Luke 17:1-4
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 9, 2016

Jesus wants His followers to duplicate His unconditional caring, and embody His loving concern for all people.

To care is not so much a matter of what we feel as of what we are committed to do. To care is to be committed to do whatever we can to bless others.

In these few verses, Jesus speaks of three crucial dimensions of that caring. We who trust Him are: 1) to encourage others to live right by our example, 2) to call to account those with whom we have proven our loving concern, and 3) to forgive those who do wrong whenever they repent.

First, Jesus wants us to exemplify right living to such an extent that we encourage it in others. This matters so much to Him that He gives a dire warning to unfaithful followers who trip others up and cause them to fall. He says, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!” Such a person would be better off thrown into the sea tied to a boulder.

Though every person is responsible for themselves, and only themselves, each of us has responsibilities to others. Thus, we do well to keep asking ourselves: Am I living in such a way as to promote people’s pursuit of God and righteousness, or do my attitudes and actions incline them to wander off course?

The Bible teaches that a web of invisible influence exists between almost all of us. If that is true, then nothing I do, not even what I do unseen and in private, is my business alone. Everything I do impacts others whether I recognize it or not, whether they know it or not. At the very least, everything I do promotes a certain vision of what life is about and what life should be.

A college student and sceptic, for whom a number of Christians had been praying, started attending a Bible study. When some believers spoke of life improving upon following Jesus, he turned to the leader with a challenge, asking, “So what difference would following Jesus make? What have you got that I don’t?” The leader simply replied, “Watch us, and find out. Keep an eye on us, and see what you see in our choices about how we spend our free time and what we do when we have options. Watch us, and then tell me what’s different.”

He paused a moment, and then added, “I may not be all that much, but in me you’ll see someone whose course in life is determined by specific core convictions and values and who as result reveals a special joy and peace. I am hoping too that you’ll catch a glimpse of Who is behind all of that, and that you’ll see enough in Him to want to give Him a second look.”

We can even influence, for good or ill, those “above” us. David Brooks is a nationally respected and honored columnist for the New York Times who is, by self-definition, not a Christian. A couple of years ago, he hired a recent college graduate named Anne Snyder to be his research assistant, because of how bright and articulate she is. He would soon also find out how decidedly Christian she is, radiating a vibrant faith.

While Brooks still identifies as an agnostic, he admits that knowing Snyder has changed his view of Christianity and made the faith more relevant to what he cares about. On his acknowledgement page in his 2015 book Road to Character, he writes that she challenged his previous superficial ideas, redirected his train of thought, and changed his book for the better. Brooks says, “I have certainly stolen many of her ideas and admired the gracious and morally rigorous ways she lives her life.”

Jesus wants us to display before unbelievers and believers alike a quality of character and a winsomeness of lifestyle that will not just avoid causing others to stumble but will commend their walking uprightly.

Second, Jesus wants us, with those with whom we’ve established a relationship of love, to care enough about them to confront them when they’ve gotten off track, despite our fears of incurring their wrath or rejection.

We owe it to those with whom we’ve earned the right, to hold them to account to the principles they themselves profess. Jesus says, “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender.” We must love those who are ours to care about too much to let them get away with certain things. We must – without undue harshness, without any trace of a holier-than-thou attitude, with kind concern and with as much privacy as possible – remind them of who they are (or want to be) and to expect them to live up to their best self. We rebuke them, when it is necessary, not because we think badly of them, but because we think so highly of their potential.

I see an illustration of this in the relationship Marines have with each other. Marines know that they are expected to live a life worthy of the Corps, and that part of that means holding one another accountable to Marine standards and bringing out the best in each other. If a fellow Marine falls asleep in class, Major David Dixon writes in a Harvard Business School publication, you must have the moral courage to wake them up and keep them awake. If you fail in your effort, not only do you allow them to fall short, but you yourself have fallen short in your responsibilities to them. To be a Marine is to tell your comrades what they may not want to hear: If they’re betraying their commitments, you say, “That’s not what a Marine does;” if they’re resisting doing the right but hard thing, you say,”That’s just what a Marine does.” In the same way, Christians have a responsibility to remind each other who they are and what a Christian does and does not do.

To review, Jesus wants us to encourage doing right by our example, and to confront each other about doing wrong when tough love is necessary. Finally, He wants us to forgive one another, upon repentance, and always give everybody one more chance to turn things around.

Such a willingness to forgive even repeat offenders is launched by an awareness of God’s having done that for us and is propelled on by a hope in His power to change even those whom everyone is tempted to give up on.

The ability to forgive is often not quickly or readily attained. I think of Paul Stevens, a father who couldn’t shake his desire to exact vengeance on the man who had murdered his daughter. He only got past that bitter desire by acting for many years as if he had a forgiving heart toward murderers. Prompted by his church small group, Stevens volunteered twice a week for almost a decade at the Eddyville State Penitentiary in Indiana, serving as a lay chaplain for men on death row. His long practice at loving the killers of other people’s children enabled him over time to let go of his desire to pay back his daughter’s killer and actually befriend him in order to show him God’s grace and love. As a result, that broken man who had repented and sought redemption found the power to believe in it by another broken man who had every right to hate him.

Jesus wants us to duplicate His unconditional caring, and bless everyone we can with His grace and love. We do that as we encourage right living by our example, rebuke those who need our tough love, and forgive those who have fallen but repented. Let us pray.

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