Callie and I have been married six years now, we’ve been living in our current house for four and I still don’t know where everything goes in our kitchen. There are a few items that I look at from time to time and think to myself, “Is this new? I swear I’ve never seen this thing before” when in fact it was part of our wedding registry. To Callie’s mild frustration, sometimes when I’m emptying the dishwasher, I’ll leave two, three or four items on the counter for her to put in the right spot or worse I’ll throw all the unknowables into the same junk drawer for her to discover later.
All that to say, that’s in many ways how I feel about our passage today. On one hand, I feel like in all my bible reading, I’ve never really seen this one before. Two, I still don’t really understand how it all connected and how each part belongs to each other. And I take some comfort in knowing that even the creators of our pew bible don’t have a great way of summarizing this passage either as they headline it with the three fold heading of “Sin, Faith, and Duty.” And third, I’m still so baffled with how that final parable in verses 7-10 relates to the rest of the passage that I think I’m going to cut my losses and just leave it on the kitchen counter entirely.
But nevertheless, we’re going to give this one a go, in part because it’s good practice to wrestle with and ponder over bible passages we don’t fully understand, whether you’re new to reading scripture or having been reading it over a lifetime.
And as the Apostle Paul will later remind his protégé Timothy in a future New Testament Letter, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” and if all scripture is inspired by God and useful in those ways, than that means this one must be too. So, let’s give it a go.
This morning we’ll simplify things a little bit and camp out in the first six verses and we’ll use the following outline to work our way through it, that …
As followers of Jesus, we should …
Cause no sin.
Rebuke others sin.
Forgive all sin.
The faith we need to do all three.
Cause no sin.
Jesus begins this passage by saying, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.” In other words, temptations, things that cause people to stumble, things that cause us to sin will come. In a sinful and broken world, they are part and parcel of the Christian life. Temptations are all around us, at home, at work, with others, when we’re alone, when we open our laptops or are scrolling through our phones, or trying to figure out what to say or not to say in a heated moment. Things that cause people to stumble and sin will indeed come.
And yet, Jesus says, “woe to anyone through whom they come.” In other words, may we not be the reason why people sin, may we not cause them to sin. May you and I cause no sin.
Here are two examples of all this, one humorous, one serious.
At home a few weeks ago, Callie and I were in the kitchen, our boys Noah and Caleb were in the living room playing with blocks and Caleb, who is 18 months, knocked over Noah’s tower. And Cal and I hear Noah, who is almost 4yrs old, say from the other room, “What the heck, Caleb?” Except he calls him K-Bub, not Caleb. And Cal and I looked at each other and without even realizing what we were saying, were like, “What the heck did he just say? Where did I learn to say that?”
Of course, the answer is, he learned it from us! Now to be clear, the word used in that moment was indeed “heck,” not another h-word, but for Callie and I both as young parents we had this sobering moment of, “Oh my gosh, these kids are like walking and talking reflections of us. Mirroring back to us who we are and how we act.”
For the two of us, it was the perfect wake up call, putting us on high alert, to be more aware of what we say and do, doing our best to not tempt our little ones and cause them to sin. As Jesus says, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”
That’s a humorous example, here’s a more serious one. Consider the use of alcohol. Though some Christians out there will disagree, the bible doesn’t condone alcohol, but rather encourages or even demands, moderation. And yet, is there ever a time or situation when we should refrain from alcohol altogether? I believe the answer is yes, particularly when we are in the presence of someone who might be tempted to overindulge with it.
The apostle Paul makes this very argument in 1 Corinthians when he says, “Be careful, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to others.”
Notice that shared use of stumbling block. That is, say in this example, will our consumption of alcohol, which we are free to use, create an obstacle, a challenge, a trip hazard of sorts, making it all the more difficult for that person to love and follow Jesus themselves.
I will readily confess to you, I have not always been sensitive enough myself in these matters. I often view sharing a beer or meeting at the brewery as a help, an aid to conversation and relationships. Creating an atmosphere that allows for more open and honest sharing. And yet, this passage reminds me to ask, “Could it be that a drink is less of a help, and more of a hindrance?” Certainly, we are not omniscient, we don’t know everyone’s back story, but we would be wise to be sensitive on this one.
All of this should fill us with a bit of holy fear, because as Jesus says, 2 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. Little ones, by the way, are not simply limited to children here. It could be anyone vulnerable to temptation, in other words, any of us. And it is better, Jesus says, to die a grizzly death, than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 So watch yourselves, he says.
And so, is there any area in your life right now where you might be causing people to sin? If someone were to follow in your footsteps, modeling your example would you cause them to sin? Is your own behavior, your personal conduct making it easier for others to know and love Jesus, or simply making it more difficult, putting obstacles in their way? Those are difficult questions to ask, but ask them we must. That’s part one, Cause no sin. Here’s part two.
Rebuke others sin.
Goodness, point one was hard, yet this in some ways, might be harder. Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them.”
Now, here’s admittedly a few things I wish Jesus would have said:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, forget about it and move on.”
“If your brother or sister sins against you, sweep it under the rug and pretend like it never happened”
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go gossip and vent about it with someone else.”
But no! Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them.” In other words, gently and firmly and courageously help them see their sin and the ways in which they have sinned against you.
Friends, you don’t need me to tell you this, but this is not easy to do. As a people pleaser, I don’t want to rebuke other people. I want them to like me. I fear that if I do this, I’ll jeopardize the relationship. And in addition, I think there are times and situations where the person who has sinned against you is so raw and vulnerable themselves, that it may be best to let things settle for a while. And yet, Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them.”
This may sound like a bad news command, and yet consider for a moment, how this might be a good news command. For example, have you ever sinned without even realizing it? Have you ever sinned against someone and hurt someone and not even realized it? We all have. You see, our sin runs so deep, that it’s just that we sin, but that we don’t even know that we’ve sinned! And so for example, when you rebuke me of my sin, you give me the opportunity to confess and repent of sin in my life that I was previously unaware of. Friends, if I sin against you, give me that opportunity. Consider even more how Jesus’s words are the path to true healing and reconciliation, both for yourself and for the relationship.
Think about what happens when we don’t lovingly and gently rebuke one another when they sin against us. It festers, we get bitter, we resort to gossip, we get resentful.
Someone once said, “Hanging onto resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill someone else.”
Resentment is deadly. Deadly for the relationship, and also deadly for yourself.
And yet, consider the upside: When you rebuke your brother and sister, your friends in Christ, what you’re saying, this relationship means so much to me, it is so valuable to me, that I am willing to embrace this difficult and uncomfortable moment to restore it. Now that’s powerful, powerful stuff.
So next time someone sins against you and you're debating whether to say anything or not, maybe ask yourself this question, “If I say nothing, what’s the ceiling for this relationship? What’s the best version of this relationship if I don’t pursue forgiveness and reconciliation? Jesus, what kind of healing could you bring, what kind of healing is possible if I step out in faith on this one?
And if and when you do, consider leading in vulnerability and confession yourself, saying, “Here’s how you hurt me, but I also want to readily acknowledge, here’s how I hurt you as well.”
Cause no sin, Rebuke other sin and here’s the third:
Forgive all sin.
My goodness, point one was hard, point two was harder, and yet this one might be hardest still. Here’s what Jesus says next: If they repent, forgive them.
Notice the parameters that Jesus puts around forgiveness here. That forgiveness ought to be both conditional and unlimited. He describes forgiveness as conditional and unlimited. The idea of conditional forgiveness probably sounds upside down to us. After all, we’re used to concepts such as unconditional love. But yet conditional forgiveness? That sounds backwards, if not upside down.
And yet this is exactly what Jesus teaches here. “If they repent, forgive them.” “If they repent, forgive them.” These conditions are in fact consistent with how God forgives us. Consider the verse that we Betsy read from 1st John in the Call to Confession. “If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Notice the condition there, “if we confess our sins.”
Though difficult, this in many ways makes good sense … After all, how can you fully restore and heal and reconcile a relationship if the person who has sinned against you refused to admit what they did wrong? We struggle to even be in their very presence when this is the case.
Jesus calls for conditional forgiveness and yet also unlimited forgiveness. 4 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.” If conditional forgiveness sounds stingy and ungracious, well, remember. We are called to extend unlimited forgiveness. Even 7 times a day. Now, when we forgive someone, we are not excusing or tacitly endorsing their actions or behavior.
Nor are we saying that life will immediately become life as usual once again. Because the truth is, even though forgiveness may be extended, trust may be eroded. However when we do forgive someone, here’s what we do promise, as Ken Sande describes in his book, The Promise Keeper. We promise: “I will not dwell on this incident.”
“I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.” “I will not talk to others about this incident.” “I will not let this incident stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”
That’s what we say when we forgive the brother or sister, the friend in Christ who sins against us.
Friends, who in your life or where in your life do you need to ask for forgiveness? And is there someone who has repented and confessed their sin who you need to extend forgiveness towards?
Cause no sin. Rebuke others' sins. Forgive all sin … my goodness this is no small thing.
To all this we cry out, “Lord, help me!”
Which is in a sense exactly what the disciples are saying when they say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
I told you at the top that I was struggling to make sense how all the parts of this passage fit together, and I still to this very moment don’t see the connection with the parable that Jesus shares in verses 7-10, but this much I see.
In order to be the kinds of people, the kinds of disciples, the kinds of followers of Jesus who will cause no sin, rebuke others sin, forgive all sin. We are going to need faith to do all three.
And so the disciples cry out, “Lord, increase our faith!”
We need faith, we need Jesus’s help to not cause other people to sin, sinful people as we are. After all, we’re sinful and sometimes we don’t even know it.
We need faith, we need Jesus’s help to rebuke others in their sin. We fear that if and when we do we’ll jeopardize the relationship, we’ll crash land it once and for all, we need faith that Jesus can use those moments of courage and vulnerability to bring healing and reconciliation.
We need faith, we need Jesus’s help to forgive others in their sin if they repent, even when they deeply wound us, even when we feel like we’ve got no forgiveness left to give.
Lord, the disciples say, Lord, we say, “Increase our faith. Give us the ability, give us the power, give us the strength, to do what you tell us to do.”
6 He replied, “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.
Yet another detail about this passage that I don’t quite understand. (Why are we all of a sudden throwing trees into oceans?)
But at the very least, when Jesus says, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed.” He’s saying this: It’s not about how much faith you have, but rather who your faith is in. Faith is not measured by its amount, but rather by its source, but its object.
What matters in matters of faith is who your faith is in.
And friends, if your faith is in Jesus, well good news is, a mustard seed is all you need. A tiny little mustard seed is all you need.
For Jesus, who came and dwelt among us, human in every way, was tempted in every way and yet did not sin and give into temptation. Through faith in him and through his power, we can resist temptation as well and work towards not being a cause of temptation for others.
For Jesus, who came and dwelt among us, human in every way, he called out the sin and hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, calling for their repentance, so that they might all be reconciled to him.
And this same Jesus, was put to death, put to death on a cross, by those same religious leaders he once offended, and in doing so purchased the forgiveness of our sins, where on that cross he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Friends, may you and I be people who cause no sin, who rebuke others sin and who forgive all sin by relying on our faith in Christ, no matter how big or small you think it is. Because if you’ve got faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s all the faith you’ll need.