Oh, what a Sunday! Jesus is yet again sharing his cryptic advice with his disciples and telling some story about moving mulberry trees into the sea with mustard seeds and being served at the table by slaves. We also heard a part of a letter from Paul to one of his protégés, Timothy, in which there are tears, prayers, recalling grandmother and mother, and his own Pauline-style advice for a young pastor. Then there is Habakkuk. Just for the record, this is the only place in the entire three year regular lectionary when we hear from this prophet. There he is, standing at the watch post, watching. Dreading his coming vision. Frustrated with God. Also, we have the psalm for today where the psalmist lectures us a bit about fretting and how we shouldn’t do it.
Quite a mixture of things.
Additionally, today is World Communion Sunday—a day founded by a Presbyterian church in Pittsburg that calls all Christian churches to the table together on this day. Last but certainly not least, today is the day upon which we may celebrate the life of one of the world’s best know and most loved saints: Saint Francis of Assisi.
What do all of these have in common? At first glance it seems not a lot, apart from God of course. But when we look more closely, we can see they all have to do with faith. Now, you may say, Pastor that’s kinda obvious. It is just like saying they all have to do with God; we are after all, in church so of course it all has to do with faith. However, I think all of these pieces of scripture and parts of the year tell us important things about our faith, what it means to be faithful, and what the faithful life looks like. The truth is that we often toss around that word “faith” sort of like we do the word “love”. So what does “faith” mean? What is faith?
The year was 1933. There was darkness looming everywhere. Not only was it arguably the darkest days of the depression, but the ominous growth of Nazism’s and Fascism’s dominance across Europe were heralding what would become the second Great World War. For many, those days were as dark as Habakkuk or any other prophet could describe. It was on the first Sunday of October that year that a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, PA began and invited all Christians to participate in World Communion Sunday. This was more than just a joint church project, more than an ecumenical outreach. This was lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness. All Christians around the world were invited to celebrate communion on this day so that all were, in a sense, around a table together. This was more than a statement, more than a gesture that said simply “we believe”, but rather an acting out of faith, a moment of flesh and blood faith that brings to life and light what we really hold on to and who holds on to us. Not the fear of tyranny and chaos but the love of God.
On this very day, around the world, in the midst of whatever darkness surrounds any of us, Christians come to the altar, the table, beneath crosses, on their knees or on their feet, in song or in silence, with bread and wafers, fermented and unfermented grapes and we act out our faith in flesh and blood together. On this World Communion Day we are reminded that when we come to the table together, we are not only receiving the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins (which is, indeed, truly happening) we are also receiving this for the strengthening of our faith. We receive it, consume it, so that we may become light in the darkness as we become all the more the body of Christ.
The apostle Paul writes constantly about faith. While it is certain he believed faith to be a flesh and blood experience, both like that we have at the table for communion and in his own bodily suffering, there is also no way of escaping Paul’s teaching about faith and the fact that what we think and feel about God truly matters. In fact one could say that the whole notion of Christian education or, as it is more properly described formation in the faith, comes from Paul’s example of writing to churches and individuals about how and why we believe and do what we do.
My beloved child, he writes to Timothy, I remember your tears and I miss you. Paul also writes of the faith of this young man as being something that lived in Timothy’s grandmother, his mother and now in him. This faith that gave him the strength and call to be a follower of Christ was passed on to him and formed into him by his family. This faith that is passed on to us by God through the laying on of hands (meaning ordination, baptism, confirmation, and perhaps even the passing of the peace) is not a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power, love and self-discipline. The gift of faith that God gives us comes through the hands, hearts and lives of others. It is not something that breeds fear but courage. It is a gift of power and love that is not like our own, which can wither away, but power and love that comes only from God. It is the power and love of Jesus Christ who has, as Paul proclaims triumphantly, broken and defeated death.
So powerful is this gift of faith that Jesus says even a tiny grain of it is more than enough to do impossible things. The very presence of faith can move mountains, put camels through the eyes of needles, uproot trees and put them into the sea, turn simple water into the fountain of life, transform bread and wine into the body and blood of our savior, transform us into the very body of Christ.
Lastly today, I had planned to say something about St Francis. The story of his life experiences and changing from a man steeped in worldly pleasures to a man drenched in the love of God is not only an interesting one, but also one worthy of admiration and study. However, every time I think of St Francis, the fragment of a song always comes to my mind.
“Sarah was a beauty queen, Miss Something or Another. She took off her crown, rolled up her sleeves, gave her life in a mission to others. She said she was in love with Jesus. But her friends called her a fool. They said she’d never find happiness. She just looked at them and smiled and said she already did. She saw the big in the small, she saw the beauty in the call. Even when no one else approved, she took the job only a fool would do.” [Geoff Moore, Only A Fool] I think that in the end, that is really who St Francis was. Like other saints, both those officially recognized by the church as well as the Loises, Eunices and people of great faith in our own lives, St Francis was in love with Jesus and he knew Jesus is in love with us.
So, what is faith? The psalmist tells us faith is not fretting and worrying over evil things and people in the world, for we may trust in God and he will act. Even in the midst of whatever darkness surrounds our lives as individuals, families, the nation and even the world, it is not chaos that ultimately has hold of us, but God. Faith is that something which God has given us that makes us more than the sum of our parts, makes the bread and wine more than just grain and grapes, unites us at a place that is more than just a table and transforms us into the body of Christ. Faith in our God is given to us, formed into us, when God uses the hands, hearts and lives of others who teach and show us what it means to be in love with Jesus and, perhaps most of all, to know that God is in love with us.