“Faith for Living in Community” (Luke 17:1-10)
In our Gospel reading for today, from Luke 17, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he is giving instructions to his disciples. At first glance it may seem like these are just several disconnected sayings strung together rather loosely. First there’s something about woe to anyone who causes a person to sin. Then there’s something about forgiving your brother. Then there’s a request about increasing our faith and Jesus’ response about faith like a mustard seed. And then there’s something about unworthy servants who only do their duty. Now all this could sound like three or four random instructions pieced together without rhyme or reason. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think if we look at this text more closely, we will see that there is a logical connection and sequence that ties these sayings together. And I think the connecting link is this: Today Jesus is speaking to us about–and also giving us–“Faith for Living in Community.”
Faith for living in community. That’s what we need to have to live in the way that Jesus describes. For it is a life in community that Jesus calls his disciples to. This begins to become apparent when we hear the first couple verses here. Jesus says to his disciples: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
Jesus here is telling us to be aware of how your life and conduct may have a negative influence on others in the Christian community. What you say, how you live–be careful that you are not leading others astray and causing others to stumble and fall, even to fall away from the Christian faith. This is saying that you are part of a community, and your words and actions have consequences in the lives of others. This can be for the good, or it can be for the bad, but in either case, you are part of a community, and you are called to be attentive to your role in it, what impact you are having on others.
There is a stern warning here about causing others to fall into sin. Jesus pronounces woe on anyone through whom temptations to sin come. The word here that’s translated “temptations to sin” is the Greek word “skandala.” “Scandals”–woe to the person through whom these scandals come. Now the meaning of this word “skandala” is not just public scandals that make the newspapers and that sort of thing—although it could include that. But the “skandala” here could be anything that causes someone else–particularly a weaker or less mature Christian–to stumble and fall in their Christian faith. “Offenses,” “stumbling blocks” are other ways this word is translated. Jesus is concerned that we not do anything that would cause another Christian to stumble and fall and perhaps even lose their faith. Our words, our actions, our example–these can and do have an influence on others. Christ would have us be cognizant of that fact, because he has placed his disciples in the community of his church.
This life in community comes through in the next thing that Jesus says: “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Here is the need for forgiveness, mutual forgiveness, if we are live together in Christian community. The thing is, the closer you live in relationship with other people, the more occasions will arise when we hurt one another and sin against one another. And therefore the more opportunities there will be for us to forgive the brother who sins.
Do you see how Jesus wants us to be attentive to our life in community, that this is to be a high priority for us his disciples? How we care for one another, including spiritually? We just won’t make it as a family, as a church, unless we learn how to forgive one another. Everything breaks down where there is no forgiveness. The alternative is to withdraw and keep to ourselves, keep our distance, not let other people get too close. But that is no answer. No, Christ has placed us in his community called the church, and we are to share our life together in koinonia, in community. This is abundantly clear in our text.
Living in community. I think in our society, we may not think too much about that when we think about church. Our culture is not attuned to think that way, and even church members may think about their membership just in terms of “me,” the individual: What am “I” getting out of church? It’s like we’re a bunch of individuals who happen to show up at the same place occasionally on Sunday mornings, and I come and sit in my isolation booth for an hour and then I leave, without having much interaction with those other people. But, friends, that is not the biblical picture of the church. No, we are a family. We are meant to live in community, caring for one another, and building one another up in the faith.
How is it going for you with your life of community, with your life of forgiveness? Have other people hurt you? Have you hurt other people? Do you find it hard to forgive and seek reconciliation? Do you take the initiative to restore a good relationship, or do you just sit back and stew in your juices? When you see a brother or sister in Christ going off track, do you just ignore it and block it out of your mind? Or do you do the risky thing and try to help that brother to come to repentance? You see, our failure to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation and repentance and restoration–this leads to bitterness, broken relationships, and conflicts in our family and in the church. And if you just stay within yourself and your own resources that you can muster up on your own, that will always be the case.
That’s what the disciples are sensing as they hear Jesus giving them these instructions. They can sense that this is a tall order, this calling to live in community: to be attentive that your words and deeds do not mislead a brother or sister and cause them to fall; that when a brother does sin you do what you can to lead him to repentance and then forgive him and keep on forgiving him. The apostles realize that this life in Christian community goes beyond what they can accomplish on their own. And so the apostles tell Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
Maybe that’s your prayer, too, when you realize you have a hard time living as a Christian in community. “Increase my faith, Lord! I need help!” Yes, and so do I. I have hurt others. Others have hurt me. And I am too often reluctant or shy or lazy or afraid when it comes to taking the initiative to restore what is broken. And I feel helpless when what I do try doesn’t work. “Increase our faith, Lord! We need help!”
But then listen to what Jesus says in response to this plea: “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The point being, even the tiniest amount of faith, if it is true faith in God and in Christ–even faith the size of a tiny mustard seed is able to accomplish amazing things that otherwise would be impossible. Things like forgiving your brother and caring for your fellow Christians and living in community as the church. You know, a mustard seed is a very small seed, just about the smallest seed the people of that culture would use. And yet, that little mustard seed, when it grows and blooms, produces a pretty sizable result. So it is with faith in Christ. It may seem small, but it can do mighty things.
And this is the faith that you have, dear brothers and sisters! You do have faith in Christ! And so life together in the church is not beyond your reach. You do have the capacity to love, as the new person you are in Christ. Here’s how it goes: God loves and forgives you, because of what Christ has done for you. God has gifted you with the Holy Spirit, in your baptism, making you God’s child, giving you the gift of faith, and giving you new power to love and forgive others. The Holy Spirit calls you into community; he has brought you into the church. You do have faith, and that includes faith for living in community.
To be sure, God would have your faith be strengthened and nourished, and that is why you come to church every week, to receive the Word and Sacrament. This is where community begins and always returns–in the Divine Service. But our life as church then continues as a Monday-through-Saturday thing, too. Love and care and forgiveness are ongoing.
“If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’” To have a deeply rooted mulberry tree uproot itself and throw itself into the sea–well, as impossible as that seems, if God really wanted you to do that, you have the faith to make it happen. Because faith isn’t about you, it’s about God, and with God, all things are possible. Now last I checked, I couldn’t find a commandment for us to throw mulberry trees into the sea. But God is interested in us loving and caring for one another. And so when God calls you to live in community and forgive your brother his sins, he will enable you to do it. If he can give you the faith to toss a mulberry tree into the sea, he can equip you to love and forgive people.
Just look at what God has already done: He has tossed your sins into the depths of the sea! That’s what the Bible says, you know. In the last verses of the prophet Micah, it says: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
Did you hear that? The Lord casts all our sins into the depths of the sea, never to be dredged up again! What wonderful good news this is! Your conscience is clear. Your slate is wiped clean. All your sins are cast into the depths of the sea, drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism. This is what the death of Christ your Savior has accomplished, something you could never do. Jesus Christ the Son of God has won the forgiveness of your sins and the sins of the whole world. “Father, forgive them,” he prays for us. And he teaches us to pray, “Father, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The cross of Christ is all about forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration. The Christian church is all about forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration. God has reconciled us sinners back to himself. He raises us from the deadness of sin and unforgiveness and isolatedness by raising us up with Christ in Holy Baptism and placing us in his family, the church. This is where we have brothers and sisters all around us to put into practice the love and forgiveness and care we have learned from God. This is our calling, and the faith God gives us enables us to do it.
Now one more thing, to complete the story today. It’s this last saying of Jesus about the unworthy servants who have only done our duty. That’s us. We don’t merit any special favors from God for passing on the forgiveness God has first extended to us and also empowered us to do. That’s just normal duty in the Christian church. We’re simply doing what we’ve been commanded to do. But the amazing thing is, God is so gracious that he does invite us unworthy servants to come and recline at table, as his special guests. Our Lord invites us to this table here today, the Lord’s Table, where we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And this feast points us ahead to the eternal, heavenly feast to come, the wedding feast of Christ in his kingdom, which has no end.
Dear friends, the faith God gives us is faith for living in community. But it is also faith that will have its outcome in the resurrection at the Last Day and the family of God in community made perfect, no longer afflicted with sin, community perfected in peace and joy and everlasting fellowship. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.