A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Cameron Burr, on the 2nd of October 2022.

Stumbling, forgiveness and faith.

In the last couple of weeks, we have heard the teachings of Jesus to an increasingly large crowd made up of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, scribes and His Disciples. These lessons have been addressed to different groups within the crowd, touching on different topics depending on what He wanted to emphasize to each of them, while still having practical applications to everyone else who was listening in. But the primary lesson was to a particular portion of the crowd: the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and the lost son and his older brother were specifically to the Pharisees and scribes who did not rejoice at the repentance of sinners. The parable of the unrighteous steward in Luke 15 was specifically to the disciples as a challenge to them to use their earthly wealth wisely in making friends to evangelize with the gospel of God’s kingdom and not fall into the trap of the Pharisees who served mammon. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus was the capstone of Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees about the ultimate consequences of their self-righteousness. They were destined to punishment of eternal suffering if they did not repent.

Today’s gospel reading from Luke 17, verses one through ten, sees Jesus turn his attention back to the Disciples. What Jesus teaches His Disciples in this section is not purely arbitrary but rather a lesson in humility, to see that they would avoid the trap of falling into the self-righteousness that was so often exhibited by the Pharisees. But with that said, I think the Pharisees sometimes get a bit of a bad rap. Because Jesus rebukes of the Pharisees quite strongly, it is easy for us to forget that most of them were just trying to be sincere in their religious beliefs, only desiring to fulfill Gods commands as they understood them. Unfortunately, their unwavering commitment to their religious beliefs as they interpreted them and their cultural traditions were the cause of so many conflicts that we see play out between them and Jesus. I don’t know if it’s just me, or does this sound familiar for some of our relationships within the current church setting? The danger is not only real but is ever present for us to do the same, easily falling into the trap of developing our own ideas of how best to obey God through man made traditions, and losing sight of the things of God and replacing it with human standards. Humility – the ability to be able to look at ourselves and analyse our behaviours, is a protection against falling into the sin of self-righteousness; a protection against moving away from the love, forgiveness and acceptance of Jesus Christ.

In the opening passages Jesus warns the Disciples and us of something that is inevitable in life. That inevitability is stumbling blocks, at one point for another in our lives we will all face some stumbling blocks. Jesus doesn’t tell His Disciples that they may face some stumbling blocks. He is emphatic, telling them that stumbling blocks will come, putting an even greater emphasis on this statement by conveying it in the negative. Jesus uses the Greek word anendektos which is the negation of the word for possible, and hence impossible combined with another negative to produce an absolute positive. A literal translation of this phrase is, “it is impossible that the stumbling blocks not come,” or as the Lexham version puts it, “It is impossible for causes of stumbling not to come,” and so it is also translated as what is inevitable, unavoidable, invariably occurring.

Bearing in mind that we will all go through some challenges in life, what does Jesus mean by stumbling block in this context? Well, the Greek word that He uses here is “skandalon”. In this metaphoric sense meaning a stumbling block that causes real moral or spiritual ruin; not just a season of challenge. In this passage, Jesus addresses both issues – firstly setting a warning to those who lead someone to stumble, and secondly the forgiveness that needs to be extended to those who do stumble. Temptation to sin is inevitable, and those that will seek to entice you to spiritual and moral failure are unavoidable. The danger is serious and Jesus pronounces the strongest of warnings against those who would be the cause of such stumbling. “Woe to him through whom they come.” The common use of the word Woe in the bible is that of a denunciation: a warning of impending disaster, horror or doom. I don’t know about you but the idea of getting a stone tied around my neck and thrown in the ocean sounds pretty horrific to me, there is no coming back from that. 

Unlike other passages throughout the bible there is no direct reference to whether or not there were actually any children in the crowd, so it is commonly believed that Jesus’ use of the phrase “these little ones,” is referring to those that were new to the faith. It would be expected that such a warning would be given to the Pharisees and lawyers that were present because their religious hypocrisy was an obvious source of stumbling to others, and certainly the context here would have included them them in this warning. This warning would have also applied to anyone that was an advocate of a false religion or a false teacher of a cult that may have been in the crowd. It would also be blatantly obvious of those that were in open rebellion against God and those advocating immorality. What is truly frightening in this passage is that all of those people may have been gathered in the crowd, but on this occasion, Jesus was specifically speaking to the disciples, so it is not just a warning to them about what will happen to other people that do this, but also a warning to them if they were to cause this to happen to a new believer. Something that we should be ever mindful of, especially if we fall into the trap of putting our own self-righteousness, manmade traditions, and human standards above the love, care, forgiveness and acceptance of Jesus Christ.

So for us as Disciples of Christ, what does showing the unconditional love and forgiveness that Christ first showed us look like in practical terms? Jesus instructs His disciples to “be on their guard, if a fellow believer sins, rebuke them; if they repent, forgive them.”  The language of rebuking someone may seem strong but it is not meant to be harsh. It finds fault and warns, but does not condemn. The purpose of this is to restore the one sinning back into a proper walk with Christ; humbling ourselves to recognise our own weaknesses and sin, motivated out of familial love. Galatians 6 tells us it is done for the purpose of restoration with a spirit of gentleness, not judgment.

Once the person has apologised or repented their stumble forgiveness, is to be immediately granted without delay or conditions; this is specifically relevant to those who may have sinned against us personally. Since all sin is primarily against Christ because we have not obeyed his instructions, it is only Christ who can truly forgive, and if Christ has forgiven them without condition, then we too are to follow the example of Christ who has forgiven us our trespasses. That is why Jesus, the Messiah, became a man, lived a sinless life, then voluntarily died on the cross as the substitutionary sacrifice for all of our sin, individually and collectively. Just as we cannot believe in Jesus without corresponding repentance to our sin, we cannot walk as disciples of Christ without following His command to forgive just as we have been forgiven.

As the Disciples you may ask yourself, “how many times do I need to forgive someone for their sins, especially if those sin were against me personally?” Fortunately Christ tells us that there is no limit to how many times we are to forgive as long as there is genuine repentance. This might seem like an extremely hard task for us to achieve, especially when we are the ones delivering the forgiveness, but I for one find this to be extremely encouraging, especially when I am the one that’s in need of forgiveness. In my human frailty I know that when I sin, especially against friends, family or partners, even when I am genuinely repentant and want to do a better job, I quite often do the wrong thing even when I am trying to make things right. That is why we are called to be long suffering in our forgiveness. Just as Christ does not keep a record of transgressions, forgiving us every time we come to Him in prayer, we to are to keep no record of those who have transgressed against us but instead to forgive everyone with exception, without condition, and without record. Demonstrate our faith and walk with Christ.