Live in a way that grows Christ's kingdom.
Today, we're going to continue with our series called "Forever Luke." I know that for some of you, it feels like we've been in Luke forever, and we have—but I want to tell you how amazing that is. I think it's really great that we've been taking the time to go deep into Scripture and to do that together as a community, because that is powerful. Most of us, when we come to church every Sunday morning, show up and hope to hear a word that is going to bless us. Or we hope to hear some kind of teaching that's going to give us hope. Or we hope that whatever the pastor says is going to speak into my problem. And there's nothing wrong with that. We are to come here and ask for those things from God.
But usually what happens is that when we embrace that blessing, when we embrace that word or that teaching, our journey ends there. We just keep it to ourselves, and we forget that part of our journey of growing in the Word as part of our community is that whatever blessing we get is meant to bless someone else. Before we open our Bibles today, I want to ask you to open your hearts first, so that we can allow God to go deep into our hearts and teach us something new, something fresh about what it means to grow in community.
Our passage today is Luke 17:1-6, and it's a bit of a random message. Jesus has given us a lot of teaching. What we're going to do is read the whole thing first, and then we're going to break it down and highlight three disciplines, three attitudes, that Jesus is inviting us to embrace and to share with others around our communities.
Bridges, not walls
(Read Luke 17:1-6)
There's a lot going on in this passage, but the first thing we need to know is that Jesus begins this passage addressing the disciples. This section is part of a larger message that Jesus was preaching, and he started preaching it back in chapter 15, when he started talking about the kingdom of God. He talked about the parable of the lost coin and the lost sheep, and then he talked about the parable of the prodigal son, and then he talked about the shrewd manager, and then the rich man and Lazarus. Remember all those parables?
When he was saying all those things, he was talking about the kingdom of God, but he was talking to the entire crowd. He was talking to everyone who was there: the disciples, the Pharisees, the onlookers, the by-passers, those who were just curious about Jesus. This time, he stops talking to everyone. He starts addressing just the disciples, and that is very important for us to know. When we read the Gospels, we realize that every time Jesus talks to the masses, to everyone who's out there—people who don't know him, people who don't have a relationship with him—what he does is that he presents the kingdom of God to them and says, "This is what it looks like. You can either embrace it or you can reject it. I am not going to force you." But when he addresses the disciples, when he talks to those who know him, those who have a relationship with him, those who have decided to follow him—and to us today—he says, "My teachings are not an option for you. They are not. Because the moment you agree to step into relationship with me, to begin a journey with me, you agree to share that journey with others because you are not meant to grow alone. The moment you join the kingdom, you become part of something greater than you, and it is no longer you who live but Christ in you." And Christ wants all of us to be part of one body.
With that in mind, with that idea that we have a responsibility before our brothers and sisters, we are going to read the passage again. We're going to highlight a few things: not everything, but just some things about what Jesus wants us to do. Let's go back to verse one, where it says, "Jesus said to his disciples"—to those who know him, to those who have a relationship with him—"'Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble'" (Luke 17:1-2).
When we read this, we read the last part and see there is some kind of punishment going on if we mess up. We say, "Oh my goodness, there is always going to be something that makes people stumble, but woe to me if I'm the one, and if I do that, something is going to happen to me. I'm going to be thrown off into the sea with a big rock around my neck, and I'm going to drown. I better not make a mistake." We stop there, and we don't try to discover what Jesus is saying to us. We live out of fear. I'm not saying there aren't consequences to our actions, but I don't want to focus on that part. I want to focus on what Jesus is actually inviting us to do, and that has to do with instruction to make sure we don't cause people to stumble.
So what does "stumble" mean? Let us unpack that word. The word "stumble" in Greek is the word skandalon, from which we get the word "tackle" and "scandal." That word can mean many different things, but at its most basic definition, it basically is talking about an obstacle, something that gets in the way. Most translations just use one of the many different meanings that talk about causing people to sin, but actually there is something that comes prior to causing people to sin, and that is getting in the way of what God is trying to do in people's lives. When it comes to the community, our role is to be a bridge—our role is to be an ambassador of Christ to bring people together. When that doesn't happen, we're the common obstacle. Instead of being a bridge, we become a wall.
Let me put it this way: Imagine that as a community, we live in one big city, and in that city the purpose is for its citizens to connect with one another and to connect with God, who is at the center. Now God, who is at the center, decides to use the people around the city to make all those connections and all those bridges for a relationship to happen, so the citizens have a choice. They can either be a bridge or a wall. Most of us don't realize that we hardly ever become that bridge, because we are so afraid with what we're going to do that we just play it safe. But God is asking us to live into the reality that the Holy Spirit works through us and in us to bless someone else around us.
So how do we become a wall? How do we become an obstacle? One of the ways in which I become an obstacle in God's work in the kingdom is when I know he is asking me to do something for someone else, and I choose to postpone it. That blessing, that connection that's meant to happen—I get in the way. Another way in which I become a wall is when someone makes a mistake and I know God is asking me to offer grace, and instead, I offer judgment. I'm not building a bridge between the person and God; I'm being an obstacle. There are many ways in which we become obstacles, but I think—and I want to suggest this and present it to you—that what Jesus is saying is not to just watch how you do something or what you do lest you make someone fall. What he's asking us to do is: "Watch out with what you do and how you behave and how you respond to me, lest you become an obstacle in my kingdom."
When we talk about growth and responsibility in the context of community, the first lesson we see here is that when it comes to our role in society and the responsibility we have to build that city—that community that God has entrusted us as ambassadors—our role is to be a bridge and never a wall. We're talking about obedience here.
Forgiving others: good for your heart, good for you, good for us
In the next verse, Jesus says, "So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive them" (Luke 17:3-4).
When we're a part of a community, the one thing we know will happen is that people will hurt each other. That's a given, because we all show up broken. Jesus knows that, so he addresses that. He talks to us about the power of forgiveness, and he talks about how we should forgive, and he talks about the reality that someone is going to offend us—and it doesn't matter how many times they offend us, because our role is to forgive. More than talking about the seven times or how you should forgive, I want to talk about the power of forgiveness, because I think Jesus is getting at that. He's telling us that no matter what, we are to forgive. Why is that?
I want to tell you a story. Before I describe anything, I'm going to let the story describe what forgiveness can do. It happened to me about four years ago. I had a really, really close friend whose name I'm going to change. Let's say her name was Danielle. We were very close, and we had an awesome friendship. I also had a really, really cute boyfriend whose name I'm going to change, and I'm just going to say he was Ralph.
My two friends—my best friend and my boyfriend—decided to behave like they were more than friends. My boyfriend decided to cheat on me with my best friend, and that hurt really, really badly and wounded me so badly. I did not know what to do. I was furious. I felt like my blood was boiling. I started to wish many horrible things that I hoped would happen to both of them.
Then one day, I couldn't take it. I just went up to her—he lived in another country, so I could only address her—and I rebuked her. I went off and told her, "How could you do that to me?" She denied the whole thing, and after I told her all the evidence I had, she couldn't deny it anymore. It was the weirdest kind of apology: not saying she did it, but saying, "I'm sorry—what he did is not what you think, and you know how those things go." And then she just walked away, and I was left there with my pain, with my anger, and with my rage.
I didn't see her again for a long time. I went home and weeks went by, and I could still feel that rage inside of me. I was still thinking those horrible thoughts about her and about him.
One day, I realized I could not live like that anymore because it was destroying who I was. What I chose to do was to forgive her, and I chose to do this without her even knowing that I was going to forgive her. I prayed and prayed and prayed, and I told God that I really wanted to forgive her because I did not want to live like that. Then that was it, and I felt nothing. And I said, "Okay, I feel like I truly forgave her."
I did not know the power of what had happened until two years later. I bumped into her at a shopping mall, and I saw her walking and she did not see me. I went, "Danielle. Friend." I called her "amiga." I walked up to her and hugged her, and I was so excited to see her, and she looked a little puzzled, but I just went, "How are you, friend?" She said, "I'm good. Tell me about you." "Oh, you know, I've been working." I could feel that she was just not very friendly. You know when you're smart and you know when people don't want to talk to you? I have that gift. I thought, I guess she doesn't want to talk to me, so I said, "I'll see you later."
I just went my own way, and after two or three steps, I realized, Oh, I should be mad at her—what did I just do? I'm such a fool. That's when I discovered how powerful forgiveness was because I had removed every single thing that could have fueled rage, that could have fueled anger, that could have fueled verbal violence. There was nothing in there. That is how powerful forgiveness is.
That's something I did once, and I grew so much. When Jesus said seven times in a day, do you think that repentance is genuine if someone slaps you and says, "Sorry, I repent—sorry, I repent" seven times? That is not a genuine repentance. But that doesn't matter, because what Jesus is trying to get at is that the practice of you forgiving others is good for your heart, is good for you, is good for us. Then he makes sure he talks about rebuking the person when you are to forgive that person, because that is really important. We cannot do one without the other, because this is what happens when we do them in isolation. If there is a situation where you need to rebuke someone, but you're not willing to forgive them, what you're doing is passing judgment. You're not being a bridge—you're being an obstacle, and you're getting in the way.
On the other side, when you forgive someone without rebuking them, it could be a situation in which you foster abuse. Many times in church, when people talk about forgiving, they never talk about rebuking, and then spouses who are abusive or spouses who are abused just say, "Well, I'm just meant to forgive"—and then they're abused and they forgive and they're abused and they forgive. They never rebuke. Rebuking someone when you're willing to forgive is an offering to them for their growth in Christ.
The power of forgiveness is great. Jesus says that whenever someone sins against you, forgive them. Not once, but twice. Not just seven times, but always—because that is good for our souls. Be a bridge and not a wall, and when you're given the opportunity to forgive, forgive always.
Faith like a mustard seed
Now, what Jesus is asking us is hard. It's really, really hard. And when he was saying these things to the disciples, they knew how hard it was. So what did they say? They said to Jesus, "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5) It felt impossible to them. They knew they could not do it in their own strength. So what did they do? They asked for more faith.
And what did Jesus do? "Oh sure, here you go"? No. He doesn't give them what they think they need; he offers them advice for what they should do. He says, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you" (Luke 17:6).
What he's saying to them, in other words, is this: "Listen, you do not need more faith; you need to put your faith to work, and that is different, because the size of your faith does not matter. It doesn't matter at all. In fact, if you were to talk to a mulberry tree …" People back then knew those trees. They knew them well. They knew those trees had the deepest and longest roots. Jesus is saying, "Look, do not ask for more faith—that doesn't matter, because however big or small it is, it's powerful enough. If you were to ask a mulberry tree—whose roots are deep, deep, deep into the earth, into the ground—to uproot itself and move, it would do so." The roots of the tree—what do they represent? The things that hold us back, things that get in the way. Sometimes the roots prevent us from forgiving someone else.
Actually, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks about faith and about it being the size of a mustard seed. What he says is that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could ask a mountain to move and it would obey you. We have a mountain and we have a mulberry tree, and what Jesus is doing here is genius, because he's asking the disciples to use their imaginations. He's saying, "Imagine that tree, imagine the roots, imagine that mountain and see how huge it is." It's all happening in their imaginations, and the reason why Jesus is asking them to use their imaginations is because it's in their imaginations and in their minds that they fight their battles.
That's the same for us. It is right there where we decide if we are going to make it or not. It is right there where we decide if we're worth it or not. It is right there that we decide if we're going to trust what Jesus is asking us to do or not. He's saying that whatever root is keeping you from moving around, from being free in the kingdom of God, you need to use your faith to uproot it. However big that mountain is before you, you don't need to worry about its size—it doesn't matter, because with this much faith, you can make it move. That's powerful stuff. What are the mountains you have in your life? What are the mulberry trees you have in your life?
I had a tree in my heart and in my whole body a few years back. This is a story I've shared many times, but I feel like I have to share it again. It was the first time I used faith the size of a mustard seed, and that's when I walked again. For nine months, I was in bed without moving at all—well, just moving my head. That's not a lot. Every single doctor told me I would never walk again, ever. I had picked my wheelchair. It was bright like my shoes. I had decided I was going to go to the Special Olympics or do something with that powerful wheelchair. I was literally rooted to my bed and I could not move, and everybody told me I would never move again.
Then one day, I read the Scriptures, and it was probably the first or second time I was reading the Gospels, and I came across this passage: this very passage. I read that all I needed was faith the size of a mustard seed. I Googled the size of a mustard seed—I had never seen one—and I realized it was tiny. I told my mom, "Hey mom, I should try to get up." And she said, "No, you should not—that's dangerous." And I said, "But you told me to read the Scriptures, and I'm reading right here that all I need is faith the size of a mustard seed, and I've got that. It's really small, but it says I should use it, so let's try."
Her faith was half the size of a mustard seed, because she said, "You're going to fall." And I said, "I'm going to walk." Someone handed me a walker and they helped me get up, and I was able to hold myself. I still had enough strength in my arms to hold myself, and I took a little step, and then I took another. And I realized I was walking, and I fell back on my bed because I was crying. I was bawling—because that tree that had me rooted in the bed had been uprooted, and I felt like I was floating in the sea with my Jesus. That was a powerful experience.
What happened after that is that my faith the size of a mustard seed and my willingness to use it blessed everyone around me. The entire nurse's department came to see me, and they were bawling, and some of them were on their knees and praising. Some of them were trying to figure out what was happening because they did not believe in God. That was a testimony to everyone, and that's why we need to use our faith: not just to experience the miracles ourselves, but to have those miracles bless the life and the faith of someone else.
That's what Jesus is talking about that here. He's saying, "Listen, there are a whole lot of things you can do. There are a whole lot of things you can do to grow your faith, but whatever you do, make sure what you do blesses others." When you come to church, consider every now and then if whatever you hear from up here might be for someone else. If there is something that is for someone else and God tells you to go and say it, go and say it. Don't get in the way. Be a bridge; expand the kingdom. While you do that, if you get offended—if someone hurts you, if someone does something against you—forgive them always, because that's going to be good for you. When you forgive them, make sure you rebuke them in love, because that's going to help them and make them grow. If you feel like all of this is really hard, then use your faith. God says, "Don't ask me to do more, because I've given you enough. Go over it, step into it, and you'll see what I can do with that." When we live our lives like that, the body of Christ grows. Everyone around us grows. God gets glorified through every single thing we do.
Gaby Viesca was born and raised in Mexico and currently serves as Women’s Pastor in Portland, OR.