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The recently elected Pope Francis I, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, chose the name ‘Francis’ in honour of one of his heroes (if Popes are allowed to have heroes), Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Saint Francis is said, at one time in his life, to have had a deep fear of leprosy. One day, when riding outside the walls of Assisi, he saw a leper coming towards him. G K Chesterton (in his biography of Francis of Assisi) tells us, ‘Francis saw his fear coming up the road towards him – the fear that comes from within, not from without!’ Francis immediately realised that this was both a challenge to his faith, and yet at the same time a God-given opportunity for him to face his fear once and for all. Francis jumped from his horse, ran to the leper, embraced him, and gave him what money he had, before continuing on his journey. We do not know how far he rode, or with what sense of the things around him, but it is said that when he finally looked back … he could see no figure on the road!

‘Faith’ is a funny thing! ‘Personal faith’ is considered a priority for Christians (especially Protestant Evangelicals). The Church is spoken of as a ‘faith community’. Scripture exhorts us to ‘live by faith and not by sight’ (2 Corinthians 5:7). And yet many Christians seem to remain very confused about it?! It appears to be one of those concepts that every Christian talks about but doesn’t really understand. When, as a teenager, I became a Christian – more than 50 years ago now – there was a lady Deacon in the church where I worshipped who talked a lot about faith. She was always exhorting us young people to ‘have faith’. One day, someone asked her what she meant by ‘faith’ … and she didn’t know?! Perhaps it is because of our confusion about ‘faith’ that we seem to exercise so little of it? It seems to me that we rarely move out of our ‘comfort zones’ as Christians and churches, preferring a more cautious, safety first approach … just in case?! As I once heard the chairperson of a Church Meeting declare – summing up the discussion and the  vote that followed on the issue in question – ‘The decision is ‘maybe’ … and that’s final!’

Part of the problem probably lies with the lack of erudite theological explanation within much Christian preaching and writing over recent years. We use words like ‘faith’ but rarely explain what we mean by them in succinct clear ways. Thus we end up talking a lot about ‘faith’ without actually understanding exactly what it means to exercise faith. The Greek word for ‘faith’ in the New Testament means ‘trust’ or ‘firm persuasion’ and is used to describe the many-sided relationship into which the Gospel calls women and men – that of trust in God through Jesus Christ. As already suggested, it is a key New Testament concept, the complexity of which, however, is reflected in the variety of constructions used in connection with the verb ‘to believe’. Thus it is used to express truth believed, restful reliance on that to which credit is given, or trust that reaches out for the object of its confidence. In the New Testament alone we see it being used in a variety of ways. It is used of what we might call Saving Faith – that initial act of faith in which we trust Christ, and Christ alone, for our salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9). It is used of the Fruit of Faithfulness – that constant day after day trust in the Living God, that consistent walking by faith (Galatians 5:22.23). It is used of the Gift of Faith – that specific endowment that accompanies the call of God to some specific venture such as those described in the list of ‘Heroes of Faith’ in Hebrews 11 (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). It is used of the Doctrines of the Faith – those key truths once and for all entrusted to the saints that can never be changed (Jude 3). Each of these four areas of faith can be shaky ground for us – we can be very uncertain as whether we are really ‘saved’ and we can argue ‘until the cows come home’ as to what constitutes ‘sound doctrine’ – but probably it is the areas of consistent Christian living, and stepping out of our comfort zone in response to God’s call, that give us most trouble!

The problem is not new. Luke tells us of an occasion when the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ (Luke 17:5). Jesus had been talking to them about the importance of being stepping stones, not stumbling blocks, to other people in their journey of faith. Jesus had been talking to them about the importance of forgiveness (Luke 17:1-4). Faced with such demanding duties, and conscious of their own lack of consistency in doing this, and their inability to take this next step forward, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus’ response is interesting: ‘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 17:6). Yet again we see Jesus most probably making use of things around him to illustrate his point: a mustard seed, a mulberry tree, and even the fact that the Dead Sea could be seen from the Mount of Olives (where this incident was taking place). The mustard seed was the smallest known thing of the day. The mulberry tree was renown for the depth of its roots and the virtual impossibility of entirely eradicating it from ground where it had rooted itself. Jesus is not suggesting that his followers occupy themselves with pointless things like transferring trees into seas. His concern is with the difficulty. He is saying that nothing is impossible to faith! Genuine faith can accomplish what experience, reason, and probability would deny, if it is exercised within God’s will!

In effect Jesus is saying that what is needed here – for the apostles, and for every Christian or church faced with the challenge to step out of our comfort zone and move on to what God is calling us to – is not the increase in faith but the exercise of faith! It is not a question of needing more faith. Every Christian already has enough faith! If we have enough faith to get saved in the first place, we have enough faith! Even if we feel our faith is minute – only the size of ‘a mustard seed’ – we have enough faith! The apostles already had faith. They were not asking for initial faith. They were asking for additional faith. But what they really needed was to make use of the faith they already had! We also need to make sure that what faith we do have is directed towards God. Our faith needs to be directed away from ourselves and towards God. It is not great faith that is required but faith in a great God. It is not faith in ourselves, or even faith in faith, that we need but faith in God! Jesus encourages us all here to turn them away from the concept of ‘a less and a more in faith’ to the question of ‘faith’s genuineness’. If there is real faith then effects follow, obstacles are removed, barren land is made fruitful, the impossible becomes achievable! A risky business you say? Quite so! But then again, as the late John Wimber once suggested, ‘Faith is spelled R.I.S.K.’

Lord, you have always given
Bread for the coming day,
And though I am poor,
Today I believe!

Lord, you have always given
Strength for the coming day,
And though I am weak,
Today I believe!

Lord you have always given
Peace for the coming day,
And though of anxious heart,
Today I believe!

Lord you have always kept
Me safe in trials,
And now, tried as I am
Today I believe!

Lord, you have always marked,
The road for the coming day,
And though it may be hidden,
Today I believe!

Lord you have always lightened
This darkness of mine,
And though the night is here,
Today I believe!

Lord you have always spoken
When the time was ripe,
And though you may be silent now,
Today I believe!

Jim Binney

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