Last weekend Mark and I saw the movie Sully. As you probably know, it’s based on the true story of Captain Chelsey Sullenberger and his crew, who with only a couple minutes of time landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River after both engines were destroyed by a flock of geese. Every person aboard survived. It was an amazing occurrence, widely called “The Miracle on The Hudson.” But at the climactic moment in the film -- I don’t think I’m spoiling any plot points here, since we all know what happened – Sully delivers a brief, crystal-clear assessment of what he’s proudest of: “We did our job.”
That attitude is the same thing we see at the end of our Gospel reading today: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We have done only what we ought to have done!'" It may be tricky, however, to understand how the opening verses fit in. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, and he replies that it’s not the size of your faith that matters, and then he talks about recognizing that you’re just doing your job. It sounds almost random. But in fact, if you read it in context, the sequence flows pretty well. So I want to go back a couple verses before that “Increase our faith!” request that began the reading, to help us read in context and make a little more sense of this episode.
Right before we came in, Jesus told his disciples that on the path of following him, there are specific demands – and he mentions two. First, the practice of helping your fellow Christians behave consistently with their faith… and then second, the practice of forgiveness, even when someone hurts you repeatedly. Both of those things are very difficult to do – we all want to be liked, so holding each other accountable for following Christ is tough. And forgiving someone who hurts you over and over is probably even tougher. So immediately after Jesus mentions those two aspects of following him is the moment when the disciples say “Increase our faith!” They probably thought that they couldn’t do these exceptional, hard things Jesus had commanded. So they ask him to increase their faith. And on the surface this seems like a very pious, spiritual request, just the kind of thing a good Christian ought to say.
But Jesus doesn’t answer it piously, does he? He doesn’t increase their faith, and he doesn’t seem to think much of the request, if you go by how he responds. Look at it. There’s this thing about the tree, and then there’s this image of the household slaves or servants – it’s the same word. Neither of those is a super-spiritual “Yea verily, my child, I will increase thy faith as thou hast beseeched me.” He’s not affirming their asking for more faith here; he’s correcting it.
See, the apostles’ request implies that things like forgiveness and helping each other be disciples, the normal kinds of behaviors that go along with being a Christian, are things that they just don’t personally possess enough faith to be expected to do. It’s too hard to forgive, unless you happen to be able to muster exceptional extra amounts of faith. It’s too hard to submit yourself to an accountable spiritual community, unless you happen to be able to muster exceptional extra amounts of faith. Jesus sees through this smokescreen, and replies that a smidgen of real faith is plenty.
He even underlines the point with a comic example of Jewish overstatement, a rhetorical technique he seems to have loved. Read the Gospels, and you’ll find it everywhere. He talks about planks in people’s eyes, camels walking though needles. Here’s another deliberately absurd one: giant flying trees. But the point’s clear: They don’t yet have the kind of faith Jesus thinks need. The last thing they need is more of what they already have; they need something else. If they had even a tiny bit of what Jesus means by faith, all sorts of things, even ones that almost seem crazy now, would become possible. See, saying, “Oh, I just don’t have that much faith. I wish I had more, but I’m only an ordinary person,” is treating faith as something about you, a quality that you could summon up more or less of. But in Christianity the more or less of your own qualities isn’t all that relevant. Because for us, it’s the object of faith that counts. The Jesus kind of faith is trust in God, not trust in your faith. For Jesus all the power is located not in the feeling of faith, but in the object of faith.
You could compare it to a thousand-dollar bill which is printed on paper worth less than a penny. Where’s the value? Not in the paper. Not in your feelings. The value is only in the backing of the full faith and credit of the US government. So you don’t try to wheedle yourself into believing the paper itself has more intrinsic value than it does. You don’t focus on how you feel about having a piece of paper. No, you rely on the thing the paper points to. If you go to spend your $1000 bill, but that day you only happen to feel 30% sure that it is legal tender and going to be accepted, it will not buy you any less than it would if you happened to feel 100% sure that it was legal tender and going to be accepted. All its value is located external to you. You can feel whatever you like, but as long as you act based on reality, it comes out to the same $1000.
Christian faith is faith that relies on God enough to act based on reality as he has defined it. That receives a word from outside us, given by the God who made us, to reveal who we are, what life means, and what we prioritize. Christian faith is trusting in something external to you. Situating yourself with reference to God. And if that’s the point Jesus is making, no wonder he illustrates it at the end of the reading with this story of the servants who situate themselves with reference to their master. "Who among you,” he asks, “would say to your slave who has just come in from work, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me’? Do you thank the slave for doing his job? So you also, when you’ve done all that you were ordered to do, say, like Sully, ‘Naturally. This is who we are. We did our job.'”
A servant’s identity and activities are set by the master. That is not special and remarkable and something that requires extra sincerity; it’s the definition of the thing. Someone who doesn’t understand themselves as a servant can’t bridge that gap by standing idle while piously saying, “Oh, would that I felt a little more helpful.” “Dear Lord, increase my feelings of helpfulness.” No. Either you’ve signed on as a servant, in which case it’s pretty obvious who you are and what you do, or you have not signed on as a servant.
Now just as a servant’s identity and activities are defined by the master, if your master is Jesus, your identity and activities are defined by God. That is not special and remarkable and something that requires extra belief; it’s the definition of the thing. Grant that God owns you, that God gets to define you, and it’ll be pretty obvious who you are and what you do. Not completely crystal clear, but certainly plenty to get going on. And as we do the things that belong to that identity, Jesus tells us, we no longer find them quite as odd and off-putting as we once would have. We say, “We have done only what we ought to have done!” We did our job.
Again, the landing of that plane on the Hudson River was widely talked about as miraculous. In his book “After You Believe,” the Biblical scholar NT Wright points out the same thing the film does about Sully: he and his crew achieved what they did not because there was some exceptional miracle, but because they knew who they were. They had practiced being who they were for decades. They had absorbed countless skills external to them, doing their job in ordinary and routine ways over and over and over. Sully had safely delivered more than one million passengers. He didn’t sit around and moan, “I wish I knew more about aviation!” “Dear Lord, increase my feelings about pilothood.” No, he knew who he was, and he relied on that truth to shape him.
The so-called Miracle on the Hudson, NT Wright concludes, is just one more example of “what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required." The heroic identity that was waiting for Sully the day he became world famous was not buried somewhere in the muddle of his subjective feelings and imaginations; it was out there, definite, given, and he practiced it, objectively, in countless ordinary routine ways every single day. Any one of us could potentially do that and one day wake up a hero – or a saint.
We are called, if we want to be disciples of Jesus, to be as clear about who we are as Sully was. We are no longer our own. We belong to God. Our faith is in him, not in ourselves. And if that is true, putting God’s ways into practice and living for him is not something unexpected and strange. It’s just doing our jobs.
The treatment of Sully's story from NT Wright is found in "After You Believe," p. 18-22.