(Sermon Notes on Luke 17:1-10)
I was asked the other day if I was preaching on the gospel and I said that I was but I felt a little anxious about doing so because the gospel was so relevant to some of the issues we are dealing with in our cathedral life that people might feel it was too pointed, too personal – to which the other responded – ‘Ah, but that’s the Bible, it’s a dangerous book!’ To which I must reply, indeed it is.
So, let’s be brave and unpack this gospel and see how it might speak to us and how it might even encourage us.
This gospel reading turns toward the disciples – the Christian community – just after a scathing parable against the Pharisees. In case the disciples are feeling a sense of smugness about the Pharisees being put in their place, Jesus now turns to them and to the Christian community and shows a very clear-eyed view of what it means to be a disciple and what it means to be the church.
As in previous weeks – Jesus holds up a mirror in which the disciples (readers) are to see themselves; the experience is meant to be discomforting, Jesus’ words shred away illusion. (For the self-righteous who pride themselves on their virtuous living he says at the end of it all, stop congratulating yourselves, you are doing no more than you are required to do.)
First of all he says there will be scandals; that is inevitable. The Greek word we know today as ‘scandal’ is translated here as a snare or stumbling block and it is used in the NT to describe things that cause offence within the community and that cause members (‘little ones’) of the community to ‘stumble’ – meaning to lose their faith or commitment.
· Now reality is not optional: you don’t need much experience of church life to know the truth behind these words of Jesus. We have probably all had experience of one kind or another where someone has left a church or been deeply troubled as a result of what someone else has said or done (or is rumoured to have said or done).
· Applying this image of stumbling against our experience of church life is, I think, curiously helpful: stumbling describes the shock and dismay one can feel on encountering what we least expected and tripping over what should not be there, the dark side of church life and discipleship. The shock can be crippling. We expect our church life to be accepting, nurturing, encouraging, helpful and fulfilling. We do not expect conflict or malice; we do not expect self-seeking, criticism, hostility or power-games. Sadly church history (and our own experience) tells us otherwise. Research by the Alban Institute reckons that clergy spend at least 25% of their time managing conflict in their congregations and in some circumstances much, much more than that. People leave churches because they have been driven out by bullying and conflict of various kinds. And, remember, we are talking about Christians, fellow disciples!
· Jesus says this is inevitable: our human nature seems so constituted that, despite our deep need of each other, we have also a great capacity to cause hurt and division. If we know this truth about ourselves ... what are we to do?
· Well, for a start, to all of us (all of us potentially self-righteous) disciples Jesus says ‘watch yourselves’ (trans. here as ‘be on your guard’) – which reminds us that this warning is primarily to us and not against someone else. Good self-knowledge and awareness is fundamental to a healthy spiritual life – and to healthy participation in church and community life.
The dominant image in this whole section about scandals and stumbling blocks is that sheer dead-weight of the millstone. The millstone is the image of what conflict does to us individually and collectively. Just as the weight of a millstone inexorably drags its victim down into the dark abyss of the ocean, so the weight of whatever it is in us that causes conflict not only will drag us into darkness but others with us. The millstone images what happens in a person or a community without forgiveness (grace) – and that helps us to understand the millstone as the weight of resentments and grief, the stored up bitterness and anger, which twist us when we will not let them go. This is the luggage that we can carry; and that we need to let go. (Remember Pilgrim’s Progress and the weight he carried?) Hence the warning Jesus gives: ‘Watch yourselves! Be on your guard!’ (Watch out for the things that will drag you down.)
Second, the opposite of the millstone is the mulberry bush growing in the ocean. It is an impossible thing but it is the image of what unimaginable things become possible through grace. Jesus maps out the foundation for life as a disciple, and for life in the community of disciples – this is to be a people of forgiveness, of reconciliation; a community of unlimited forgiveness, reflecting the nature of God. Now forgiveness is not simple and there is not time to go into the dynamics of that, except to point out that conflict when worked through and where grace and forgiveness have done their work, has a gift – the community and all involved are changed and renewed at a deeper level than before.
For example, I remember visiting a patient in hospital and we got to talking, as one does – and he said “You know Father, I feel sorry for those folk who say they’ve had a wonderful marriage with never a cross word between them, ...” To which I asked, “What do you mean?” He replied with a broad grin and twinkling eye, “Ah, they miss out on all the fun of making up.” There beside us in that hospital ward I believe were the mulberry bushes growing in the ocean.
As disciples and as Church what do we wish for ourselves? What way of life will we follow? Do we choose to be dragged down by millstones or will we seek by God’s grace to live such lives of love and forgiveness that we will be a transforming community of growth and new life – finding mulberry bushes growing in the ocean?