The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”Luke 17:5
I wonder how many of you feel as though you have enough faith? Or are you like me, and sometimes wish that you had a little more faith? A little more trust that God really is in control of this world. A little more belief that it is all going to be okay. We just have to have faith. We are here because we have at least a little faith. But if you have ever wished you had a little more, you are certainly not alone.
In today’s gospel reading (Luke 17:5-10), it is Jesus’ apostles who are asking for more faith. Even they sometimes struggled with believing and trusting in God and in their leader, Jesus. The apostles are the ones who have left everything to follow Jesus. But they have been listening to his recent teachings. Which have been challenging, to say the least. We’ve heard a lot of these challenging teachings in recent weeks. At the beginning of this chapter, we just heard some more:
“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 there is repentance, you must forgive. 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” (Luke 17:1-4).
It is no wonder that Jesus’ apostles respond to these teachings with a desperate plea: “Increase our faith!” And their honest request should bring comfort to anyone who has ever wished for the same: a little more faith, a little more trust that it’s all going to be okay, that God is in control, and that God cares about us all. We just have to have a little faith. Or, perhaps, just a little more faith.
How Much Is Enough?
But this raises a question, at least to me: How much faith is enough? The apostles feel as though they need more faith to face the challenges that Jesus is placing before them. So they ask Jesus to increase their faith. If they are going to do everything that Jesus asks of them, they will certainly need more faith. At least that is what they believe. But that turns out not to be true. They don’t need more faith.
When the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, he offers a very famous response. He tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed, they have more than enough faith. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed that exists. But it is the smallest seed that the disciples knew about. It is tiny. And Jesus tells them that if they have faith the size of this tiny seed, they have more than enough faith. And I think that what Jesus is saying, to them and to us, is that if we have any faith at all, it is enough. Or, to put it another way, if we have enough faith to ask for more, then we already have enough.
The apostles ask for more faith. That means they have some faith, right? If they have some faith – if we have some faith – then we have enough faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed is plenty, Jesus says. Why? Because it’s not a question of how much faith we have – it’s a question of who we put our faith in.
Faith, to put it yet another way, is not about believing in something or someone without ever having any doubts. The theologian Paul Tillich puts it this way, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And the writer Anne Lamott takes this one step further when she writes,
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
This is all that Jesus asks of us: To notice the mess, and wait for the light. To trust him. Even when things seem very dark. To hold onto our mustard seed sized faith, and trust that it is enough. Not because of the amount of our faith, but because of who we are placing it in.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus follows the statement about the mustard seed with a rather strange example involving a slave doing what is commanded. What’s the point of that example? I think that it is simply to remind us that we’re not in charge here. So we don’t have to have it all figured out. We don’t need certainty. We don’t need to see the whole picture. God is in charge. And God knows what he is doing. There is more going on than any one of us knows or understands. So we are asked to trust him. And to do our job. Don’t wait until we have it all figured out.
Part of figuring it out comes by trusting the master and doing our job anyway. Or, as the great saint and theologian Augustine put it, “we do not understand in order to believe. We believe in order to understand.” Trust Jesus. Do what he says. And in time we will understand his purpose and his plan.
We see through that glass darkly, as scripture puts it. That’s why we need faith, isn’t it? So, Jesus says to us, trust me. Trust me and follow me. And eventually it will all become clear. But not in your time. In God’s.
That is, to me, the basic message behind this gospel reading. If you have enough faith to ask for more, then you have enough faith already. Because it’s not a matter of how much faith you have – it’s a matter of who you put your faith in.
Yes, But What Can We Do to Grow Our Faith?
But I want to come back to the question that the apostles ask at the beginning of today’s gospel reading, “Increase our faith!” And I want to come back to Jesus’ answer, that all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed. Mustard seeds grow, don’t they? In fact, a few chapters earlier, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, which grew and became a tree that gave shelter to the birds of the air. So, I want to ask the question: Isn’t there something that we can do to increase our faith? Mustard seeds, when planted, grow, so can’t our faith grow? And I think that it can.
So I want to suggest three specific things that we can do to grow our faith. If we have ever wanted just a little more faith, here are three specific things we can do.
First, and perhaps most obvious, we can do what the apostles did: we can ask for more faith. That’s what the apostles did, right? They said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Think about that as a prayer, and it is a wonderful prayer. When we are struggling to believe, we can simply talk to God about it.
Lord, I am struggling to believe in you right now. I’m having a hard time trusting you. Increase my faith. Help me to trust you more.
Or, as it was put elsewhere in the gospels, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). One of my favorite prayers.
When we are struggling to believe, we can pray. Sometimes people can feel guilty about doing that. Should I really tell God that I am having trouble believing in him? What will he think? But, really, who better to talk to about it? And don’t you think he knows already? So, ask God. Talk to him. That’s the first and most obvious thing we can do.
Another thing that might be obvious, but needs to be said, is that if you feel as though your faith is in short supply, one of the best things you can do is come to church (or worship online if you cannot attend in person). Don’t wait until you believe to come to church, because church is where your faith is best nurtured. This is a very Lutheran understanding of how to increase our faith: through hearing God’s Word and sharing in the sacraments. Here is how one of my favorite Lutheran writers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, puts it:
If you are struggling to believe, “Come to the church! You can do that on the strength of your human freedom. You can leave your house on Sunday and go to hear the preaching. If you do not do it, then you willfully exclude yourself from the place where faith is possible. In this the Lutheran confessions show that they know there is a situation which enables faith.”
So, if you want to increase your faith, pray for it. And come to church.
But a third way to increase our faith is to share our struggles and even our doubts with a Christian friend. Or with me. Don’t keep it to yourself. Share your struggles with someone you trust. There are many, many examples of famous Christians who have done this. To give you just one example, consider John Wesley. Remember him? The founder of the Methodist Church?
Well, John Wesley went through a period in his life when his faith was very low. So what did he do? He talked to some friends that he trusted. One of them offered this advice to him: “Preach faith until you have it. And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” He was also invited to attend a meeting at the church one evening, where they were studying Martin Luther’s writing on Paul’s Letter to Romans. And this is how John Wesley himself describes what happened when he heard Martin Luther describe the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ:
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
And, of course, after that John Wesley went on to become one of the greatest preachers and evangelists the church has ever known. Even though, or perhaps because, he struggled in his faith. Why? Because when he did, he talked to a trusted friend. And he prayed to the Lord, asking him to increase his faith. And he went to church. And his mustard seed sized faith proved to be enough to dramatically change the church forever.
And isn’t that the point that Jesus is trying to make today? Your faith, however small it may seem, is plenty big enough. Because it isn’t about how big your faith is. It never was. It was always about who you put that faith in. No matter how little our faith, when we put it in Jesus there is no end to what he can accomplish. To the glory of God. Amen.