“Increase our Faith”

Scripture – 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 17:5-6

Sermon preached by Graeme Wilson

Sunday, July 30, 2023


Good morning, everyone!

May I begin by saying what a privilege it is to be sharing worship with you at Westminster Presbyterian over the next three weeks. The introduction of Greg and myself to one another was made by my very dear friend of some 38 years, the Rev. Tom Speers, who was until recently Pastor at Calvary Presbyterian, and I believe he even sang in the Choir here occasionally. Tom’s wife, Bessie, was until just recently the Head of School at Tower Hill School.

My friendship with Tom Speers goes back to 1985 when he came to be the Assistant Minister in my home church, the Old Parish Church of East Kilbride, just south of Glasgow, in Scotland. I was a Groomsman at Tom and Bessie’s wedding on the Vineyard in 1994, he co-officiated at my wedding to Julie, and Julie and I have visited Tom and Bessie and Wilmington on a few occasions prior to this trip and so we are not complete strangers to this area.

Julie and I were delighted to welcome Greg and Camilla to our home, and to my church, Bearsden Cross Church of Scotland, in the northwest of Glasgow on Tuesday past, and we had a lovely dinner together before we in turn departed across the Pond on Wednesday. I would add that the weather here at the moment is considerably different to that in Scotland!

Julie and I would also like to say a very warm and profound thank you to everyone who has done so much to welcome us to Wilmington in recent days. We look forward to getting to know even more of you in the coming weeks, for as someone once noted, “Strangers are those neighbours we have yet to meet!”

Over the coming three Sundays, I want to look at the three great ‘virtues’ from that famous passage from 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 – faith, hope and love. Paul was a man of profound faith, and mountainous eloquence, and this chapter is one of the rhetorical highpoints in all of Scripture.

As I begin my series on the three great Christian virtues, I am also reminded of the three great virtues of preaching – faith, hope and clarity … and the greatest of these is brevity!

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is widely regarded as Paul’s third letter (after 1 Thessalonians and Galatians) and was most likely composed around 53-54 AD while he was in Ephesus. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians urges them to overcome divisions, to abandon destructive behaviours, and above all to learn to live in the unity of Christ.

In chapter 13, Paul suggests that faith, hope, and especially love, are the key to unity in Christ, and with one another. A timeless lesson that I believe remains true today. We live in a world where there is so much conflict, injustice and division, and yet the three great virtues of faith, hope and love are still relevant, still important, in this world of today.

Faith, hope and love remain crucial … to how we live our Christian lives, and for how we understand one another, and the world in which we live. I will begin this week by looking at faith.

So, what is faith? The word in the Greek is pistis, which means belief, trust, confidence. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”

Talking of complete faith and confident belief in something, I am reminded of the young Glasgow girl who went into school on a Monday morning. The teacher asked the class what they had done over the weekend, and the wee girl told her teacher that she had heard a story from the Bible at Sunday School, that a man called Jonah had been swallowed by a whale.

Her teacher tutted, and said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because, even though it was a very large mammal, its throat was very small. The wee girl replied that that’s what had happened to Jonah in the story she had heard, and she believed it. Somewhat irritated, the teacher repeated that a whale could not swallow a human … it was physically impossible.

The wee girl said, “Well Miss, when I get to heaven, I’ll ask Jonah myself.” The teacher replied, “And what if Jonah went to hell?” And the wee girl replied, “Well Miss, then you can ask him!”

Christian faith is a confident belief in God, and in his son Jesus Christ, even though we may not be able to physically prove it. Martin Luther King Jnr. put it wonderfully. He said “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” In other words, our faith, our trust, is in the one who leads us, the one who calls us to follow, and not in the destination or the journey.

There’s an old story about a Scottish man who bought a house with an overgrown garden. The weeds had long since taken over the garden and it was a mess. But slowly the man began to clear the weeds, till the soil and plant the seeds. Finally, after a couple of years of hard graft and careful stewardship and nurturing, he had turned it into a beautiful, showcase garden.

One day the local Minister came to visit, and when he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he observed … “Well, my friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden.” To which the man replied, “I’m not so sure about that… you should have seen the state of it when God had it by himself!”

This morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel concerns a quick growing mustard seed. The image of the mustard-seed was a popular one with Jesus when teaching the disciples in parables. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith”; and Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed …”

The disciples come in for a fairly rough time in most of the gospels. They appear to lumber and lurch along in Jesus’ wake … without ever really seeming to grasp what his message of love, justice and reconciliation is all about. They wonder who will sit in glory at the left and right hand of the throne in heaven. They wonder which one of them is the greatest.

And yet, we can feel ourselves standing alongside the disciples … asking the same thing that they asked 2,000 years ago.  “Increase our faith!”

How often have we looked around ourselves and said, “I wish I had so-and-so’s faith”?  How often have we looked at ourselves and said, “Lord, give me faith” – let alone “Lord, increase my faith”?

There is a simplicity and beauty in Jesus’ answer to the disciples. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…”.  Not even a grain of mustard – but a mustard seed.  A mustard seed is like a speck of dust – barely perceptible to the naked eye.  And perhaps our faith feels like that sometimes… like a mustard seed – barely perceptible to the naked eye.

But … and this is the key to understanding this passage … but what Jesus is saying to the disciples, and what Jesus is saying to us today, is “Don’t ask for more faith … you can’t be given any more … you already have enough … the gift of faith, the gift of God, has already been given to you … and cannot be taken away.”

Faith isn’t something empirical we can measure or weigh. Faith isn’t passive or static – like an ornament or figurine to be taken down and dusted occasionally.

Faith is something active – something dwelling inside us – like a mustard seed which grows into a tree producing a harvest. A little faith goes a long way.

What Jesus is saying here is that we cannot measure faith.  He is saying, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” – and you do – then you can uproot the deeply rooted trees of prejudice and oppression in this world.

We shouldn’t talk about having ‘more’, or ‘less’, faith – we should instead focus on the gift of having faith itself. Faith is a bit like being pregnant – not that I have any personal experience of being pregnant!  Someone can’t be a little bit pregnant – they are pregnant.

We must learn to use the faith we already have. And, we must learn to work with the faith that we already have.

The good news of the gospel – the good news of this passage – is that we already have faith enough. Even if our faith is the size of a tiny mustard seed … we still have faith enough.

We have faith enough to stand up for human dignity and justice in a world where the poor are exploited, and where anger explodes in forms of terror which have a callous disregard for human life.

We have faith enough – faith enough to want to do what is right – faith enough to want to have the life that God has promised us. Faith enough to want to know … how can I feed the hungry? Faith enough to want to know … how can I bring peace to those around me?

Friends, seeds of hope and seeds of change are scattered all around us. Seeds of hope and seeds of change are within all of us.

And yes, our faith may at times feel no bigger than a mustard seed. But, no matter how small our faith may feel, we have a large part to play in the story of God’s love in our world, and in our community.

The disciples asked, “Increase our faith!”, but in the love of God in Jesus Christ, we have faith enough.


Let us pray.

Loving God, you have planted the mustard seed of faith in each and every one of us. Help us this day, and every day, to nurture that seed of faith, and to reap the bountiful harvest that you have promised us in the love of your son Jesus Christ, in whose name we offer this prayer. Amen