Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Community That Rejects Disfunction: Luke 17:1-4

Bringing in the military is a reactive way to deal with the effects of sin. Is there a proactive way?
(Picture credit: www.abcnews.go.com)
Note: if you're in a hurry, skip down to the question in bold: how do we deal with sin within the Church? And stay tuned till the end for a final note about how this all relates to apologetics. 

The source of the problem

American, Evangelical Christians nowadays are concerned. We are concerned about our nation turning away from God, about the rising tide of secularism in the US, about atrophy and disorder amidst our own ranks, and about any number of political battles being fought among our elected leaders right now. Yet when we look to Scripture, all these issues are really just satellites orbiting the real about which we should be concerned, and that issue is as old as the Good Book itself: sin.

Sin is a word that literally means, "missing the mark." We "sin" when we willfully act in defiance against God's  good standards. Sin is something that goes on all day, every day, both inside and outside the Church. Sin transcends denominational boundaries; it's a truly universal activity. And it is destructive. Sin is not just an affront against God: recall that Jesus' "two greatest commandments" are Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor. When we sin, we're breaking one of those two commands, and the result is broken relationships with God and others. Murder, rape, violence, theft, dishonesty, cheating, lying, greed, corruption--these are the fruits of sin. Sin ruins lives, rips apart families, and drags its victims down into addiction and self destruction. It is a horrible disease, and it's been contracted by every single living human being on the planet. Worse, we have willingly ingested it and propagated it.We are the victims and disseminators of the contagion.

Sin: it's rampant, it's destructive, and it's pervasive across the globe. Is there no escape? Is there not refuge from sin and its horrible effects?

The Church is the refuge

There is such a refuge, and it is called the Church. At least, that is the way it is intended to be. The Church is too often a place where idolatry, sexual immorality, fear, and other sins seep in and wreak havoc. Yet while this may happen (in fact, we will see that Jesus says these things are inevitable), Jesus Christ as given us instructions for repairing sin's damage and preventing it from spreading. In Luke 17:1-4,  Jesus gives outlines a plan, for his followers, to deal with sin and effectively eradicate its effects from the community.

Let's take this passage apart piece-by-piece. As we get into it, we will be asking the question: how do we deal with sin within the Church? 

(All verses are author's translation)
17:1 -  "But he said to his disciples, 'It is impossible for the causes of sin not to come; nevertheless, woe to the one through whom it comes.' 

First, notice that Jesus is the one speaking, and he is talking to his people. He is their supervisor, and so they should pay close attention to what he says. If you consider yourself to be one of Jesus' people, then you and I should listen carefully to what Jesus says here, too.

Next, we notice that Jesus basically says that sin in inevitable. In other words, don't be surprised when people do bad things. And yet, though sin and stumbling blocks (the word in the original language means both) will come, there will be anguish ("woe") for anyone who causes these stumbling blocks to come. Check out this next verse:

17:2-3a - "It is more advantageous for him if a millstone is wrapped around his throat, and he is thrown down into the sea, than that he should have caused one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves!"

Could Jesus use more graphic language here? The point is this: avoid sin at all costs. Watch yourself carefully, and constantly examine yourself to keep yourself from causing any "little ones" (who have just started trusting in Jesus) to sin. Now, in order to keep someone else from sinning, one has to keep oneself from sinning as well. Any new parent learns this the first time her toddler cutely shouts out his first curse word. "Whoops--maybe it's time to stop swearing around Junior!" Children and new believers are always watching. The first step in establishing the Church as a refuge from sin's destruction is keeping ourselves from causing sin.

Alright, but then what happens when people do sin? Remember, it is going to happen. Christ's answer there is as simple as it is revolutionary: forgive each other outrageously. See for yourself:

17:3b-4 - "If your brother may sin, rebuke him. And if he may repent, forgive him. And if, seven times in a day he may sin against you, and seven times he returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you will forgive him." 

This is what it means to live like a follower of Jesus. We call each other out when we see each other sinning--not in a judgmental spirit, but as one sinner helping another--and then we forgive each other like crazy.

In ancient Jewish tradition, it was considered magnanimous to forgive someone three times. Jesus, however, ups that standard to seven times. In one day. And the sin being forgiven here is not some abstract action: this person is directly sinning against you. Outrageous.

To conclude: the Lord wants us to lift each other up, and restore one another. In its original context, this teaching was important for the disciples as they learned how to live in community with one another. The deeper principle is that, we are to avoid sin, but when it happens, we will forgive. How interesting that Jesus does not say, "you must forgive," but "you will forgive." This is because, as Christians, we know that God has forgiven us of far greater offenses than anyone will ever commit against us. And he does this far more often than seven measly times a day! Because of Jesus' death and resurrection, the floodgates of divine forgiveness have been opened to us. Who are we, therefore, to withhold forgiveness from our brothers and sisters?

Is this really livable?

In today's world, living this principle means (1) being very careful about how we act toward others. Don't cause anyone to stumble, and (2) do not lose your temper with those who make mistakes (or even sin intentionally against you). And if you do sin against your brother or sister, go to them and repent. That person is literally commanded to forgive you!

Sin simply can not survive in such an environment. Its corrosive effects will be nullified.

All this is impossible apart from the power of the Holy Spirit enabling us to live like Jesus. That is why Christianity is the one movement that makes this kind of living possible. The power to create a society that is a refuge from sin and destruction does not come from our knowledge, beliefs, or efforts alone. But we are able to meet the standards of living in a Christian community when we fully surrender to Jesus' teachings and the Spirit of God who dwells within us.

When we follow Christ's commands in this way, our community itself will be a powerful piece of evidence for the truth of Christianity. With all the despair and hopelessness cause by sin in the world, this what could be more attractive than this kind of peaceful refuge?

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