Faith—How much do we need to believe?
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
4 October 1998
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. Luke 17.5-10
I am guessing, but I would imagine that quite a lot of us here today have lots of superstitious nonsense floating around in our heads. By a superstition I mean a belief or practice which is irrational and which usually results from ignorance or fear. Let's think of some examples. Often sports people will have superstitious practices. I understand that Paul Ince who plays for Liverpool won't wear his shirt in the dressing room, another player (I can't think of his name) has to come out last. We know all this is utter nonsense.
Now we might think that we haven't got these problems but we can easily fall into superstition too.
Can you think of common superstitions?
- 1. The belief that bad luck will strike the person in front of whom a black cat passes
- 2. That or that some tragedy will befall a person who walks under a ladder
- 3. That you shouldn't cross people on the stairs
- 4. Good luck charms, such as horseshoes, rabbits' feet, coins, lockets, and religious medals, are kept or worn to ward off evil or to bring good fortune
- 5. That one magpie will bring sorrow, two will bring joy etc.
- 6. That everybody born at certain times of the year can be categorised under star signs
In church is the place to take hold of these superstitions and expose them for what they are—nonsense. In general, superstitious practices and beliefs are most common in situations involving a high degree of risk, chance, and uncertainty, and during times of personal or social stress or crisis, when events seem to be beyond human control. But what is or is not superstitious, however, is relative. One person's beliefs can be another's superstitions.
All religious beliefs and practices may be considered superstition by unbelievers and we as Christians have to be very careful of what we believe. There can be parts of our faith which are superstitious. Take our hot cross bun, which we put up on the wall on Good Friday. People once thought that if you took a piece off it during the year when you were ill, the power of the cross would make you well. We know that it won't, apart from in a psychosomatic way, but perhaps there was penicillin in the mould which grew on buns in damp places.
Lots of practices which surrounded baptism were superstitious. Instead of baptism being a sign of God's grace and goodness, some people said that it was also a necessary practice to prevent you going to hell. So babies who died without baptism were refused burial in consecrated ground.
There are still many practices surrounding holy communion which are utterly superstitious. The idea that you have to be confirmed I think comes from superstition and it is marvellous that we don't practice that rule here. I was asked last week what the position was with all of those people who went to St. Albans and took communion then came back and had communion in church in the evening—because you are supposedly not allowed to have communion twice in one day. Of course I had it three times!—and I'm still alive. Or the belief that you should have communion before you ate anything else so that Jesus didn't get mixed up with your cornflakes.
None of these things are found in the pages of scripture and yet they have found their way into the teaching of parts of the church and the faith of some Christians for many years. Actually they are just as irrational as the fear of walking under ladders.
So what is Christian faith really all about ?
Our lesson today teaches us that the Christian faith is not about amassing lots of do's and don'ts. It is not about being clever and knowing where to look in the Bible to have all the answers. To be called a Christian requires nothing great, but only the equivalent of a tiny seed. The Christian faith is about answering the question—who is Jesus to you? No wonder that Jesus taught that it was something children were better at than adults!
Few people can seriously doubt that Jesus existed because there is too much evidence from the bible and historical records. But the big question is this—who do you say he was? For many people Jesus was a good man or a prophet. For other people Jesus was a misguided man who ended up like many others who said dangerous things. Christians believe that Jesus is God, and from that one belief we can look at Jesus and see what God is like. Christian faith starts from Christ—Jesus Christ—and trust in him is all we need. This is the grain of mustard seed if you like from which much can grow.
It is not superstition because although I would agree that for many the idea of Jesus is irrational there are many things which are irrational but true. Belief in Jesus does require faith but not everything which we do not understand is superstition or rubbish. There are many things which defy understanding—I am pretty hopeless with mathematics and I was thinking about Pi, sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet, symbol p (lower case). What is special about Pi? It is infinite, . I don't understand but I think it is a case of defying logic.
The Greek alphabet dates from 1000-900 BC. The ancient Greeks also used the letter π (Pi) to represent the number 5. Today π is used in mathematics as the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The Greek mathematician Archimedes correctly asserted that the value was between 3 10/70 and 3 10/71. The symbol π for the ratio was first used in 1706 by the English mathematician William Jones, but it became popular only after its adoption by the Swiss mathematician Leonard Euler in 1737. In 1882 the German mathematician Ferdinand Lindemann proved that π is a transcendental number—that is, it is not the root of any polynomial equation with rational coefficients. Consequently, Lindemann was able to demonstrate that it is impossible to square the circle algebraically or by use of a ruler and compass. Although π is an irrational number, that is, it has an infinite number of decimal places, computers have calculated π to 100 million decimal places.
We have to look carefully at what is superstitious rubbish and not true, and what is true even though it may require faith to believe it because we don't have absolute proof. Christian faith is something for which we have no proof and yet from the humble acknowledgement of who Jesus is faith can growth in an amazing and remarkable way, almost imperceptibly. What Jesus is saying is that there is no excuse for anybody not to believe. We don't need to swallow a theological textbook and sign up to thousands of beliefs and practices—we are called to simple trust in Jesus and who he is.
From those humble beginnings the truth can grow and take root in our lives. Your faith might have humble beginnings and yet it cannot be dismissed, it has a destiny. Our faith might be small and insignificant and yet God can transform our meagre faith into something beyond our expectations. It is not the size of our faith which matters but the quality of the person in whom we place our faith—Jesus. There are things which we might get wrong along the way, ideas which might creep in and which we have to clear out now and then. This is because we are a people on the way, not a people who have arrived. Faith is learning to live with the questions which we cannot answer, in the light of the answers which we have. This parable of the mustard seed is not about triumphalism, it is about those who journey. The kingdom has started but it has not yet arrived. There is much for us all to learn and yet we know that we can trust the one who holds our grain of faith securely in his hand.