|Bleeding Hearts outside St. Augustine's Chapel, Vanderbilt University.|
There are many times in scriptures when I can picture Jesus with his hand on his face, looking abashed or stunned. Usually I think of Jesus doing this when I continue to do something stupid, or fail to have faith in some unbelievably generous promise, like grace for either myself or for others, when I am all too willing to hold a grudge to my heart and nurture it like a bosom companion. This coming Sunday’s gospel recounts one of those times when I imagine Jesus felt that way with his apostles when they just don’t seem to get it. But Jesus keeps trying, both with his apostles and with us. And thanks be to God for that.
Just like us, the apostles keep being presented with teachings that are hard to accept. And worse, they are apostles—the people closest to Jesus. If they can’t understand Jesus’s radical message of community and mercy, how can anyone else? So our reading this Sunday starts with a request that most of us have probably made in our prayers: “Please, God, increase our faith!”
The apostles are leaders and examples for those who are newer to the faith. Those disciples with authority, such as the apostles, have extra responsibility to first of all model the utmost charity and gentleness to those they lead, and cruelty or haughtiness that causes the “little ones” to stumble when they make mistakes draws harsh condemnation from Jesus. As we have been reminded repeatedly and directly over the last several weeks, maintaining the Christian community requires that members treat each other with ethics, love, forbearance and integrity. Apostles can’t be good leaders if they seek any opportunity to break the hearts or the faith of those who are subordinate; instead, they must exercise what the late, great preacher Fred Craddock calls “responsible love” that does not “cause one of these little ones to stumble,” as 17:2 states. “The shape of this love is to rebuke in order to correct, and to forgive, even if it is repeated seven times in one day…. [The verses immediately before our gospel in Luke 17:1-4] assume the following: the relationships among the disciples of Jesus are based on ethical standards, the violation of which is sin; what brothers and sisters do is not their business alone but affects the community…”
Thus the apostles here are asking for the faith to forgive even if the offender continues to offend. There are no limits to this requirement it seems—even if the offense is repeated seven times a day, so long as the offender states that he or she wishes to repent. They can never give up on the one who offends, for that is exactly how God treats us, and the entire point of being a disciple is to emulate as much as humanly possible the example set by one’s master.
If ever the gospel spoke to our current context, I would think that this would be one of those times. We are awash in a debate in this country of what justifies force being used against persons, particularly those of color, by the police. Our policing policy seems to be based upon the idea that those convicted or even suspected of crime deserve harsh treatment, including the inflicting of pain, injury, and sometimes, even death. Yet the story that gives us hope in the gospels is repeatedly that of what the songwriter famously referred to as “amazing grace… that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now am found—was blind but now I see.” Are we really comfortable with giving up on the hope of redemption for our brothers and sisters, when, if truth be told, we are all ever so grateful forgiveness and redemption are available for us in our own lives?
I repeat: Jesus makes it clear that we can never give up on the person who offends, who hurts us, who even betrays us, because that is exactly how much God forgives us.
It’s stunning to contemplate.
I think we can all understand that the apostles felt the same disbelief that we feel contemplating this. “No way!” the apostles instinctively react, and they ask for more faith in response. How much do we struggle with this, if we have anyone in our lives for long enough that their habits, quirks, and flaws begin to irritate us or provoke us to forget any good qualities they may have. Of course, once we concentrate on the flaws of others in the community, on times perhaps when they have let down their guard, and their weakness or broken humanity is put on display, the response real apostles (and real leaders) make next is crucial in modeling God’s kingdom-- which is true, steadfast love.
Can we love imperfect people? Of course we can—if we don’t forget our own imperfections, and the forbearance we ourselves have received seven times a day. If the apostles themselves forget that they too have times when they have been just as weak and just as prone to error and brokenness, they can cause the “little ones” to stumble from the path that leads to redemption.
But MORE faith isn’t required. Instead, Jesus then makes an important point in verses 5-6: you don’t need to have a huge amount of faith to do this. You just need a tiny bit, Jesus assures us. Faith the size of a mustard seed can produce wonders and miracles. With God’s help, anything is possible—including transforming our sometimes tiny, grinchy, mustard-seed-sized hearts, made haughty through believing that we have the right not just to judge others but cut them off into darkness and perpetual condemnation. We ALL—no matter who we are or what we have done-- deserve to be loved in spite of ourselves, and we can have faith that that is exactly what God does.
In fact, that’s where our collect for this Sunday seems particularly appropriate to the gospel. It reads:
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
God’s grace is limitless, even as our faith is limited and faltering. It is truly amazing. And, as disciples of Jesus, God’s love and grace made incarnate in the world in human shape, we are called to go and do likewise. As the Body of Christ, we too are called to embody faith, grace, forgiveness and mercy. If only we have the faith of a mustard seed in Jesus's promise of grace.
(This post was originaly published at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on September 27, 2016.)