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A Community of Rebuke and Service (sermon)

September 29, 2010

Luke 17: 1-10

The Lectionary for the week began our reading at verse 5 “Lord give us more faith!” You can’t start reading there. That verse is nothing if not a response from the heart to what Jesus has just been saying. What Jesus has just been saying is challenging and disturbing. Luke records it with his eye on the church 50 years on from Jesus. Luke calls the disciples ‘apostles’ and Jesus he calls ‘Lord’. But to hear the story as Luke’s readers did 50 years on, is not so far removed from when Jesus’ own situation as we might imagine. Even though the term “church” originated some time later, Jesus himself was building a kingdom-community among his disciples. The seed of the church was there. And the kingdom-community that Jesus envisaged was an astonishing thing!… as today’s reading makes clear.

Every community has little ones, young or old, newcomers to the life of discipleship. Little ones that are vulnerable, little ones who can easily stumble. Whose minds are not well-formed in the life of Jesus. Little ones who will bring alien assumptions to the table bringing potential strife to the community. Jesus says, it’s your responsibility, you have a bit more maturity in the faith, to care for the ‘little ones’ that they do not stumble. At this table ‘we get to carry one another’.

Jesus knows that the community will get into strife and so he says: If another disciple sins, rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive… and go on repeating this process for as long as it takes. Because it’s the very nature of the faith to heal strife in this way. This is normal! The community of disciples is a community of rebuke, as well as a community of repentance and forgiveness.

We struggle with rebuke don’t we? Think about your family. Here’s a test of whether you really are family or not: Are you able to rebuke one another and maintain the relationship? Here’s a test whether we really are church or not. Are we able to rebuke one another and maintain the relationship? We like the talk about forgiveness to a point. But I fear it’s because when we talk of forgiveness we really mean a process of putting it behind us, of avoiding the sin, in other words – forgiveness without rebuke. The relationship is maintained by avoidance rather than address. Some of us are good at rebuke without forgiveness and restoration. Others are good at a kind of hidden forgiveness without rebuke…. But it seems to me that both are a kind of conflict avoidance rather than conflict resolution. Both mean that what we have are superficial relationships… not real community. And the gospel calls forth real community, surely!

Are you surprised when the disciples respond “Lord increase our faith!”

Jesus says if you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could do impossible things. He gives an absurd example of uprooting trees, and of course Jesus is not suggesting that faith is about environmental degradation through deforestation. His point is… this impossible community of rebuke and forgiveness is indeed possible with faith.

The Greek has two ways of saying ‘if’. The first talks of a situation that is contrary to how things are. Like when I say ‘If I were you I would do x’. Meaning, you’re not doing x, but should be. The other kind of ‘if-phrase’ talks of a situation according to the fact, so ‘If Jesus is our Lord, we would love our enemies’. Here the speaker assumes that the fact Jesus is our Lord is true.

So… in our text when Jesus says “If you had faith as big as a mustard seed…” he is using the second form of ‘if’. He’s not saying, the reason you can’t do this impossible thing is because you don’t have enough faith. Rather he’s saying: You do have faith. What’s more he’s saying: Even faith as tiny as a mustard seed will do. I.e. quantity of faith doesn’t matter, just faith. And so these apparently impossible things about rebuking one another and forgiving one another, forever and ever amen, are in fact possible. They might seem to us to be as strange as mentally causing a tree to be uprooted and thrown into the sea, but they are still possible. Faith is not positive thinking (which does come in degrees). Faith lays hold of God and with God all things are impossible. Faith does impossible things.

So, as hard as it is… and God knows it’s very hard in our individualistic culture to challenge one another about our lives, faith means that we can rebuke your fellow disciples, and still remain in relationship with them. In fact it’s our duty to do so. It just goes with the territory of following the Lord who is a servant…

This brings us to the second part of our text. The gospels were written in a society where the institution of slavery and the presence of servants were taken for granted. It was a fixed stratified society. People were not equal. Christianity began to change the shape of that world, but there was not instant abolition of the whole social landscape. Nevertheless a time bomb had been set at the foundations of the ancient world, for they worshipped one who defined himself as a servant. God raised from the dead a servant. The life of God is service. There’s no point of retiring from Christian service. Christianity is service. The word ministry means ‘service’. We are all ministers, all servants. None of us retires from that.

Jesus is blunt to the point of unsettling:

“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Service has its rewards…, but it’s not like, so I’ve done my service now I am owed some reward. Look at all the service I have done. Why is no one thanking me? Am I not appreciated? According to Jesus, no one is owed anything. There no deal, no contract. Service is my identity as a Christian. It is my life. It’s not “over and above the call of duty”. It is duty, it is life. We do it, as Jesus did it, not as a chore as if we were having our life taken from us, but because we want to do it. In serving we are truly alive. We are owed nothing.

I can imagine the disciples saying again. Lord give us more faith! And Jesus replying again. The faith you have, regardless of quantity, is sufficient.

This is World Communion Sunday. We share a common faith with people throughout the world. Jesus tells us that this means we can be a community of rebuke and a community of service. So if Anglicans and Presbyterians share in the community of Christ they will be able to rebuke each other and forgive each other and serve each other. If Catholics and Presbyterians are part of one body, they too will rebuke each other and receive rebuke from each other because as they serve Christ and thus serve the world together so they also serve one another. And it’s not institutional unity that makes this possible either. It’s faith, even as small as a mustard seed.

World Communion Sunday looks forward to a day which staggers our limited imagination – a day when all of us with mustard seed faith, carried on cross of Jesus, get to carry one another.

Thanks be to God

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