Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 22)
Oct. 6, 2013
Text: Luke 17:1-10

            Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6; ESV).  Have you ever tried this?  Go stand in front of a tree, concentrate really hard on believing in Jesus enough, and then speak the command: “Be uprooted and planted in the midst of the sea!”  What happens?  I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts the tree just stands there where it always has, roots planted firmly in the ground.  What does this mean?  Does it mean you don’t have enough faith?  Do you need to drum up even more faith within yourself?  Does it mean Jesus was lying when He made this promise?  Does it mean God can’t deliver?  Where is the deficiency?  In you?  In God?  In your Bible translation?  As is so often the case with Jesus and His Word, there is more going on here than meets the eye.  First of all, let’s just agree that, as Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7), which is precisely what you would be doing if you did this little experiment with the mulberry tree.  You must first ask if it is God’s will that the mulberry tree be so moved.  And if not, God is unlikely to give you the power to move it.
            But what is really the point of what our Lord says here?  Is He really concerned about you moving trees with your faith?  Jesus has just told the disciples to do some impossible things.  Never lead your neighbor into temptation, whether by encouraging or participating with him in his sin, or tacitly condoning his sin by your silence.  When you neighbor sins, rebuke him, and (and this is the hardest part), if he repents, forgive him.  No matter what he’s done.  No matter how many times he’s done it.  If he sins against you seven times in one day, and seven times repents, you are to forgive him.  Or, as our Lord answers Peter’s question elsewhere, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?” … “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21-22).  Well, you all know from experience how difficult, nay, impossible, these commandments are to fulfill.  Never lead your neighbor into temptation?  Every child has broken that one.  Rebuke your brother when he sins?  No way, that would hurt our relationship.  It’s too hard.  And then the really tough one.  Forgive.  As Christ has forgiven you, forgive your brother who sins against you.  And how has Christ forgiven you?  He died for you.  Forgiving you killed Him, literally.  That’s how you are to forgive.  And of course you must recognize that you sin against Him more than seven times, or even seventy-seven times in a day, but there He is, holding out His pierced hands to you, ready to receive you back, covering your sins by His blood. 
            You forgive that way.  Impossible!  And you’re right.  The apostles recognize this, too.  They understand that this is impossible for them to do by their own strength.  They know that they need something from the Lord, from outside of them, to be able to do this.  So they pray to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).  It is a prayer that we also pray, constantly.  This is going to take a lot, this not leading into temptation, this rebuking, this forgiving.  This is going to take more than we have within ourselves.  Lord, increase our faith!  What is interesting, though, is how Jesus answers this prayer.  He doesn’t answer by giving them an increasing quantity of faith.  He simply says that if they have faith, and they do, then they can do the impossible, even saying to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would do it.  Faith, even as small as a mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds, can do the impossible, like forgive the brother who sins against you.  Yes, it can.  Now, I’m not talking about having warm and fuzzy feelings about that brother.  I’m talking about you dying for that brother’s sin, dying to yourself, taking it on the chin.  I’m talking about you loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44).  You understand that when you pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” you are essentially saying, “Lord, forgive me all my sins.  And I am publicly stating here in this prayer that I forgive everyone who has sinned against me.”  There is an objective quality about this forgiveness.  Again, I’m not talking about how you feel toward that brother who has sinned against you.  I’m talking about your objective decision to forgive, even if it kills you, as Christ has forgiven you. 
            “Impossible, Pastor!”  Right.  Just like the mulberry tree.  What is going on with that tree?  A living tree uprooted and planted where it has no hope of survival, namely, the salty sea.  And there it is to go on living, to thrive even.  Impossible.  There is another tree, the tree of life, the tree of the cross, which is planted in the most inhospitable environment, in the heart of the sinner.[1]  In your heart!  And there the impossible happens.  This tree that bears the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ takes deep root in you and produces the fruit of living faith in Christ.  This happens as the Word is preached, as Baptism washes and waters, as by the Supper Jesus’ blood courses through your veins.  And you find that something amazing happens.  You want to do what your Lord commands.  You want to forgive.  You want to do your duty of love toward your brother.  Oh, it’s still hard.  Very hard.  You can’t do it by your own power.  But you can do it in Christ.  You can do it in Christ who forgives your sinful inability to forgive.  You can do it in Christ who died for you that you might die for your brother.  You can do it in Christ, who is risen from the dead and gives you to walk in newness of life, who here and now dispenses to you eternal life by His Word and Sacraments. 
            Now, I’m not going to lie.  You will struggle with this until the day you die.  Because of your sinful nature.  Don’t worry about that.  Christ took care of your sinful nature in His death on the cross.  Your sinful nature has been drowned in Baptism and will ultimately be put to death forever when you go to heaven.  But even if you are successful at forgiving your brother (and when you are, praise be to God!), you haven’t done anything worthy of boasting.  When you have done what your Lord has commanded, you are simply to say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).  In fact, you haven’t even done your duty, as evidenced by your struggle to forgive.  But here is the Good News.  You have a Lord who has done more than His duty.  He has done it for you and in your place.  It is He who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), as the Roman soldiers cast lots for His clothing and He hung there on the tree to pay for your sins.  There He won the victory over your sin and death.  He is risen from the dead.  And now what does He do for you?  He says to you precisely what He says in our text a master would NOT say to his servants: “Come at once and recline at table” (Luke 10:7).  Come and let me serve you.  I have prepared a Feast, my Body and Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  And at this Holy Meal you will be given faith and strengthened to do the impossible: to forgive as I have forgiven you. 
            You may not be able to command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.  Certainly not unless it is God’s will.  But by faith you can do the impossible.  You can forgive your brother.  You can do it because Christ has done it for you.  You can do it because Christ does it in you.  Christ died for you.  Christ died for your brother.  In His death on the tree, He has reconciled us to God and to one another.  And His cross has been planted in our hearts for the increase of our faith, to accomplish what is impossible.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.        

[1] I am indebted to Pr. Mark Love for this analogy.


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