You either believe these words, or you do not. Probably there is not a man who has not neglected them. Was there ever such a declaration made by human lips? How we hasten over verses of this range and quality, and get into easy reading as soon as we can! But here stands the solemn, incredible word. Words of this kind should not be read once only, for the ear may refuse them full admission, and the memory may perform quite a miracle of forgetfulness; we should say the words themselves over and over again until they become part of our very consciousness. "And the Lord said...." It requires an introduction not less august. Had it been—"And Peter said," we should have made short work of the speech. "And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you." If this is not a fanciful speech it is the most neglected doctrine in all the book. Not a Christian soul in the wide universe believes a tittle of it: so we cannot call ourselves Christian. We only become Christians at the difficult points: along the common road we belong to all denominations of thinkers; it is at hard places, at new departures, at cross-roads, at the Cross, that we become real Christians. We always seek to lessen the meaning of supernatural declarations; we call them figures of speech, we refer to them as mystic idealities; things written in clouds, and framed with stars; we are willing to give them any amount of transcendental honour, but we never accept them as direct, imposing immediate responsibilities, and offering an instantaneous heaven. What wonder that spirituality is at a discount? We hold our religion with the fingers of our reason; we take it up and set it down as an argument, we surround it with many learned books we have never read, and think that so surrounded it is perfectly secure. The one thing we have not done is the only thing we are asked to do, and that is to live our piety. It is for the men of faith to recall and Revelation -establish the doctrine of faith. Even believers that seem to be supreme carry with them a measuring-rod with which to mark off the ideal, the spiritual, and the infinite into inches. We are never lost in God. We exclude the supernatural, and then praise God; we write moaningly—and remuneratively—about the decay of supernaturalism, and then never think of using our soul"s wings, but always do we walk with the feet of our body. All this must be reformed and driven away. Nothing is clearer to me than that the Church is dying. The Church ought to die when it loses its distinctiveness; when it ceases to represent faith, it is effete, it has survived its function, it is fit only to be cast down and trodden under foot of men. When the Church is only one of a number of kindred institutions, decent, respectable, self-protecting, self-promoting, the Church has ceased to have any reason for existence. We need the voice of the Lord—great, noble, resonant, musical; a majestic voice—to speak to us some doctrine the reception of which will give us distinctiveness and therefore holy influence.
What can be more rational than the basis of the doctrine which the Lord thus declares? What is it when put into other than distinctively religious words? It is simply that mind is greater than matter. "If ye had faith"—a high mental condition, a new spiritual consciousness, the faculty which lays hold upon God—you could uproot mountains, and transfer forests to the midst of the sea; you could give eyes to the blind, you could wake the dead from their undreaming sleep. Thus divested of theological colour and prejudice, we come face to face with a new philosophy, namely, that mind in its spiritual fire, in its conscious dominance, is greater than all things we denominate material. Yet we have put our necks under these things, and have accepted the yoke of a humiliating bondage. We who ought to have played with the laws of nature have lassoed ourselves with them, and asked what they were going to do next, We have lived inverted lives, we have given away our heritage, and have not received even a mess of pottage in return. Is it possible that we have not faith as a grain of mustard seed? Does that refer to quantity or to quality? In the first instance evidently to quantity, for the apostle said in the preceding verse, "Lord, increase our faith": give us more faith;—and the Lord said, "If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed," which is the smallest among seeds, ye should work miracles with it. Yet, in the next place, it may be a question of quality; for, though the mustard seed is the least among seeds, yet when it is grown it becomes an exceeding great tree, and the birds of the air lodge in its branches. So with this Christian faith: though quantitatively small, yet in its quality it is vital, expansive, always ascending into largeness, fruitfulness, hospitality. We are not called upon to ask for a little faith, small as a grain of mustard seed, but we are called upon to ask for the mustard-seed-like faith, that being planted will not die, but will rise and grow and strengthen, and be a church for the singing birds. It ought to be possible to receive from our Father in heaven direct guidance as to all the practical affairs of life. Observe the expression "direct guidance," not some hazy, cloudy, impalpable impression. Otherwise history is living backwards. We have less communion with God than the old prophets had; where they heard the word of the Lord we simply catch an impression which we translate according to our uppermost instinct or our most recent prejudice. Let the Church lay down this doctrine: It is possible to receive from our Father in heaven direct guidance in all the practical affairs of life; then the Church has a distinct position to occupy. Those who do not belong to the Church admit an intellectual action in life; they speak of having impressions, convictions, and refer with great confidence to the action of instinct and the play of reason: it is only after that we must look for the beginning of Christian faith, and the distinctiveness of spiritual action and reliance. If we pass through all the tragedy of Calvary merely to accept the nostrums and the dogmas of old paganisms, or current rationalities, we have squandered our strength, and by elaborating our circumlocution we have lost time and pith and quality.
We must, perhaps with a ruthless hand, clear the ground of certain misconceptions. For example, this doctrine will not admit the proposition of frivolous inquiries. "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." The Lord will not listen to inquiries that are not burning with sincerity, and that do not relate to the very centre and dignity of life. Nor will this doctrine for one moment tolerate presumptuous inquiries, as to what shall happen on the morrow, or as to who shall live or die ten years hence, or what is the mystery of the universe. "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law." God will not allow violation of boundaries, trespass of limitations, which are good for us as little children, as lives trained on a cloudy day to aspire after forgiveness and immortality. Nor will the doctrine for one instant tolerate prejudiced inquiries. For example, a man might come saying, that he knows in his heart what he will do, whatever the divine answer may be supposed to be. A man so coming will be disappointed; his inquiry will be regarded as an impiety and will be disallowed. How difficult it is to get rid of prejudice in our inquiries, and even in our prayers! We pray for certain events, but we spoil our prayer by a bias; we want them, but not for the right reason; we suggest certain possibilities to the Lord, but he knows by the reading of our heart that we do not want those possibilities to transpire, but that we are really craving for another set of possibilities and facts. To no such inquiries will the Lord respond. Nor will he answer those who turn evident duties into moral perplexities and spiritual problems. When things are plainly revealed there is no need to pray about them or to inquire concerning them. No man need pray saying, Lord, send me an answer to this inquiry: shall I pay my debts? shall I forgive my penitent enemies? shall I continue in Christian worship and spiritual aspiration? shall I really love my neighbour as myself?—questions that have no real point, no sacrifice in the heart of them, no Calvary at any point of their statement. Thus we lay down limitations, and within those limitations I do not hesitate to propound the doctrine that to an honest and true heart there should be no difficulty whatever in ascertaining the right course, in business, in enterprise, or in any practical department of life. If you have the childlike, sincere, loving heart, you can have an answer tomorrow as to whether you should take up that venture or not: but if you want to take up the venture, and then make a mock of prayer for heavenly guidance, you will have no reply, or God will make a fool of you. "He taketh the wise in their own craftiness." What is your heart? Is it childlike, obedient, docile, without a thought, a prejudice, a bias? Then you can have an answer direct from heaven as to whether you ought to take up that new business, enter into that new enterprise, accept that glittering offer. When the Church lays down this doctrine, and lives it, the Church will have a distinct function in society; but at present the Church is in danger of having nothing to do but repeat its old ceremonies, its old dogmas, its old propositions, every pulse of life having gone out of them, and nothing being left but a dead form of dead words. All men cannot, it may be, attain this supremacy of faith. But the men who have attained it should be the ministers and the prophets of their age. Men should hasten to them for guidance and direction: but they should come in a spirit of docility and faith. Men who can ask God for us are the greatest ministers of the time: no honour too great for them, no tribute too costly. We pay musicians for music, and chaplains for prayers, and preachers for sermons: what should be given to the man who can guide us in the practical affairs of life?
How will the answer come? I cannot tell. What will be the process through which the divine being will communicate with the suppliant soul? I do not know. By mental impressions, by a series of events following each other in a certain order, by uncalculated and unconscious coincidences, by some definite physical action, or in some way that cannot be mistaken for a merely human sensation or event. The answer will be according to the sincerity of the inquirer. Bad faith on the part of the inquirer will receive nothing of the Lord. The Lord will even deceive the prophet himself, and will lead the foolish or selfish inquirer astray. "I will set my face against that Prayer of Manasseh, and will make him a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from the midst of my people; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel." And the prophet himself may have his security endangered by the wickedness of the wicked applicant. I have never hesitated to act upon this doctrine in my own life, and it has never led me astray. I have risked everything upon it. To the sight of men I have in one or two instances or more played the fool that I might magnify faith in God. The answer may not always justify itself by immediate results: God takes time for the declaration of his economies and inspirations. I have sat down the day after committing myself thus to God, and cried like a disappointed child, and have said aloud, Surely in this case my faith has been misplaced, or God has trifled with me. But in another day, or month, or year, a vision has glorified the whole heaven, and all doubt has been dispersed, and they who mocked me as a foolish man have come round to offer their tribute too late, and have even then sought to magnify a man"s sagacity above the inspiration of God. Do you feel that you cannot rise to this elevation of faith? Then do not attempt it. Does some tempter say to you, "after all—" Then you are in the tempter"s hands, and do not contract the guilt of venturing to speak to spiritual men on spiritual subjects. You have no right to use such language; it is a currency unknown in your world.
Might not false prophets arise? Certainly. What then? If you cannot keep false prophets down, do what you may; you may lay down the doctrine. You fear there will be men who will scoff at it, or misappropriate it, or pervert it, or degrade it? Here is a man who has given up all commercial life because he once knew an individual who attempted to pass a bad half-crown: how noble he looks, how lofty in reason! He had his ground for retiring from the world; nothing we may say can persuade him to return to commercial usages. Here is another man who has given up all friendship and all society because he once proved a man to be a hypocrite. Now he never speaks—now he simply waits for extinction. If he thinks, it is after this fashion, namely: Friendship may beget hypocrisy; men may presume upon it, men may misuse it, may degrade it into selfish and mischievous perversions: therefore I have ceased to have anything to do with the culture of friendly relations. Here is a noble soul who has retired to a hermitage unknown to every human being because he found self-seekers in politics. He could not bear it—he has gone! We must not therefore be afraid of a doctrine simply because false prophets would arise to trade upon it, because the element of betting, and gambling, and speculation might be introduced into it. What we are in search of is sound, true, spiritual doctrine.
If the Lord Jesus Christ has not taught some such doctrine as we are now attempting to state, he has taught nothing. Therefore I see no scriptural argument against faith-healing. I have never seen any healing by faith, but to my knowledge there is not a single verse in all the Bible which forbids that the prayer of faith will heal the sick. Let us admit that. I do not see any scriptural argument against the possibility of mind communicating with mind, spirit holding sacred relations with spirit: are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? The angel of the Lord encompasseth round about them that love him. Surely there are more passages of Scripture that would seem to indicate the possibility of spiritual communion than would seem to disallow that possibility. I see no scriptural argument against personal inspiration. God surely does not live backwardly, going from much to less, and from less to nothing. The other course of revelation and providence would seem to be more in harmony with what we know of human consciousness, and human history, and divine revelation. The Spirit of God was promised to the Church, and was promised for the express purpose of leading the Church into all truth; men were told not to think about what they should say when they were brought before human tribunals for faith"s sake,—as if the Lord had said, You will not be convicted or condemned on the ground of cleverness, or on account of faculty, intellectual inventiveness or personal eloquence. All these things have nothing to do with the case; in the hour of your agony you shall have an answer which cannot be finally gainsaid. This is the upper life; this is the life of faith. I see greater danger in the discouragement of faith than in its stimulus and even exaggeration. Do not imagine that we escape all danger by disallowing the possibility of communing with God, in the sense of receiving from above direct answers to direct inquiries. Do not suppose that we live a noble life by saying to young and ardent hearts: Do not expect answers from God of a direct and pertinent kind, but construe events, look at the outlines of Providence as they are indicated in the history of the current day. There is a danger in all such discouragement of faith, more danger than in the doctrine which says, Increase your faith; distrust your senses; be sure that your reason cannot comprehend the whole economy and meaning of things. But may not that end in fanaticism? Certainly. Still, what does that prove? If it prove anything it proves too much, and by proving too much it proves nothing. I contend that the sound reason points to the culture of faith, and encourages that marvellous plunge which a man takes when he says, My reason can do no more for me, my senses cannot go one stride further: now, my God, I leap! Take me: leave me not, O thou great Jehovah! To the world that is insanity, but the world never understood faith.
Let no man imagine that this gift is dissociated from obedience. It is not a solitary gift, it is not an eccentricity, it is not given to one man and withheld from another by any merely arbitrary arrangement or purpose. There is a distribution of functions and gifts in the Church; Christ gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers. You do not find all these specialities consummated and expressed in one ministry. To one man Christ gave the keys. The man who really holds this trust will be most modest, most faithful, most consciously dependent upon God. The high office to which this doctrine points Isaiah, let us repeat, not open to gamblers, speculators, curiosity-mongers, and fortune-tellers. The argument that such people would abuse it, let us further repeat, proves nothing by proving too much: for what holy office or sacred trust have not such people abused? They have prostituted every natural instinct, they have broken every honourable compact,—nay, they have sacrificed their children unto devils. Not for fear of them, therefore, must Christians either lower their flag or shade their light.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Luke 17". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany