Simple questions do not always have simple answers. For instance, have you ever pondered the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Well, we might say a Christian is a follower of Christ or a disciple of our Lord or something along those lines. But then we need to unpack what those things mean and all their various contours and implications. To be a Christian might mean something very different to two Christians sitting in the same room. One might see it as having to do with certain beliefs while another sees it primarily being defined by certain actions. Is Christianity defined by a peculiar morality or political persuasion or is it simply convictions of things unseen? Do you recognize another Christian when you see them, can you pick them out in a crowd, are they distinct in any way?
I listen to a lot of podcasts and talk radio stations which are not Christian in nature. They are informative or funny or simply entertaining, but I have developed a problematic response when they begin to talk about Christians. They usually are not criticizing our beliefs but rather our actions or the perceived desire by some in our midst to control others. I used to get upset when they did this, but lately it seems I have begun to join with them. It is like I am embarrassed by how other Christians are acting in the public square, like they are not part of my faith. Have you ever done that? Have you ever thought, “If that is what it is to be a Christian then I do not want anything to do with it?” Or at least you want to step away from it. You want to say, look I am a Christian, just not a Christian like those over there. Part of the problem is we are not sure exactly how to describe what it means to be a Christian in the first place.
But in looking at Luke 17 and the exchange between Jesus and His disciples, I think, perhaps, a good foundational understanding of what it means to be a Christian is this: a Christian is one who is forgiven by Christ. But not only that, they are also those who then forgive others. A Christian, in this sense, is one who is both forgiven and forgiving. Now think about it, out of all the things Christians are known for in this world, would it not be nice if they were predominately known as those who forgive others? Now that is not what we are known for, but would it not be awesome if it was? Imagine overhearing someone say, “You know I stopped by Grace Lutheran Church the other day and I did not really understand what all was going on with the standing up and sitting down and the songs seemed a bit dated and boring, but man those people were eager to forgive. They were forgiving each other, forgiving their enemies, they even forgave me.”
In Luke 17, Jesus says to His disciples temptation to sin is sure to come. It lurks out in the world. It is found everywhere you turn from the most despicable recesses of the Internet to the most holy sanctuaries of the Church. Temptation is present. It turns out we are not uniquely designed to resist such temptation. Just as sure as there is a leading desire to sin, so you will find sinners close at hand. Now He does say, “Woe to those through whom such temptations come.” Just because temptations lurk out there does not mean you are invited to be the means through which temptations ensnare our brothers and sisters in Christ. In fact, you ought to be a source of strength to resist, to stand strong, to avoid the many temptations of this world. But you can be sure, no matter how diligent you are, no matter how carefully you watch out for your brothers and sisters, they will sin. They will sin against God, against their own conscience and they will sin against you.
So, Jesus says,
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
You, as Christians, are called to forgive. You must forgive. If you are sinned against once or twice or seven times or seventy times seven and they turn to you in repentance you must forgive them. The forgiven are to forgive. Now, I know this sounds much easier said than done. I mean we may want to forgive, may even be willing to forgive, at least for the first or second infractions but at some point, what we want is not forgiveness but something much more suitable to our liking. We want justice. We want there to be punishment, payment for the trespass, some real measurable means to demonstrate true repentance.
The disciples in the text today, they get this. They seem to understand this is a tough thing they are being called to do. Like all of us they are fine with being forgiven themselves but to be people who are forgiving of others, why that is hard. It goes against our nature. It goes against our society. In fact, in the first 10 verses of Luke 17, they only have one line. In the midst of it all they say to Jesus, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5)! In order to forgive, in order to be a people who dare to be reckless in the forgiveness category, they are going to need a great amount of faith. Faith and forgiveness are tied together. And they are certain they do not have enough faith to be forgivers of others.
Think about it for a moment. Think about your own faith, your own willingness to forgive. Think about those who have hurt you, those who have wronged you over and again. Are you able to forgive? Some of the most tormented people I have ever met in my life, and people who have taught me a lot about forgiveness, are bound to love and care for addicts. Perhaps it is a husband or a child. It could be drugs or alcohol or gambling or almost any sort of addiction. They have had their hearts broken again and again, as promise after promise is broken. Giving up seems like the best option. Yet, their hearts will not let them do it. Over time the forgiveness comes slower and more painfully, but it still comes. Somehow, in some way, it still comes.
I think it is similar to the story Jesus tells His disciples. He talks about a servant going out to do his work in the field. When the end of the day comes and he has taken care of all his duties does the master of the house then invite him to sit down and recline at the table while he, the master, prepares a meal? No, he will have his servant dress and serve him at the table. That is what a servant does. He does his job, what he is supposed to do. And you, my friends, are servants of the Lord. You are called to do your duty to keep the commands of the master. You are the forgiven ones and as such you forgive, that is what you do. It may be difficult, it may be scary at times, it may come grudgingly, but it still comes because that is who you are.
Think of it this way, you are the baptized right? You have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and in that washing you died with Christ and, so, have risen to a new life in Him. You are new creatures, creatures who are servants of Christ and servants of Christ forgive. The disciples know this is difficult, and they know it is connected to their faith, so they ask for an increase in faith, but Jesus does not tell them how to increase faith. He does not address it at all. In fact, He seems to be saying whatever strength level their faith is, it is adequate to forgive, for even faith like a mustard seed can do awesome things. They just need to do what they are called to do. The forgiven are to forgive, over and over again.
I remember years ago; I was at a crossroads in my vocation. I was not sure if being a pastor was for me. There were so many things pressing on me. There was the difficulty of the church budget, problems with some disgruntled members, disagreements with some of my colleagues and I was not sure what I was doing anymore, or even if I should continue to do it. Perhaps I needed to be more of a leader, more of a coach, more of a facilitator. Perhaps if I got out of the way the church would continue to grow without me at the helm. They could adapt, be more relevant, more contemporary without me there. It was not fun. I felt like I was letting down my family and misleading my flock. And then I listened intently to another pastor I respected. In shocking honesty, he shook me out of it by calling me to go and do my job. To do what I had been called and sent to do. To preach, teach and administer the Sacraments. To kill and bring forth life with the Word of God. To forget all the pomp and circumstance and not expect a pat on the back or to recline at the table, for I was simply doing what I was given to do.
It is in that spirit, I think, we can find joy in the words of Christ when He says, “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Your duty is to be what He has called you to be, to live as He has called you to live. You are the saints of God, you are the blessed, the loved, the forgiven. And so, you can go and forgive. Start with those sitting around you. Start with your brothers and sisters and go on from there. Go and be the Christians you have become in Christ our Lord.