Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Faith and obedience

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. 

7 “Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”  Luke 17:5-10

At first glance those two passages don't seem to fit together. In the first part Jesus is answering a question about how to increase faith. The reason the disciples had asked the question is because they didn’t think that their faith could meet the demands of Jesus’ command to forgive. And so they asked Jesus to show how they could have a faith strong enough/big enough to forgive as he commanded them to do.

It is a reminder to us that in order to truly live the Christian life we need Christ. We need his help, his wisdom and his grace. Without Him we will fail and become disillusioned. How can we love our enemies without Jesus’ help? How can we forgive those who hurt us without His grace? The disciples are showing us how to be disciples, by leaning on Jesus.

Jesus' response is to say that all they need is a little faith and they would be able to achieve all kinds of seemingly impossible things. Speaking to a mulberry tree and commanding it to be uprooted and planted in the sea is here a metaphor for the impossible.

But then Jesus seems to change tack. He talks about the unquestioning obedience of a servant who always puts the needs of the master before their own. When a servant comes in from a hard day’s work the master doesn't say “sit down and have something to eat”. Instead he asks them to prepare him supper. Only after they have finished serving are they then able to sit down and see to themselves.

Two questions then. First, what is the point Jesus is making here in verses 7-10. And second, what, if anything, has this to do with faith?

First, Jesus is talking about what it means to be one of his followers. To be a follower of Jesus and to call him Lord and mean it, is to be his servant. And that flies in the face of what many think being a Christian is about today. Many—all too many—think its just about believing in God/Jesus and going to Church on a Sunday—usually the occasional Sunday if there is nothing else pressing to do—or keeping the commandments etc. Not many—if any—would describe themselves as servants of Jesus Christ. And yet this is exactly how the first Christians understood themselves. Take Paul, the great Apostle. He introduces himself in several letters in exactly this way. To the Romans he writes:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1)

Or in his letter to the Philippians:

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi…” (Phil 1:1)

Peter and James and Jude do the same. How could they see themselves any differently when Jesus refers to himself as one:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

So a follower of Jesus is one who serves the servant-king.

Second, what then has this got to do with faith? We have just touched on it. Faith is about being faithful. To exercise faith isn't merely just to believe it is to put into practice the commands of the one you have believed in or on.

So what Jesus is saying is that for their faith - and ours -  to be the real and genuine article, and if that faith is to be increased or sufficient to meet his commands, it must be exercised and expressed through our obedient response to His commands. Just as a servant would obey his/her master.

Faith is so misunderstood isn't it. We often see it as merely believing something. And so people believe that their faith will increase if they read their Bible more or study it often, or listen to as many sermons as possible. Like myself, they read books and commentaries on the Bible or study the famous lives of Christians trough the centuries or tune into Premier Radio or subscribe to podcasts from by well-known Bible expositors and preachers. None of this, is of course bad, but it does not increase faith only knowledge. And knowledge on it's own "puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Only love - expressed in obedience to the lover, Jesus, "builds up".

So Bible study etc is only as good as your willingness to put it into practice. It is to be read to ensure that you know AND obey God’s commands. Faith is a ‘doing’ word.

There is a story told of one of one of the early Christians who fled to the desert to pursue a more authentic Christian life - knows as the desert fathers and mothers - called Abba Pambo (AD 303-375) He was like many of them, illiterate, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39: “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop reading. He then meditated on that verse alone—for 19 years! Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet!

In other words because he had not managed to put into practice what the psalm demanded and guarded his ways or mastered his speaking so that it honoured God, he saw no reason to continue learning the rest of the psalm. Wow!

That may seem a little extreme to us but the point being made here is that Scripture—the Word or words/commands of God are not just there to be believed but to be acted upon. To be carried out. In fact there is a danger in reading too much of the Bible if all we are going to do is accumulate knowledge/show off how much we can quote it. It is an instruction book and a means to the end of loving and serving God and not an end to itself.

In that long roll call of people of faith in Hebrews 11 this connection between faith and obedience comes over and over again:

Noah: "By faith Noah….prepared an Ark for the saving of his household.” (Heb 11:7)

Noah built the ark in response to God’s command.

Abraham: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance" (Heb 11:8)

Preachers make much of his faith but that faith was incomplete until he put his foot through the door and started his journey.

Moses: "By faith he forsook Egypt….and passed through the Red Sea.”(Hebrews 11:27)

There is an old Jewish legend that tells that the Red Sea did not actually part until Moses first stepped into it in obedience to God's command.

Joshua: "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were circled for seven days.” (Heb 11:31)

The walls only fell down once Joshua/the people of Israel had obeyed the Lord’s command to march round it for seven days.

Faith only ‘works’ and grows if “by faith” we obey the Lord’s commands and do what he says. That is that we are faithful.

Faith and obedience are husband and wife. And those whom God has joined together no one should separate. But in our time there has been a divorce. This is partly down to a misunderstanding of what faith looks like. This was something James addresses in his letter. He writes in  2:14-17:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

Jesus said “If you love me you will keep my commands.” (John 14:15). By saying that he wasn’t inviting us to merely believe in his commands but to put them into practice. Only by doing what he says will we truly grow as his disciples and be a blessing to ourselves and to others.

Maybe that is why there is such a crisis of faith in the lives of Christians today. As the Danish Philosopher Sore Kierkegaard once noted:

“It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”

Is that why people are falling away from faith because they never really understood that being a follower of Jesus is about doing what he says? Is that the reason there are so many christian 'consumers' but all too few Christian 'doers'? how many Christians fall away when the storms of life batter them or some crisis seems to all too easily overwhelm them?

Is that why the Church is in decline because people are merely believing but not practising their faith so that it shrivels and dies and falls at the first challenge.

To use Jesus’ metaphor, how many Christian lives are built on sand and how many on rock (see Matthew 7:24-29)?

We talk about the reward of faith. What about the reward of obedience that comes from faith? Let me close with these words from Paul as he comes to the end of his letter to the Romans:

"Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. Romans 16:25

The obedience of faith. True faith - as opposed to mere belief, no matter how sound or orthodox that belief is - is bound up with obedience. Without obedience - by which James means 'works' i.e. that which is 'worked out' then faith is dead.

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