There are times when the juxtaposition of two seemingly disconnected, unrelated sections in a single passage work together in remarkable ways.
Today’s suggested passage from the Gospel of Luke is such a text.
A careful reading clearly reveals that the passage can be divided into two separate sections. Both of those smaller subsections have messages that are complete in themselves, neither is dependent on the other for an understanding, and either could have been inserted into the Gospel narrative at any number of different places.
The first section is found in verses 5 and 6, in which the disciples – having seen the wonderful things that Jesus was able to accomplish, ask for more faith in the hope that having more faith will somehow enable them to do more impressive things.
We read, “the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’”
It is a complete thought, a complete interaction, and could easily have been placed in any number of different locations in Luke’s Gospel.
And it is not unique to these verses in Luke. In fact, an almost exact parallel text about having faith as small as a mustard seed is found in chapter 17 of Matthew’s Gospel. The verses before and after it, in Matthew’s Gospel, are different from those that we find in Luke, which is entirely fine in light of the fact that the message of these two verses makes sense in a variety of different contexts. Jesus’ point is clear — even if your faith is as small and seemingly insignificant as a tiny mustard seed, you are opening yourself to great power and great potential.
In Luke’s Gospel, to be a person of faith was not about amassing some degree of spiritual certainty and power, but rather it would be manifested in a willingness to turn to God, to trust in God, to depend on God — in good times and bad — in order to achieve and accomplish what we are called to be and to do in this life. And, in comparing such faith to a mustard seed, Jesus seemed to be suggesting that it was not some form of internal spiritual power that was the evidence of faith, but a person’s willingness – however small – to turn to God and trust in God that could lead to transforming differences in this world.
It is a good, important, powerful reminder, all on its own.
The second part of the reading, in verses 7 to 10, shifts our attention from the image of the mustard seed of faith to a series of questions that Jesus poses to his disciples about the nature of servanthood and their expectations for glorification and attention.
The story invites reflections on the ways that masters and servants are expected to act.
In the opening part of the passage, we as hearers and readers are invited to see the situation as if we are the masters. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’”
Jesus’ question is, of course, rhetorical. Everyone knows that this is not the way that the relationship between masters and slaves functions. But then, by the end of the short passage, his listeners are invited to have shifted into the role of slaves by the time that he asks, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Jesus’ point is not to encourage his listeners to view themselves – or anyone else, for that matter! – as worthless slaves. The way that he treated people, in fact everything that he said and did would run counter to such an interpretation. He saw others as the beloved of God, not as worthless; and he invited the categories of distinction between masters and slaves, between the acceptable and the outcasts, between the included and the ostracized to be broken down.
Rather, Jesus’ point in the story is simply this – everyone knows that when people do what they are supposed to be doing, they do not live in the expectation of some great degree of acclaim or commendation. Great acclamation and enthusiastic celebration are meant to be reserved for those who have done extraordinary, unexpected, courageous and noteworthy things.
So, he seemed to be suggesting, in this second section of today’s reading, when you do the things that you are supposed to be doing as my followers, do not try to draw attention to yourselves, or place yourselves in the limelight, or live in the expectation of acclaim and glory. Just do good things, right things, loving things, because that is what you are supposed to be doing.
Again, like the first section of this passage about faith as a mustard seed, in verses 5-6, this latter part can stand on its own.
But there is an important dynamic, and a profoundly relevant message that we are invited to ponder when these two ideas are woven together.
That is, the first section, which focuses on the amazing things that can happen by faith, makes the bold and dramatic claim that Jesus’ followers did not have to possess some superhuman amount of faith in order to accomplish amazing things in this world. They did not need Jesus to “increase their faith” to some superhuman standard as they had requested, since all that was necessary was only the smallest amount of trust in God in order to open themselves to the divine power that Jesus, himself, had been drawing upon.
It is intriguing to read this passage as a gathered community, as we are about to share together in communion, on this Worldwide Communion Sunday.
And it is intriguing because being together as a community, sharing together in communion, and calling to mind the vast global spiritual fellowship of which we are a part also reminds us of the tremendous power, the amazing potential that we can exercise together, when our little mustard seeds of faith are joined together.
None of the individual members of the church are spiritual superhumans. All of us have a bit of faith, or we try to, or we would not be a part of the church in the first place. Sometimes we feel confident in our faith, but sometimes we question; sometimes we seem strong and firm in our convictions, but sometimes we doubt; sometimes we feel like we are energized and inspired, but sometimes we feel worn out and ready to give up. Sometimes our faith seems the most important thing in our lives, but sometimes it seems small, tiny, sort of like the tiniest mustard seed.
But we come to church anyways. We take communion anyways. We are a part of the worldwide community of Christ’s followers anyways.
And we try to grow. And in so doing, we begin to put these little mustard seeds of faith together. And suddenly, big things start to happen. Millions of hungry people are fed every day, by people motivated by the inspiration of Christ, living by faith. Millions of sick and suffering people are cared for, every day, by people motivated by the inspiration of Christ, living by faith. Prisoners are visited, victims are comforted, injustices are challenged, loneliness is alleviated, despair is replaced by hope, generosity is practiced and encouraged, love prevails over hatred, enemies are reconciled, forgotten people are remembered and embraced, good news is proclaimed, love is lived and born and reborn, by people motivated by the inspiration of Christ, living by faith.
Do the good things that happen mean that the Church is perfect? Absolutely not. Are there other communities and organizations that do good things in the world? Absolutely.
But the reality is that there are few – if any – communities that have endured for thousands of years, span the globe, and do as much good as the followers of Jesus Christ have done, and continue to do, each day – in this place, in this city, in this country, in this world.
And all because normal, individual people – like you and me – with our little mustard seeds of faith, work together, and encourage each other, and serve together, and do what we can to live by our faith, inspired by Christ.
Just a lot of tiny mustard seeds of faith.
It is quite staggering to catch a vision of the good that is done.
But, strangely, being staggered by that great vision is the last things that we are supposed to do. In fact, whenever the church seeks to pat itself on the back, or tally up its good work, or speak in triumphant tones about the service that it provides, or celebrate how tiny mustard seeds of faith can, in fact, make a different, it never really goes very well. Nor should it. Because our actual calling is to just get on with it.
Much like the servants in the second part of this passage from Luke. They did not expect acclaim or glory. They just got on with doing the little, seemingly insignificant things that they were supposed to be doing, each and every day, before they sat down to eat at the master’s table.
Before they sat at the table with the master, they were supposed to do the work that was theirs to do. Because that is what servants are called to do.
But we, in this moment, are about to be invited to come to the master’s table.
So I would encourage us to come to this table, with whatever tiny mustard seeds of faith that we can muster. To eat and drink in the presence of this community of others that God has provided to us, for encouragement, for support, for friendship, so that together we can take all of our tiny mustard seeds of faith and do amazing things in this world.
And then I would encourage us to go back out into the world and simply get on with doing what we are supposed to be doing – living as servants of the One who calls us to this table to remember what he has accomplished for us and for this world, the One who served this world with his very life, the One who is not just the master and host of this table, but who is in fact the great servant of all.