Luke 8; 22 -25
After the storm has been calmed, Jesus asks his disciples, “Where is your faith?” Matthew’s gospel has him saying, “Why are you afraid, you of so little faith?” But the sentiment is the same – one of disappointment.
Faith. One of Paul’s big three – Faith, hope and love. Frequently commented on by Jesus. This chapter of Luke’s gospel includes a series of stories which touch on the faith of those Jesus meets. Today I want to share with you some reflections on the nature of faith.
But first, the boat. These are experienced fishermen. The Sea of Galilee was known for its sudden, violent storms. They knew, perhaps better than he, the danger they faced. Many before and since have not survived rough storms in small boats.
For them, it may be that the storm carried an additional fear, that somehow the spiritual boldness of Jesus had provoked a reaction, that Satan who had promised in the desert to return at an opportune time, had picked this moment.
So they were afraid, but more than that, it seems they were convinced as to the outcome: “We are perishing!” there is a desperation, an anger even in their shouting. They can see no way out.
Contrast them with the healings later in the chapter. A woman with a haemorrhage had tried every conceivable treatment, over many years, all without success: the situation is objectively hopeless. And then Jairus, pleading for his daughter, who is mocked by the crowd because she is already dead. And yet these latter two do not give up, they continue to see, and work for, to reach for, what seems to others to be impossible.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, says the writer to the Hebrews. But it can be an uneasy kind of assurance: Kierkegaard likens faith to swimming over 70,000 fathoms – imagining the dark void beneath makes your stomach tighten, but you keep swimming…
Jesus praises the Roman centurion for his great faith – greater than any in Israel. Does it matter if your faith is great or small? When his followers plead with him to “increase our faith” he replies with the story of the mustard seed – that faith so tiny can move mountains.
Jesus’ own disciples, who might be expected to have faith, are a disappointment. I doubt that any of these others were thinking about faith at all. It seems it was something they did rather than thought about, an unconscious feature of their determination to reach out, not a goal in itself.
Is then faith perhaps an openness of mind, a willingness to trust, alongside the openness of heart which is love? An openness to the ways of God, for those who walk in those ways?
In all these stories, faith, or lack of it, is focussed on something about to happen - drowning or healing – but is faith also lived in the present, in the now?
Faith is also often the privilege of the vulnerable. Those who live exposed to uncertainty in the world are used to swimming in the sea of faith. When we are wrapped around with security, with power to control, in our finances, our relationships, our health, protected from all danger, does the impulse to faith become harder, might it whither away?
And whose faith is it? Our faith in God or God’s faith in us? Somehow, it doesn’t feel right describing faith as a personal attribute – something we cultivate, like healthy skin or a flat tummy. Faith is a gift of God, something shared rather than possessed. A channel through which the living waters flow.
Faith and hope are connected. Some for whom hope is snuffed out by despair, talk of a dryness, where faith seems alien, unreachable. Here perhaps is where the community of faith steps in, holding the light for that person, in prayer, for the day when they will be able to accept it again for themselves.
Both are subsumed in love, which is the greatest of the three – for if we have faith that could move mountains, but have not love, we are nothing.
So maybe we should not be preoccupied with our faith, or try to work out whether it is weak or strong? There seems to me a certain wisdom in this thought. That God calls us to join in the work of love, not to be too precise about how it all works.
I conclude with some words I enjoyed recently from the comedian David Mitchell, who is not a Christian, but retains an affection for the Church of England: He wrote in the Guardian:
“To me, the troubled, thoughtful, well-meaning fogginess of the [Church of England] feels much more truthful, a more comprehensible and sane reflection of how the human condition feels, than all those more dynamic philosophies. Other religions may have retained the fiery naivety of youth, but the Anglican church has the mild and tolerant befuddlement of experience, which is the closest thing to wisdom that I’ll ever believe in.”
Or to put it another way, “Great is the mystery of faith.”
Richard Young (Rector)