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Living Our Faith

Habakkuk 1:1-3, 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:3-12
Luke 17:5-10

In the first three gospels of the New Testament the disciples seem to be very slow to understand the message of Jesus. Despite living with Jesus, talking privately with him daily and listening to him preach to crowds along the way, the disciples do not seem to "get it." This may be why Jesus repeated berates them for their "little faith." (Mt. 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:08, 17:20; Lk. 12:28). How odd this is! We would expect that the men who are soon to inaugurate the church would show increasing awareness and commitment during the ministry of Jesus.

The gospels, however, are not simply historical records of events in the past. They are proclamations of faith. They were written in the latter third of the first century after Paul wrote all of his letters and after the death of most of those who knew Jesus. The gospels contain memories of events that happened during the ministry of Jesus, but these pieces of oral tradition are woven into stories written to communicate the faith of the early churches. It may be that the gospels present the disciples as having little faith, because at the end of the first century C.E. the gospel authors saw this as an effective way to evangelize for the church.

Consider Luke 17:5. The disciples say to Jesus, "Increase our faith!" But the text reads, "The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!'" Of course, "the disciples" are not yet "the apostles"—not until the death and resurrection of Jesus—and the author of the gospel of Luke knows that as we do. But perhaps the passage is not just about an event involving Jesus and his disciples in the past, but concerns the church at the time the gospel was written. This approach might also help us understand the answer that Jesus gives. He tells the apostles they need only have faith as large as a mustard seed. Then he adds a comment about slaves doing what they are supposed to do. Jesus seems to be arguing that faith does not require comprehending the gospel, but simply is the duty of those who serve the church. This is, of course, a teaching with considerable practical benefits for the church—not only in the first century, but also today.

It is interesting that the passage in the gospel of Luke immediately preceding this exchange between Jesus and his disciples concerns the problem of sin among the disciples and the need to forgive, if the sinner repents. Even if a disciple sins against another seven times in one day, Jesus teaches that the repentant sinner is to be forgiven. Because "the apostles" and not "the disciples" ask for greater faith to cope with such trying problems, it seems that this gospel story is not really about an event during the ministry of Jesus but concerns the life of the church and conflicts among its leaders.

These conflicts are identified in Paul’s letters, all of which were written before the gospels. In his second letter to Timothy Paul not only commends Timothy for his faith, but reminds Timothy that defending the faith may require the younger man to share the suffering that Paul has known. Paul has suffered because adversaries have tried to curtail his ministry. Not only pagans and Jews have given Paul a hard time, but the apostles of the Jerusalem Church, the former disciples of Jesus, also have resisted Paul's ministry.

Paul describes this struggle in the second and third chapter of his letter to the Galatians. He relates how Peter ate with Gentile Christians at the church in Antioch until James, the brother of Jesus, who is identified in Acts as the head of the Jerusalem church, sent word to Antioch requiring Jewish Christians to keep kosher. Even Paul's close missionary companion, Barnabas, obeys the order from James, which so enrages Paul that afterwards he refuses to work with Barnabas. (Acts 15:39)

Because the author of Acts is also the author of the gospel of Luke, which may be verified by reading the first few verses of each book, it is clear that the gospel of Luke was written by a Christian who knew about the conflicts among the apostles that are described in Acts. This helps us identify another reason why the disciples in the gospels may have been presented as having "little faith." Most of them later line up behind James, the brother of Jesus, in opposition to Paul's view that by the grace of God the Jewish law is no longer required for salvation. The gospels, on the other hand, take a position that is more sympathetic to Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

The letters of Paul reveal that he fears he is losing his struggle with the apostles in Jerusalem. But the power of the Jerusalem church is destroyed in 70 C.E., when Roman armies put down a Jewish rebellion and burn Jerusalem. The gospels are then written in Greek for churches with Gentile and Jewish Christians. The ministry of Jesus that began with Aramaic-speaking Jews in Galilee and inspired a Jewish church in Jerusalem is spread among Gentiles and Jews throughout the Roman Empire by means of gospels written in Greek.

After a generation of conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, and the destruction of the temple and the church in Jerusalem by Roman troops, it is not so surprising that the urbane gospel authors depicted the disciples from the "sticks" of Galilee as dim-witted and having "little faith."

The gospel that Paul proclaimed required a break with Jewish law, and as the church became more Gentile and less Jewish Paul's arguments seemed more persuasive. By the time the gospels are written, the outcome of the struggle within the church is becoming clear. The author of the gospel of Luke and Acts writes a version of this story that depicts the shift—from a Jewish, Aramaic-speaking church to a Gentile, Greek-speaking church—as a relatively smooth development inspired by the Spirit of God. Paul's letters, however, reveal that there was long and bitter conflict within the church between the "circumcision party" (Gal. 2:12, Titus 1:10, Acts 11:2) and those who fought against imposing Jewish law on Gentile converts.

The New Testament gospels are written after the letters of Paul and thus present the ministry of Jesus with hindsight. The gospel authors are aware of the arguments among the first generation of apostles and also of the destruction in 70 C.E. of both the Jewish temple and the first church in Jerusalem. By the time the gospels of the New Testament are written, faith is the heart of the church's witness and the gospels make this call to faith central in the ministry of Jesus.

The words "faithful" and "faithfulness" are common in the Hebrew Bible and refer to keeping the covenant with God. But in the Old Testament only Habakkuk 2:4 uses the word "faith" in a way that points toward the New Testament witness. Paul breaks with the covenant tradition in his constant assertion that faith, rather than Jewish law, is in Christ God's chosen instrument of salvation. Paul refers to "faith" more than all the gospels combined. Faith is the heart of his preaching, and he uses the word to clarify that God's saving grace in Christ is for Gentile and Jew alike.

After Paul's death this understanding of faith is woven into the gospel stories of the New Testament. The church’s good news joins a Jewish hope in the Messiah with a Gentile hope in the grace of God.

Whatever Jesus may have said about Jewish law, the gospels pave the way for Gentile faith. In the gospel of Mark Jesus directly attacks the Law of Moses, in the gospel of Luke Jesus largely ignores it, in the gospel of John Jesus redefines the Jewish law, and in the gospel of Matthew Jesus spiritualizes the law. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, as though he is correcting the teachings of Paul: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." The emphasis in the gospel of Matthew, however, is on the moral commandments of Jewish law, not the ritual or dietary commandments. And even with the moral commandments, the gospel of Matthew urges going beyond the letter of the law to fulfill its spirit.

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke faith is clearly trust—in God, in Christ as the saving act of God's grace, in the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. Faith is not keeping the law, nor is faith having the right beliefs about God. The disciples, who presumably are developing the right beliefs about Jesus, are said to have "little faith." Those identified in the gospels by Jesus as having "great faith" include a Roman centurion (Mt. 8:10, Lk. 7:9), a Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:28), and a Samaritan woman (Lk. 17:19). The gospels do not tell us these Gentiles have the right beliefs about Jesus—that he is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, or that he is the second person of the Trinity, or whatever. The faith of these Gentiles is great, simply because they trust in the power of God manifested in Jesus.

The Roman centurion, the Canaanite, and the Samaritan represent the ministry of the church to the Gentiles, which is already succeeding before the gospels of the New Testament are written. It seems clear, therefore, that the gospels are written, at least in part, to witness to the success of the Gentile mission. The call to enter the kingdom of God, which is the heart of the Jesus' message in the first three gospels, is linked with faith, which is the core of Paul's gospel. The result is a proclamation at the beginning of the gospel of Mark that sums up the church's witness: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and have faith in the gospel." (Mk. 1:14)

In some translations of the New Testament this verse in the gospel of Mark concludes with the words, "believe in the gospel," but this proclamation is a call to have faith, not to hold certain beliefs. In English the verb "believe" serves two nouns—faith and belief. When we say, "believe in," we mean faith, or trust. When we say, "believe that," we refer to holding a belief, or an opinion. The gospel of John in the Greek New Testament never uses the noun for faith, as the first three gospels do, but the gospel of John is full of the verb for faith, which is almost always translated "believe in." The New Testament overwhelmingly is a call to have faith, or trust, in God and in Christ.

And how is such faith to be manifested? In our lives, by the way we live our faith. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus is reported to have said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven." And the will of God is summed up in the first three gospels of the New Testament by the commandments to love God and to love our neighbors. (Mt. 22:39, Mk. 12:31, Lk. 10:27) Paul writes that faith is a gift of God's grace, through the work of the Holy Spirit. And in his first letter to the church in Corinth he describes the greatest gifts of the Spirit as faith, hope and love—especially love. (1 Cor. 13:13)

Today, we do not face arguments within the church over Jewish law. We read Paul's letters and the gospels of the New Testament to mean that through God's grace salvation is offered to everyone who has faith. But today Christians argue about the beliefs required for Christian faith, and these conflicts over dogma and doctrine continue to undermine the church's witness to the good news. Can we learn from the conflicts within the first century church that are documented in the New Testament? Can the church today that is divided by beliefs be united by a living faith? Can we emphasize that God's grace is manifested in living our faith rather than in holding the "right" beliefs?

Let us pray that the Spirit will bring forth in the church of this new millennium a renewed commitment to love God and our neighbors, and that others may know we are Christians by our faith, our hope, and our love. Amen.

This sermon was delivered during worship at the Church of Covenant in New York City on 20 August 2000.

 

 

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1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer