2 Timothy 1.1-14
The Sufis have a saying about Jesus.
He stands by the river selling river water.
I think this speaks loudly to the challenging collection of Jesus’ sayings that is our Gospel reading today. The disciples cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” To this Jesus responds, but does not buy into their presumption that more faith is required.
We often hear this kind of line, don’t we? If only I had more faith…If you have ever thought that about yourself or someone else, then Jesus’ response is for you. Apparently, Jesus believes that “more” is not even a relevant category when it comes to faith. Apparently, we already have everything we need.
Of course, the conversation does not appear to begin around the subject of faith but about not causing “little ones” to stumble, and about an extraordinarily high bar of forgiveness. Even if someone does the same thing seven times a day, but turns back seven times from that wrong path, then we are to forgive. And the meaning of the “little ones”? Generally, this is understood to refer to those who are just beginning their spiritual journey or are new to the faith and the way of Christ. It is a clarion call to have good theology that sets people free and enables them to love themselves and others. Bad theology literally kills. Our latest On the Way podcast is a difficult conversation is about the trauma caused by abusive or toxic religious teachings and systems. We find examples of this anywhere human dignity is not honoured or power is abused. Jesus does not hold back in making us aware of the gravity of hurting those who are vulnerable;
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.
And what are we to make of these weird suggestions of faith the size of a mustard seed and throwing mulberry trees into the ocean? I think here it pays to remember Jesus’ other reference to mustard seeds. Earlier in Luke, Jesus asks,
“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in the garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
So God’s dream on earth is like a large tree that offers shelter and safety and community for all, but which has as its beginnings in the tiniest of seeds. In today’s reading Jesus again recalls that tiny seed and reminds us that the tiny faith we have is enough to make that dream grow even in inhospitable environments. A mulberry tree should not be able to be planted in the sea, and yet if we trust in the one whose power on earth is found in love and forgiveness, life and community can flourish again. The good news is that this tree in the sea is like an unexpected flourishing where there has only been sadness and disconnection or even where unforgiveness would be expected and considered by some to be deserved. Grace can be found when we tap into the flow of Spirit within and between each of us. We don’t need more faith but simply to trust in the God who is with us, beckoning us into a river of joy and belonging.
In this rather strange collection of sayings, Jesus is telling us everything is ready and we are ready. In fact, the resources are so much there that we could consider ourselves like those slaves mentioned at the end of today’s reading who are just doing routine work. The language of slaves is difficult to our ears, but it was the reality of the ancient world, and Jesus simply uses real world examples to make a point. The people of God are called to forgive and forgive again, caring for the vulnerable and creating spaces of safety and hospitality. This isn’t something so remarkable for which we should receive thanks, but rather the everyday calling of the people of God. The life of faith is not lived for the sake of thanks we may receive, but for a joy far deeper as we align our lives with the power of hope and love.
Jesus stands by the river selling river water.
It is so tempting for religious groups of every age to claim that they have the ability to bottle the water. Every religion and denomination is tempted at some stage to think that their institution and tradition has prime access to the river and can claim exclusive rights. Today as we welcome Hunter into God’s family through baptism, we are celebrating his naming as a little Christ, sharing in the stream of living water that draws him and us all into abundant life and love. An institution can help us preserve the story of God and retell it to, and live it with, each generation. The Church is the people of God, practising forgiveness over and again, being humble enough to receive grace and telling the good news down the ages that Christ is with us. But the work of the Spirit will always be greater than any institution and the river flows where it wills, reaching every corner of creation and repeating the promise that our faith, however small, is always enough.