The Essential Faith

The Gospel of Matthew 17:14-23

At that time, a man came up to Him and kneeling before Him said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move hence to yonder place,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.”

In the previous pericope, Jesus was up on the mountain praying, and now we see him descend back into the world of reality and he comes face to face with an earthly problem and a practical demand. A man had brought his epileptic son to his disciples while Jesus was on the mountain praying, and they were unable to heal him.  So serious was his condition that he had become a danger to himself and others.  If you listen closely to the story, you can almost hear the sigh of relief when Jesus appears on the scene.  He took control of the situation that had become entirely out of hand.  With one strong word, he drove the demon out of the boy, and he was cured.

This story has many significant things in it that it bears some looking at further.

We cannot help but be moved by the faith of the father.  Although the disciples’ of Jesus had been given the power to cast out demons such as these, they were unable to do so.  They had publically failed in their mission, and things were turning bad. But, in spite of the lack of healing from the disciples, the father never doubted the power of Jesus. It is as if he said, “Only let me get at Jesus, and my problems will be solved, and my need will be met.”

There is something striking about this, and there is something that is very universal and modern. There are many who feel that the church has failed and is powerless to deal with the ills of the human situation; and yet in the back of their minds there is the feeling: “If we could only get beyond the human followers of Jesus, if we could only get past the façade of ecclesiasticism and the failure of the Church, if we could only get at Jesus himself, we would receive the things we need.”

I have said before that the numbers of people who do not align themselves with a church, any church, are staggering.  The numbers of believers are still high, perhaps higher than it has even been, but people have lost faith in the institution of the church.  This place that is supposed to be about comfort and healing is perceived to be about judgment and condemnation.  There are more people that know what we are against than what we are for!  We as a church have abused power and abused the sacred trust that has been given to us by God. Some well-meaning church people are spending so much time fighting for the so-called “soul of America” that I fear we have lost the soul of the church and maybe even turned an entire generation of people away. We are perceived as hypocritical, judgmental, inauthentic people who only want to point at people and point out their sins all the while we go about our day so mired in sin ourselves that we cannot see the damage we are doing. It is both our condemnation and our challenge that, even yet, though people have lost faith in the church, they have never lost faith in Jesus Christ.  We have to reverse this collision course that we are on; we have to turn away from this nonsense and turn back towards people, created in the image and likeness of God. I always like to remind myself that the only people Jesus ever had harsh words for were the church, leaders.  Kind of keeps things in perspective for me.  He came down harder on the leaders of the church than he did the prostitute and the tax collector.

We also see in this passage the constant demands made upon Jesus. He comes straight down off the mountain of glory, and he comes face to face with human suffering.  He comes straight from hearing God’s voice hear the pleading of a father for his sick child. The most Christ-like person in the world is the one who never finds his fellow human a nuisance. It is so easy to feel close to God in the moment of prayer and meditation; it is easy to feel close to God when the world is shut out. But that is not religion – that is escapism. Real religion, true religion, is to rise from our knees before God to meet people and the problems of the human situation. Real religion, true religion, is to draw strength from God to give it to others. Real religion, true religion involves both meetings God in the secret places and people in the marketplace. Real religion, true religion means taking our own needs to God, not that we may have peace and quiet and undisturbed comfort, but that we may be enabled graciously, efficiently and powerfully to  meet the needs of others. It is not enough for us to pray for people and then go about our day never giving them another thought. Jesus went away for a time of prayer and refreshment, and he came back with the power of God and used that power to people, all people.  He did not judge them, he did not require them to do this or that, he did not even require them to change their lifestyle, he accepted them all and helped them, just as he helped this child in the story today.  He knew nothing about this man or his son, all he knew was that he had faith, and that was enough for Jesus.

At the center of all of this is the idea that we need faith. It was this man’s faith that pushed him to seek out Jesus even after his disciples had let him down. It is faith that allows the person, abused or shunned by the church and church people, to continue to believe in Jesus and the power of his grace. When Jesus spoke about removing mountains, he was using a phrase that would have been familiar to the ears of those listing to him. Someone who was considered a great teacher was called and uprooter or a pulverizer, of mountains. To tear up, to pulverize, to uproot mountains is a phrase the was used for removing problems and difficulties. Jesus never meant that this phrase was to be taken literally, I believe there are a lot of phrases Jesus never meant to be taken literally, I don’t know about you but I have never found a need to remove a mountain. I believe what he meant was, “If you have faith enough, even a small amount of faith like this mustard seed, all difficulties can be solved, and even the hardest task can be accomplished.” Faith in God is what enables believers to remove the hills of difficulty that blocks our path, all we need is a little of this faith, and the help and support of others in the community, and we can solve any problem.

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