A missionary working among children in the Middle East was driving her Jeep down a road when she ran out of gas. She had no gas can in the car, and all she could find was a potty chair. So she grabbed the pot from the chair and walked a mile down the road to the nearest gas station where she used it to carry the gasoline. As she was pouring the gas into the tank of her Jeep, a large Cadillac occupied by wealthy oil sheiks drove up to her. They were fascinated at seeing her pour the contents of the pot into the Jeep. One of them opened the window and said, “My friend and I, although we don’t share your religion, greatly admire your faith.” ☺
We talk about faith amongst ourselves and say things like, Keep the faith or Have a little faith. Today we see the disciples of Jesus asking, “Increase our faith.”
I can identify with that plea, can’t you? Increase my faith, Lord. We sometimes find ourselves wishing we had more faith or a bigger faith. For instance, when it comes to witnessing – being bold for Christ in public – the thought of sharing one’s faith with someone else can be seen by many people as a daunting task. So we pray, “Lord, increase my faith.” Then we can do it. But when it comes to taking on a big project . . .
Years ago, when my congregation was deciding to buy some land and relocate our church, it felt like a big leap of faith for us. I remember, as the pastor of that group, I felt not only exhilarated but also overwhelmed by the challenge and responsibility of it all. I prayed, “I believe you want this Lord, but it’s so big to consider. Increase my faith.”
Speaking of big projects, some of us have brought children into this world and taken on the responsibility of raising them to trust and serve Jesus Christ. Some days, in our concern for them and knowing the kind of world we’re sending them into, we might find ourselves praying, Lord, increase my faith. A host of big things might cause us to join those first disciples in this request.
A big project inspired this plea from the disciples. Jesus has just given them some instructions about how to live together as His people in the church. Overall He teaches that we are to be responsible for one another. We are to take care of each other’s spiritual welfare. The age-old question, Am I my brother’s keeper? is affirmed by Jesus. The truth is, no one follows Jesus alone. When we say yes to Christ, we are thrust into a family, not of our choosing, but the family of God. This is not always an easy task to live with because each follower of Jesus is a saint and a sinner. We can irritate and even hurt each other. Yet Jesus tells us today that we have a responsibility to each other. We are in this together. So what does that look like?
In this first section of the passage from Luke 17, we learn that followers of Jesus don’t cause other followers of Him to stumble in their faith or fall away from believing.
“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,
but woe to anyone by whom they come!”
This is a serious warning from Jesus. He is saying, Listen, there are enough things out there to trip a person up in their faith walk. Don’t add to the list! We need to be careful to renew and not wreck the faith of others. Jesus adds,
“It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
We can do exactly that in a variety of ways, such as teaching false doctrine or encouraging bad behavior in others either with our words or with our poor example.
Pastors certainly need to take this statement to heart. We are given charge of guiding, growing, and guarding the sheep in our own congregation’s flock. Don’t let your flock be biblically starved and biblically illiterate. Nurture them in the one true faith. Faithfully feed them the gospel again and again and again. Confront them when they need to be confronted. Be on your guard. Heads up!
Why do you suppose He says this? I’m reminded of Peter’s words: “. . . Satan is prowling around like a roaring lion seeking to devour” (I Peter 5:8). He desires to mess things up in your congregation.
Jesus adds to this lesson by saying sometimes a rebuke is necessary.
“If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, that is, correct them. And if there is repentance, you must forgive.”
Sometimes a person needs to hear, What you’re doing is hurting me. Or, your words and actions have offended me. Or, you’re headed toward disaster with your disobedience to God’s word. It is our responsibility to rattle one another’s cages at times, but we are to rattle them in love with the hope of restoring and helping the individual follower of Christ.
It has been said that a genuine rebuke is a noble communication. Its intention is to free a person for growth and effectiveness by speaking the truth in love. We may need people to speak the truth in love into our lives, and we may need to speak it to others as well.
“If there is repentance, you must forgive.”
As Jesus has forgiven us, so we are to forgive the offending party. In other words, if they show penitence, contrition, a turnaround from what they have been doing, don’t continue to hold their sin against them, but forgive.
Someone once said I can forgive, but I cannot forget. This is simply another way of saying I will not forgive. Forgiveness has to be like a canceled note torn in two and burned up so that it can never be shown against that person.
I once heard a story about a guy sitting with his friend at a bar who was lamenting about his marriage.
I just hate it when my wife and I get into a fight. She gets so historical.
You mean hysterical, don’t you? asked his friend.
No, historical. She drags out every bad thing I’ve ever done and reminds me of it.
That is not what Jesus wants from us.
He continues, Even if this person sins again you over and over again, you must forgive him. This is not a one-time occurrence. Each time he harms you and then repents of his sin, you must forgive him. That sounds difficult, doesn’t it? I like to set limits on how much I’ll take off of someone. I want to say to a person who has offended me, Enough! As far as I am concerned, we’re done. I wash my hands of you!
When you forgive someone, you are giving up your right to take advantage of the situation and hold it over their heads. You are also giving up your right to get even. As kingdom people, we are to humbly share the forgiveness God has given us in Jesus Christ.
The disciples are thinking to themselves, This sounds hard and it is going to require a lot more faith than we have. So they request,
“Increase our faith.”
Jesus responds with some reassuring words.
“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.”
Jesus is using figurative language to teach His followers about the power of faith in God, no matter how big or small their faith is. What matters is not the size of your faith, but the object of it, which is God who can do anything He wants! Amen! God is all-powerful.
When we are connected to serving Him and carrying out His will for us, God’s power is in us. I am reminded of some favorite Old Testament stories that remind us of this truth.
• Abraham – He learned to trust God and have faith. He learned God will take care of him and his wife, Sarah. Although they both laughed at the thought of having a child in their advanced years, God gave them a son named Isaac.
• Moses – God told Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses shrugged his shoulders and said Me? I can’t even speak well. Yet look at what God did through Moses. He set His people free.
• Gideon – When God told him to drive the Midianites out of the land, Gideon must have laughed and said Me? Impossible! They are a huge power, and I am the least of the smallest tribes of Israel. However, God used Gideon to defeat the Midianites.
Likewise, our response to this tall order from Jesus may be, Take care of my brother or sister’s spiritual welfare? Rebuke them? Forgive them again and again? I don’t know if I can do that. But Jesus reassures us, Oh, yes, you can. You can do this with God’s power working in you and through you.
Jesus ends this teaching session with His disciples in a very interesting way. He talks about the attitude of being an obedient disciple. He moves from You can do these things to In what spirit will you carry out these orders I’ve given you? Using an everyday example of a servant and master relationship, Jesus asks,
“Suppose you are the master over a slave. Would you serve dinner to your servant after they’ve done a day of work out in the field? No. you’d say, ‘Serve my meal first. Then you can eat.’
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? Of course not. The servant wouldn’t expect that anyway. So you also, when you have done all that I have instructed you, say, ‘I am just a worthless servant doing what I ought to have done, carrying out my duty to my Master.’”
We do not boast about what we have managed to do for Jesus, like being a loving brother or sister, or a great rebuker, or a humble forgiver, because the power and the ability to carry out Christ’s orders come from God, not oneself. The motivation is not to receive extra credit from God – like a few more stars in my crown – because God’s grace freely given in Christ has taken good care of me.
We must keep in mind that Jesus, as He is teaching the disciples, is on the road to Jerusalem where He will suffer and die to pay for our sins and then be raised. Like an obedient servant, He will empty Himself for my sake in perfect obedience and love for the Father. The motivation for the servant of God is love and gratitude, as Paul writes in Romans 1:1-6: “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” This is how Paul saw his ministry.
It is also how Paul saw the rest of his life after Christ Jesus took over. It was a big thank you, a response of gratitude to the One who bought him and ransomed him with His precious suffering and death – with His blood.
I can’t help but be reminded of Martin Luther’s explanation to the second article of the Apostle’s Creed when I read this portion of Luke’s passage.
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has purchased and freed me from all my sins, from death and the power of the devil; not with silver or gold but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.
Now listen to this part.
He has done all this so that I may belong to Him, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He has risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.
This reminds me of another story, probably apocryphal according to one Lincoln historian.
Abraham Lincoln went to a slave block to buy a slave girl. As she looked at the man bidding on her, she glared at him figuring he was just another white man who going to buy her and abuse her. Lincoln won the bid, and as he was walking away with his property he said, “Young lady, you are free, free to go.” She asked what that meant.
“It means you are free.”
“Does that mean I can say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes, my dear. You can say whatever you want to say.”
“Does that mean that I can be whatever I want to be?”
“Yes, you can be whatever you want to be,” Lincoln replied.
“Does this I mean I can go wherever I want to go?”
“Yes. You can go wherever you want to go.”
Then the girl, with tears streaming down her face, said, “Then I will go with you.”
Fellow redeemed disciples of Jesus Christ, for the sake of His kingdom, for the sake of the Church of Jesus Christ, take these words of Jesus to heart and do them. Look out for one another’s spiritual welfare. Have the courage to lovingly rebuke and correct when needed. Then forgive as you have been forgiven by Jesus. This is what holds the Church of Jesus Christ together. It makes us a shining light to the world and a living display of what God intended for His world in the first place – people loving each other and taking care of each other.
Remember, you can do this no matter how small you feel your faith might be. The object of your faith is what makes it possible. And the object of your faith is your heavenly Father who loves you, who gave His One and only Son to die for you upon a cross and raised Him from the dead. He is counting on you today to obey now and forever. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer