Genesis 2.4b-9,15-25, Luke 8. 22-25
“Where is your faith?” says Jesus to his stunned disciples in today’s Gospel story after he has stilled the storm which is about to engulf their little boat. “Where is your faith?”
I was struck by Jesus’ question as I read this story, because it is rather different from the question Matthew and Mark have him asking in their accounts of this strange event. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels share a lot of stories in common. They are called “synoptic gospels”. Synoptic means “the same eye”, or perhaps “seeing from the same perspective”. But they aren’t identical, and the little differences in the way they tell the stories matter.
So, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks “Why are you afraid – have you still no faith?” The disciples in Mark often seem completely clueless. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair, but it’s meant as an encouragement to his readers, and to us. If they struggled, no wonder we do! Matthew gives them a bit more respect in his telling of the story “Why are you afraid, you of little faith”. They have faith, but not much. But Luke takes a different tack completely. As Jesus looks as his terrified followers, the question he asks here is “where is your faith?” They have faith, he says, but where is it? What have they placed it in? Why wasn’t it there for them when they needed it, as the wind howled and the waves crashed around them?
We have no way of knowing what Jesus actually said, of course, but I like Luke’s version, because it seems to me that human beings are usually full of faith. We have to be. There’s precious little we can really be sure of in life. We have faith that the sun will rise in the morning and that it is still there, even when it is hidden by clouds. We have faith that we will be paid at the end of the month, or whenever we get our wages, otherwise we wouldn’t go to work. We have faith that the food we buy contains what the label says it does. We usually have faith that most people are telling us the truth, as far as they know it. Even if people may have lied to us in the past, and we know that have lied to others too, we still tend to assume that people basically mean what they say and say what they mean.
Life would be very cumbersome if we had to have proof of everything people tell us. How can we be sure, for example, that those who will serve us coffee at the end of this service haven’t laced it with cyanide? I very much hope they haven’t. They’ve never done so yet. But we can’t be sure. The only way we could prove it was safe would be either to send it off for testing – and then, can we trust the testers? - or to drink it and see if we all keel over. Apologies to the coffee makers for using them as an example…but you get the point. We live by faith, trusting in all sorts of things for which we have no evidence whatsoever, but Jesus question reminds us that we need to think about where we place our faith, and in whom.
So, where is the faith of Jesus’ disciples? What do they trust in as they begin to face this storm? They’re fishermen. They’ve been sailing these waters all their lives. As the story starts, they surely have faith in their own skills and knowledge.
They probably have faith in each other too. Maybe, as the storm began to build and each one privately realised that they didn’t know what to do, they consoled themselves with the thought that one of the others did. “Simon’s an old hand, he’ll be able to cope and give us a lead!. Andrew’s resourceful. He’ll come up with something!”
Maybe they believed that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to them. Maybe their faith was in the religious ideas and cultural assumptions they’d grown up with. They were good people. They went to synagogue. They cared about others… Maybe they thought that ought to protect them against misfortune.
Maybe, like so many of us, they’d put their faith simply in the assumption that “it will never happen to me”. We all tend to think we are immortal until illness or accident hits us or those close to us.
Wherever their faith was, it didn’t seem to be helping them much as they faced the storm in that tiny boat. Their skill and knowledge wasn’t enough to keep them safe. None of them turned out to have a cunning plan, or any plan at all, come to that. All those good things they’d done didn’t seem to be enough magically to protect them against disaster. This was happening to them. They weren’t immortal.
So eventually they did the only thing that was left to them. They woke Jesus up, and asked for his help. “Master, Master, we are perishing!” Finally, they put their faith in the place it really needed to be; in Jesus, and in their relationship with him. They didn’t tell him what to do. They didn’t know what to do, so how could they? They just told it like it was - “we are perishing!” and left it up to him. They decided that they could trust his love for them, that whatever he did, it would be for their good and certainly better than whatever they could do for themselves.
As St Paul put it in his letter to the Romans (14.8) “We do not live to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s.”
This story is an important reminder of what faith really is. It isn’t just or even mainly about a set of intellectual propositions, like those we recite in the Creed. Faith isn’t believing things about God; it is about living in relationship with him, trusting in his care, knowing and showing that we believe our lives are richer and better with him in the picture.
We know how this works from our human relationships. We don’t decide to trust a partner, a friend, a parent, a child because we believe a long list of things about them. We decide to trust them because we discover that life is better with them in our lives than not. We don’t demand proof of their love every day – that’s usually a sign that something has gone fairly drastically wrong in a relationship. We just come to a point where we have taken enough risks with them to know that we want to take some more. We trust their love and rest on it. We allow them to have a claim on us, because we recognise that they are “flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone”, as Adam said of Eve, people whose lives are inextricably woven into ours.
Essentially, faith isn’t a noun, a thing that you’ve either got, or haven’t got, it’s a verb, something you do, something which can only really be known and seen in action.
We express our faith in our coffee making team by drinking their coffee, without checking it for cyanide first! We express our faith in those we love by opening up to them, assuming they’ll want to know how our day has been, how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking. We express our faith in God by living as if he matters to us and we matter to him, by listening for his voice, by pondering his words, but also by crying out to him in anger and doubt and questioning when we need to. Read the Psalms and you will find plenty of that. Shouting at God is fine. In a sense it is a sign of trust, a sign that we expect something of him, just as we would of anyone who cares about us. We may not know what he will do, what he will call us to do, where he will lead us, but you don’t cry out to someone unless you believe they love you enough to care and to respond.
“Where is your faith?” asks Jesus of his disciples. “Where is your faith?” he asks of us. What do we put our trust in as we face a stormy world – and is it something which ultimately can bear the load? That’s the question this story raises. There’s nothing wrong with having faith in ourselves, in our skills, in our knowledge and experience. There’s nothing wrong with having faith in those around us. But the message of this story is that if we expect these things and these people to be able to bear all our burdens and solve all our problems we’ll be disappointed.
I watched a little video on Youtube this week https://youtu.be/y4csKqchjoc . I wish I could show it to you, but we don’t have the technology – I’ll put a link to it when I post this sermon online. It shows one of those little trust exercises that people are so fond on of inflicting on one another on training days. A willing victim – sorry volunteer – is told to stand on a chair and shut his eyes. All he has to do is to fall when he is told to. His friends, he is told, stand ready to catch him. He climbs on the chair. He closes his eyes. We see them gather silently behind him, their arms outstretched ready. “One, two, three…fall” he is told. And he falls, in complete trust, forwards. They had forgotten to tell him which way. They had assumed one thing. He had assumed another. “No! “ they all cry as they watch him fall… but it’s too late. I live in hope that it was staged, but I genuinely don’t know.
We live by faith. We have to. But let’s make sure that faith is placed where it should be, in God. Let’s make sure we are, literally, practicing it, doing it, by listening for his voice day by day, pondering his words, calling out to him in good times and in bad, so that when we fall, as we all must sometimes, we know which way we should fall, and where the arms are that will catch and hold us safely, when no others can.