excuse; it’s what we’re made to be.
This isn’t Jesus wagging his finger at us. It’s Jesus taking us more seriously than we often take ourselves. It’s Jesus insisting that what he’s called us to, the adventure he’s got us into, is what we’re meant for. We’ve got everything we need.
I think that’s why Luke has stuck this other saying next to it, about servants and masters. It’s a bit choppy, but together these teachings tell us that when we really start to listen to him, when we start to do the things Jesus tells us—when we grow in generosity, and welcome extravagantly, when we let God’s order of things overwhelm the ways we’re used to (so that kids are our examples and the poor are honoured guests), when we learn to forgive reflexively—we’re not doing anything extraordinary, not really. We’re doing what we’re meant to do. We’re growing not beyond our humanity, but into it. We’re learning what it means to be made in the image of God, to bear that beauty in the world.
It seems to me that there’s something lost in translation in the final verse of this section, too. I’m not sure that Jesus wants us wandering around saying that we’re worthless slaves. At least, not the way that lands in our ears. No matter how you say it, that doesn’t sound like love. As ever, translation is about more than getting the right words, so I like how Eugene Peterson renders it, in The Message: “Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
That can seem to be downplaying what it means to live lives of faith, what it means to let God’s kingdom come among us. It feels like discipleship is a bit of a holy shoulder-shrug. But we’re not dealing with the One who shrugs his shoulders at us; we’re dealing with the One who came that we might have life and have it abundantly, the One who is able to do in us and through us more than we can ask or imagine, the One who—in the end—will call us not servants, but friends because we know his business.
I think that Jesus is undermining our tendency to assume that the way the world seems to be, the patterns we’re familiar with, is the way that things really are. The stuff Jesus calls us to, the radical sorts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control that he wants and expects for us only seems radical because we’ve so often settled for something less.
There’s something wildly good, wildly freeing about the fact that Jesus seems to think that there’s nothing terribly special about what he’s calling us to. It only seems that way because he’s drawing us into a life that looks like things will be when God gets the world God wants. When we live lives of faith, hope, and love that shock the world around us, that’s not a sign that we’re just at odds with the way things are; it’s evidence that we’re living into the way they really are. It’s evidence that we are learning more and more to live in the way that we are made to live—grabbing hold of life that is truly life, humans made in the image of God.
The remarkable thing about all this isn’t that the first disciples of Jesus, the ones who walked with him, who saw the miracles, who looked him in the eye when he told his parables, didn’t think they had it in them to stick it out. The remarkable thing is that they actually started to believe what Jesus said about them. Eventually, Peter would be able to say without a blush (as in his second letter) that we really have been given everything we need for “life and godliness”—and not just a little bit, but in proportion to Jesus’ own glory and goodness, out of the abundance of God’s riches.
If we’re a community called together by Jesus and learning to walk in his way (and I believe we are; that’s the second “if”), then that’s the promise we’re caught up in. That’s what we’re learning to know. In the company of Jesus, by the grace and power of God, we have everything we need to live in the world as people who are letting God’s will come to life in us, as it is in heaven. The stuff Jesus calls us to is not contrary to who we are; it’s who we’re really meant to be.
I like that the lectionary pairs this gospel reading with the first part of 2 Timothy. Paul begins that letter by saying nice things about Timothy, and also about his mom and grandma (because Paul knows which side his bread is buttered on). And then he says to his young pastor, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.
I don’t know what’s going on in Timothy’s life, whether he’s having some specific struggle, or if Paul just knows that the Christian life isn’t always straightforward; that it’s mostly not mountaintop highs and some days we’re all like the disciples who say to Jesus, “If you want us to do this thing, we’re going to need one of your miracles.” I don’t know what the issue is, but something’s up. Because Paul tells him to “rekindle” the gift of God—stoke the gift of faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit. If someone’s blazing with passion, they don’t need to be rekindled.
So Paul reminds him what that gift (the disciples had it right: faith is a gift, not an accomplishment, which is very good news, I think) looks like: not cowardice—we’re not to be “shy with God’s gifts” as The Message puts it—but access to a power not our own; a love deeper and higher, wider and longer than we can imagine; a freedom (that’s what self-discipline is) to live freely and fully in the rhythms of grace.
Frankly, I’m grateful to know that a biblical pastor—who’d been anointed and prayed over by St. Paul himself—needed this reminder. I’m grateful to know that the disciples, Peter, James, John and the rest, who’d done everything with Jesus for years, needed to be reminded of this. I’m grateful to know it, because it allows us to be reminded, even to admit that we need to be reminded. This life Jesus has got us into is not a straight shot from baptism to glory. It doesn’t whisk us out of the ups and downs of life. We’re not suddenly people who don’t need grace and mercy; we’re people who know how much we need it. And we’re learning to know that these things come as gift in the midst of it all; gift that reminds us who and whose we are in every circumstance. And that frees us not to try to save the world (this is not another thing to add to the to-do list), but to live as those who are learning to move in the freedom we’re made for; learning to live lives that pulse with hope, peace, joy, love, righteousness, justice, and generosity, wherever we find ourselves, and come what may. In the company of Jesus we’re learning to throw off the stuff that binds and wears us down, and to bear God’s image beautifully, one gracious day at a time.
I’m excited that in a couple of weeks we’re going to start a series based on a book called Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus. Because it will give us an opportunity to explore together, more deeply, some of the ways that we can grab onto Jesus’ “if,” that promise that we’ve been given what we need to plant gospel seeds that bear fruit in all sorts of weird places that need it; and ways that we can rekindle what needs to be rekindled, and tend to what’s already burning hot.
But in the meantime, I want to encourage you to spend some time in the passage from 2 Timothy 1 this week. Whether you’re ablaze with passionate faith right now, or wondering if this Jesus business is really worth it or even possible, sit with the promise. Know that in either case, you’re not alone. If you need someone to pray with you about these things, let me or a trusted friend know. Let God work in you the grace and mercy you need. Let God remind you of who and whose you are, now and forever.
To the One who is able and willing, by the Spirit working within us, by power that raised Christ from the dead, to do abundantly far more than all we would ask or imagine—to God be the glory, in Christ Jesus and in the Church, now and always. Amen.