And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 17:20, 18:6-7, 15, 21-22, Mark 9:42, 11:22-23
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Heesnag), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Quality vs. Quantity
“If I only had more faith!” How many times have we tried to believe, to conjure enough faith, hoping for the miraculous, perhaps the healing of a loved one, or financial provisions, or whatever seemed like a “mountain” at the time? Didn’t Jesus tell us if we have only a little faith, we could move mountains? But instead of moving mountains, we are often let down, not having enough faith. Or so it seems. Perhaps we misunderstand what faith is and what Jesus was getting at when he compared faith to a mustard seed.
In the context of this particular Gospel reading, Jesus was teaching his disciples about forgiveness and humility. He said, “If he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” His point is to emphasize that forgiveness is limitless, and if we count how many times we have forgiven the same person, then we are missing the point of forgiveness.
This task sounds impossible to the Disciples, so they ask Jesus to increase their faith. It goes without saying, that we can relate to the seeming impossibility of forgiving certain people for certain actions, either done to us personally, as a community, or as an Armenian people. In fact, metaphorically speaking, forgiveness can seem like moving a mountain or uprooting a tree. But are forgiveness and humility matters of having more faith?
Jesus’ response to their request is more than interesting. In fact, it comes off as absurd. But if we listen closely to Jesus, then we learn something profound about faith, something we often assume we understand. Jesus tells us that faith as a grain of mustard seed can accomplish the impossible. In other words, the size or amount of faith is not what is important, but rather the magnificence and ability of God is what matters, the person in whom we place our faith.
Faith is commonly understood as intellectual certainty, or mental assent. The way we think about something. But how would this kind of so-called “faith” enable us to forgive others or live a life set apart for God? A cerebral faith, one grounded in how we think requires no communion with our Creator, no transformation on our part to become like God. And it actually does require a quantitative “more” or “less,” since it is based on our ability to acquire and comprehend knowledge. Instead, the faith to which we are called, the faith to which Jesus is referring is grounded in communion with him. It based on a belief (thought and belief should not be considered synonymous) that is lived out, practiced daily, matured, and believes for what only God can accomplish.
What kind of faith marks our community? Do we posses a quality of faith that depends on God rather than always relying on our own strength to conjure enough quantity of faith? What seems impossible to us, in our individual lives, in our community? How would the faith that Jesus talks about transform our perception of those impossibilities? For what can we begin to believe for God to accomplish in our lives, in our struggles, in our pain?
Faith and Forgiveness
The Disciples asked for more faith. But Jesus illustrates that faith is based on who God is, not on “how much” we believe. The Church does not venerate Saints because they happened to have more faith than you or I. They simply lived out the faith they had, qualitatively. In other words, there is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ when it comes to the faith that Jesus is talking about. True faith is how we see and experience the world, but not just with our rational minds.
By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear. (Hebrews 11:3)
Christian faith is rooted in a living communion with God. By participating in the divine nature of God which he promises to those who love him, which we share in Holy Communion, we see ourselves, we see others, we see creation in the same manner as God. In other words, it takes faith to love as God loves. Thus, we are compelled to forgive, compelled to heal. With faith, it makes sense to forgive, to live humbly, to live and act like Jesus Christ.
What would our lives, our community look like if we allowed unforgiveness to continue, if we didn’t allow healing and reconciliation to take place? Faith cannot thrive in a worshipping community where unforgiveness is present. In fact, St. Gregory of Narek wrote that faith is a form of worship. In his 10th prayer he writes,
For if the faith of a mustard seed can cast a great mountain into the depths of the sea, then truly we should accept it as the first step toward eternal life. Faith, this simple and clear form of worship, means setting aside doubt to see the future and hidden with the eye of the soul.
Faith, gifted by God, sustained by the sacramental life of the Church, restores and heals us in order to live as we were created to live, as worshippers living in union with God and with one another. If we plant our faith as a mustard seed, which doesn’t seem like much to us, what will blossom is a community that preaches, teaches, and heals. A community focused on and doing the work and ministry of Jesus Christ. When our community is marked by faith as a form of worship, we become what the Church is meant to be. A house of mercy where fears are stilled, shame is removed, healing takes place, and sins are forgiven.