Protecting the Faith of Little Ones (Luke 17:1-10)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + October 2, 2016
Text: Luke 17:1-6 (p. 876 in pew Bible)
When you first hear this passage in Luke 17, it may seem like a cobbling together of different teachings of Jesus.  In fact, this is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of chapter 15, alternating between teaching his disciples and his enemies.  First Jesus addressed His opponents with the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son.  Then in chapter 16, Jesus turned to His disciples to teach them about the difference between what God values and what we value.  Lastly, Jesus rebukes His enemies with the true teaching of the Law of Moses and the Prophets.
Given that background, the beginning of chapter 17 ties together all that Jesus has been teaching.  So here, Jesus is answering the question, What is the Kingdom of God really about, if not these human ideas?
As we work through this summary teaching, we need to dig deeper, so please open your pew Bibles to page 876.
“And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin [stumbling blocks] 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 [stumble].”
When we hear about temptations to sin, we often think about those things which lure our already-perverse desires toward what is evil.  It’s like the old cartoons with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and the devil’s telling us to do what we know is wrong.
If you look at the footnote on “temptations to sin,” you’ll see that the Greek literally says “stumbling blocks.”  Skandalon (think of scandal) is a snare used by hunters, so that their prey will stumble and be caught.  Think of how traps are made: they are built to entice by appearing genuine.  Food is laid out for a hungry rodent—only that when the cheese is taken, the snap comes down.
Jesus is talking about those things which ensnare people in their faith and cause them to doubt or fall away entirely.  This happens when Christians don’t practice what they preach—when they live contrary to God’s Word.
(This is what we pray to be protected from in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name”: “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the Name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”[1])
The point is that unchristian behavior doesn’t just put your own soul in peril through unbelief.  It endangers the souls of those who are young or weak in faith.
This point is so important that our Lord provides a gruesome illustration: Having a stone tied around your neck and being drown in the sea.  Surely it would be better to be executed this way than for another believer to perish in hell because you failed to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling,”[2] a manner worthy of the Name God placed on you in Baptism.
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.”
Now Jesus teaches us how to avoid this terrible outcome.  How can we, the children of God, sinful as we are, avoid being stumbling blocks to the faith of others?  It’s done by calling sinners to repentance and forgiving them.
This is something we far too easily take for granted: Confession and absolution.  Oh yeah, that thing we do at the beginning of service.  But it’s so much more!  While you have your Bibles open, turn to Matthew 18 on page 823
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
For Christians, being sorry for sin and extending forgiveness is no trifling matter.  This is the heart of the Christian Church because in confessing our sins and forgiving one another is to exercise the Keys of the Kingdom.  By forgiving your repentant brother or sister, you open the gates of heaven to them.  On the other hand, if you fail to forgive them when they are sorry, you shut heaven in their face and endanger them being lost for eternity!
Now turn back to Luke 17 (page 876):
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had 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.
With all that’s at stake, and all the potential damage we can wreak, this is our prayer too!  Lord, increase our faith, because if it were left up to us, we all too often become stumbling blocks to those around us.  We have pointed the finger at our brothers and accused them on causing division in the congregation.  A cry has gone up to heaven because the people who are called Christian have behaved in an unchristian manner.  Lord, have mercy on us because we have sinned against you and against each other!
Our Lord’s response is good news for us: “If you have[3] 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.”  It doesn’t depend on the amount of faith we have, but in Whom we believe.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard”—Even if your faith is weak and you struggle to believe that God is able to do as much as He says—“you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted’…”  It’s possible because, in the words of one commentator, “It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.” (Grantley Morris)
God is the one who makes such a monumental thing possible as sinners like us being forgiven—not only for what we have done against the God who called us, but also for what we have done to hurt our brothers and sisters.
By His great power, our Lord is also able to make this Christian Church, here in this congregation, a place where repentance and forgiveness are abundantly practiced.  He gives us hearts to confess our sins to each other, and yes, to forgive each other even seven times in a day if that’s what’s needed.
This is what the Christian Church looks like: a place where the lost have been gathered together by the Lord, where we have been given ears to heed the Word of God, where our sins have been forgiven by the Lord, and we also must forgive one another their trespasses against us.   Truly, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[4]  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, 3rd Part
[2] Ephesians 4:1-3
[3] Often mistranslated, the first part of this is not contrary to fact.  The NIV gets the first part right: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…” then the NASB captures the rest: “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”
[4] Philippians 1:6

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