Sunday, October 02, 2022

Forgiven, Set Free to Forgive

[Below you'll find videos of the live stream videos of both the 8:45 AM and 11:00 AM worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, as well as the text of today's message.]

Luke 17:1-10
A prominent nineteenth-century Lutheran theologian once gave this important advice: “When [God’s] Law condemns you, then immediately lay hold of the Gospel.”

We need to remember this as we consider today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 17:1-10. Jesus has just finished telling His story of Lazarus, the poor man, who had faith in God and entered heaven, and the rich man, who trusted in his wealth and possessions, and been condemned to an eternity without God. Jesus told this story for the benefit first, of the notorious sinners who were starting to believe in Him and trust in His grace. He wanted to assure them that, despite the judgments of an unforgiving world, by God’s grace, they had faith in Him that saved them and gave them a place in the Kingdom of God eternally. Jesus also told the story for the Pharisees and teachers of religious law, certain of their own righteousness, that they might repent–turn from their sin–and trust in Jesus for life with God, rather than trusting in themselves, their ethnicity, or their wealth. Without faith in Jesus, they would spend eternity, not with God, but like the rich man, eternally condemned, separated from God.

Now, as He heads for Jerusalem where He knows that He will be crucified, then raised from the dead by God the Father, Jesus turns to His disciples. After hearing Jesus’ story, they may be feeling vindicated in following Him or superior to others, Jesus speaks a Word of Law.

“Things that cause people to stumble [things that cause people to trip into temptation] are bound to come, but woe to anyone [that’s God’s condemnation to anyone] through whom they come. 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 [that is, the sinners and tax collectors coming to Jesus in repentance and faith] to stumble. So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 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.” (Luke 17:1-4)

Do you hear what Jesus is saying here? “Christian, don’t cause others to sin! Don’t cause them to doubt Jesus or the forgiveness He brings to those who repent and believe in Him! Don’t cause them to question God’s grace given in Christ!” Christians who do that, Jesus says, are worse off than people fitted with concrete shoes and thrown into the ocean. Quite simply, Christians who trip others into sin, despair, and unbelief by their rigidity or refusal to forgive are damned. Jesus goes on to say that when others sin against us, we are to confront them and if they repent, we must forgive them, no matter how many times they sin against us and repent.

Jesus’ words must have hit the disciples hard. They hit me that way too. It’s so easy for me to hold a grudge. Jesus’ Word of Law here is an expression of the command of the first table of the Ten Commandments, that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves, condemns me. Failing to forgive is a sin. And this isn’t the only time that Jesus and His Word tell us this. Jesus teaches us, remember, to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” You know what? I love to be forgiven; I’m not as keen about forgiving. Maybe you feel the same way. But Jesus tells us that that attitude is a sin. It merits everlasting condemnation.

Is it any wonder then that the apostles say to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”? (Luke 17:5) The apostles’ reasoning is understandable, isn’t it? “Add some faith to us so that we can strengthen our wills to do this impossible thing the Law demands,” they’re telling Jesus. But they’ve got it wrong. They don’t need more faith. They need–and what we need–faith enough to turn in helplessness and trust to Jesus. It’s Jesus and Jesus alone Who can  destroy the condemnation for sin that we deserve and make us worthy of life with God. You don’t need big faith. You just need faith, however big or small it is, in the big, loving, forgiving God we meet in Jesus Christ! Jesus is big enough, whatever the size of our faith!

God’s Law is good. It reflects God’s will for us. But if we cannot obey this Law, which we cannot, then we surely cannot be saved by it. Even if I decided today to forgive those who have hurt me, I could not make that decision stick by my willpower. And I could not erase the pain I’ve caused others by my past unforgiveness. And that doesn’t even address all the other ways I have failed to love God and love others. Blessedly though, God’s Word tells us [I’m reading here from the Good News translation of Romans 8:3-4] “What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like our sinful nature, to do away with sin. God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law might be fully satisfied in us who live according to the Spirit, and not according to human nature.” Friends, Jesus has done the Gospel, the Good News, for us. He went to Jerusalem and offered up His sinless life to take the condemnation and punishment you and I deserve, even went to hell itself, then rose from the dead so that all who daily repent and trust in Him have forgiveness and everlasting life with God! Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law of love for us, because on our own, you and I can’t!

After the apostles ask for more faith, Jesus tells them that freedom from the condemnation of the Law doesn’t come from having a bigger faith, but by the greatness of your God. How great is the God you can trust in Jesus Christ? Not only is He the God Who made the heavens and the earth, He’s the God Who comes to us in Jesus Christ. As we take shelter in the grace of God given to us through Jesus, Who suffered, bled, died, and rose for us, we know that we are not condemned, that we belong to God forever. God has justified us, counted us innocent of our sin, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Like the apostle Paul, we can say, “​​since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 5:1) As we trust in Christ, we have this peace with God not just in eternity after God has called us from our graves, but right now! This very moment!

At the end of our gospel lesson, through an illustration, Jesus describes what our peace with God looks like. We are freed from the sure condemnation that goes to the self-righteous. And we are freed from terror at the truth that none of us, by our own merit or effort, is good enough for a place in God’s kingdom. Jesus has bought us out of our slavery to sin and death, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold…but with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18-19) Forgiven by Christ, we can forgive others and, like the servants in Jesus’ illustration, not keep score. When God commends us for forgiving and loving as we’ve been forgiven and loved, we can say, “​​…we have only done our duty…” (Luke 17:10) The idea here isn’t that I have done some laudable work that other people should notice. The force of this statement by the servants is to say they don’t need a participation trophy, they are simply doing what people do when Jesus has set them free from sin and set them free to love and forgive. For those who trust in Jesus, who receive His Word, who have been claimed by Him a Baptism, and who receive His body and blood with repentance and faith, Jesus is the Vine and we are the branches. (John 15:5) As His life courses through us, we do what God’s servants do, knowing that, however the world may regard us, we live each moment in God’s grace and approval. A disciple saved by God's grace in Christ is called to a life in which they no longer are susceptible to the terrors of damnation and who no longer need strokes for doing what God‘s grace in Christ impels us to do. 

To applaud a Christian for being a Christian is a bit like applauding a carrot for being a carrot. A carrot has no say over whether it's a carrot. Nor do we have any say over the Spirit wooing us to faith in Jesus. It's by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can repent and trust in Jesus Christ, not ours. So, when we forgive, we are just doing what Christians do and that is solely a miracle of God’s grace, of Christ living in us!

When [God’s] Law condemns you, then immediately lay hold of the Gospel.” The Law of God commands us to forgive as we are forgiven. The Gospel assures us that as we trust in Christ, we are forgiven and that, freed of self-regard or self-loathing, we are conduits of His grace  and love for others. Friends, you can trust in Jesus Christ for this! Amen