The apostles said to the Lord "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5)
This is a heartfelt request for help, arising out of their fear that they cannot live up to the demands of discipleship. They are afraid that their little faith will prevent them from accomplishing what God requires of them.
This passage in Lukes gospel is part of a whole block of teaching about discipleship. Jesus has demonstrated, described, illustrated and argued; he has told parables and referred to scripture; he has spoken plainly and directly of the costs, challenges and sacrifices that discipleship sometimes confronts us with. At times it must have seemed to the disciples that it was too much, they could not live up to expectations.
We have all felt like that at times, and thought that if we just had more faith, we would not be distressed or confused as we sometimes are. If only our faith were stronger, we would always be on top and in control, never disheartened, afraid or overwhelmed. We would know what to do to put right the wrongs of the world, and to promote the life of the church, and to bring into the kingdom those who ignore, resist or reject it.
When we are faced with the needs and problems of the world, we, like the apostles, become conscious of how inadequate we are to redress those needs and problems. We are also afraid that our faith is too small, or too uncertain to have an effect, and we feel guilty about that, as if we have failed.
It seems from Jesus answer, however, that even a very little bit of faith can bring about quite marvellous things, and in the story about the servant he makes a connection between being faithful to ones responsibilities that seems to equate with living by faith.
Paul describes faith as the assurance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1 ) and Jesus words here seem to suggest that being faithful means continuing to live in ways that assume that assurance, even in difficult or discouraging circumstances. Faith is the foundation of the commitment to act in ways that take on trust the promises of God for the future, whether that future is near or far, in small matters and in great matters.
We need only a small grain of faith to prompt us to act as if we believe, and that action becomes itself an act of faith. The process of acting faithfully, whatever our doubts, is a statement of faith. It engages us with the dynamic of being in accordance with Gods will, and that in turn connects us to the promises of God, and so our faith is rewarded and strengthened.
If we find it difficult to accept the assurance of things that are as yet only hoped for, we can find encouragement in Pauls words to Timothy. Paul is exhorting Timothy to stay strong in faith and testimony not on the basis of what might be hoped for, but on the basis of what God has already done in Jesus.
In accepting Jesus as fulfilment of the promises of God, we have a very firm foundation on which to establish and build our faith: the resurrection of Jesus. This assurance is the basis of Christian commitment. It was on the strength of this assurance that Paul also wrote to Timothy: "...God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline." (2 Tim 1:7)
Taken together, todays readings speak to our awareness of our limitations, and our hope in God. They offer reassurance that the work of God in the world is brought about not by the small power of our faith, but by the great power of the God in whom we trust.
However, they do not suggest that we should do nothing, and simply wait for God to do everything. Like the dutiful servant, we should play our part and do what we can, while at the same time relying on God to do those things that are beyond our own capacity.
St Augustine framed this as "pray as though everything depended on God, and work as though everything depended on you." This is not to exaggerate our responsibility or power, but to bring all that we can into our partnership with God, and to bring all our resources under the direction of the kingdom of God.
Jesus goes on to say that, at the end of the day, when you have used the gifts you already have been given, you may still feel as if you have not done enough that you do not have enough to give. You may still feel, like the servant in the story, that you have only done your duty, nothing more.
This feeling should not be interpreted as guilt or regret, but rather it should lead us to understand that we have been so transformed by the spirit of God that we have attained some measure of Gods own generous and giving nature, and so we will always want to do more, for Gods sake, and for the sake of the world that God loves.
Trust what you have the faith you have been given, which is itself a gift of the Spirit of God. Trust what you have to give. It is more than enough. The lame will walk, the blind will see. Loaves will be multiplied so theres enough to feed everyone. As you sow, you shall receive. As you follow Christ, you will begin to lead. If only you have faith as small as a mustard seed. The kingdom of God is at hand. We can reach out and touch it, feel its nearness, participate in its fullness. If only we have the tiniest bit of faith, Gods will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is Jesus word of encouragement to us today, thanks be to God.