2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:1-10
19th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 02.10.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
The perspective from which we look at things can hugely influence how we see them. When we went on holiday in the summer the mountains that looked like tiny foothills from the air turned out to be the mighty mountains of the Alps when we approached them on foot. According to the type of sunglasses we may choose to wear, the sky can seem dark and stormy and a torrential downpour imminent, or if rose-tinted, it can look bright and beautiful. And as the US presidential debate this week showed us, Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton was by far the clear winner according to whether one was already favouring one or the other before the debate. Our perspective – how we view the world – changes things. It matters.
Living as a Christian, how we follow Christ in today’s world, is all about perspective too. Its about the way we choose to see ourselves and the world around us. Its about looking at the world through the lens of Christ. And whilst other lenses may distort or mislead us in what we see, viewing the world through the lens of Christ corrects our natural distortions and helps us to see life more clearly as it truly is.
Paul in his letter to Timothy, a young Christian, in reminding him of who Christ is, is encouraging him to look at the world afresh through the lens of Christ. Christ, Paul writes, was before the beginning of time, and yet he comes to us, he lives our life, so that the grace of God may be revealed to us. He is the Saviour of the world, the one who has destroyed death and opened the way to eternal life. Christ, in whom and through whom the universe and the galaxies were made, the one worshipped in heaven by myriads of angels, takes on the confines of human flesh, is abused and insulted, beaten up and ultimately tortured and killed, out of love for us. Through his death and resurrection he makes forgiveness possible, and he opens up the way to life.
Looking at life through that lens transforms everything, and in our Gospel reading we see four everyday ways in which it makes a difference.
Firstly, Jesus tells his disciples to do everything they can to avoid causing others to sin. Indeed, in strong and dramatic language, he says that those who cause others, especially the weak and vulnerable, to sin, would be better off having a millstone tied round their neck and thrown into the sea.
I’ve been quite saddened this week by the sudden fall and departure of the England football manager, Sam Allardyce. This was a man who had longed for the job for many years, who was clearly so delighted to have finally got it. It was the pinnacle of his career. And yet he lasted in the job just one match and 67 days. His actions, in suggesting ways in which FA rules could be bypassed and ignored, were seen as too incompatible with his role. How could he be encouraging others to break the rules, even if he himself wasn’t? He had to go. Putting temptation in the way of others, suggesting ways in which others can break the rules, matters in our world.
When looked at through the lens of Christ, it matters all the more. When we consider how much Christ suffered for us, how much it cost him to bear the weight of our sins, in becoming like us, in dying for us, the thought that we might actually encourage others to sin, to add to the burden that Christ bore for us, must bring us up short.
I wonder whether there are areas of our life where we run the danger of causing others to sin? Maybe through unjustified anger that prompts an outburst of anger in return. Maybe through gossip or unkind talk that legitimises and encourages others to join in. Let us remember what Christ has suffered for our sins.
A second area of life where seeing things through the lens of Christ makes a huge difference is that of our willingness to forgive others. The Rabbis of Jesus’ time had a saying that if any man forgave another three times, he was a perfect man. Jesus takes that number and more than doubles it and says that is how much we must forgive those who ask our forgiveness. In other words the Christian standard of forgiveness must immeasurably exceed the best the world can achieve. Why? It goes back to Jesus and the cross.
Jesus was willing to do whatever it took – he was willing to die for us – that we may know forgiveness. A forgiveness we did not earn or did not deserve. A forgiveness not limited to a certain number of times before it was used up. But a joyful, overflowing, abundant gift of forgiveness. We are reminded of that gift of forgiveness every Sunday as we confess our sins and hear the words of absolution at the beginning of the service. We are reminded of the cost of that forgiveness as we break bread and share wine, and remember the sacrifice Christ made for us.
When we live life through the lens of the forgiveness we have received in Christ, it is difficult to hold grudges against others. How can we when we ourselves have been forgiven so much?
Some of you may well remember the words of Gordon Wilson, a Christian in Northern Ireland whose daughter was killed in the IRA bombing in Enniskillen in 1987. Interviewed by the BBC shortly after her death, he said: “She held my hand tightly and held me as tight as she could. She said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the very last words she said to me. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge to those who did this. Dirty talk won’t bring her back. She’s dead. One day we will meet again in heaven. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” His words of forgiveness were to have an extraordinary impact in Northern Ireland, challenging the spiral of violence and counter-violence, and showing republicans a human face of loyalism that was to turn them away from IRA support. As the Independent newspaper recognised on his death, his words and acts of forgiveness helped to initiate a change of heart within Sinn Fein and the IRA that eventually led to the Good Friday peace accord and the end to violence in Northern Ireland.
When we look at life through the lens of Christ’s forgiveness of us, we too can find the grace to forgive others, that may unlock the door to healing and peace.
A third area of our lives that Jesus touches on in these collected sayings is faith. He says, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.” Mustard seeds of course are miniscule. They are the size of a full stop on a printed page, so small they are easy to miss. Jesus’ point is that what is important is not having great faith, but having faith in a great God.
We can sometimes say, can’t we, “I don’t have great faith”, as if the prayers we pray are dependent on how much we believe. If I can somehow summon up enough faith, then maybe God will answer me. Well, if Jesus was trying to find an example of the smallness of faith, he could not have chosen anything smaller, and yet even faith that small can make a difference. For the question is not how big our faith is, but in whom our faith is in. Sometimes we can think that our faith is about sheer will-power – if I believe hard enough it will happen – but to think that is ultimately to place faith in ourselves, not God.
Jesus calls us to place our faith, no matter how tiny, in him. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who brought alongside his father the universe into being, the one who will bring justice and peace to the world at the end of time. He is the one who has shown us perfect compassion and love, the one who has given everything for us. When we place our faith in him, it doesn’t matter how small our faith is. He will do the rest.
I know that many of us here are going through challenging and difficult times, whether at home or work, whether because of illness, bereavement, or the caring for others that can be so demanding. When our faith seems tiny and fragile, do not despair. Focus on Christ, who he is, and place the fragile faith that you have in him.
And finally, Jesus speaks of how a servant would not expect their master to wait on them and feed them their food, but would expect that it is their duty to serve their master first, and eat food themselves afterwards. When we look at the world through the lens of Christ, and see the greatness, the holiness, the love of God, then we will automatically want to do things and serve him. We will not be serving God thinking, “because I have done this, I should receive some blessing”, or “because I have done this I should be thanked and praised.” It will be just a natural thing for us to want to do as we recognise the greatness of God.
I was struck the other day by how much I feel I need thanks. One of my children – which one shall remain nameless – had forgotten their packed lunch and so I cycled over to their school and handed it in. It was a bit of an inconvenience but I enjoyed the half-hour’s exercise and I was pleased to feel I could do something for them. However, when they came home, I found myself getting increasingly grumpy and peeved. “Why couldn’t they say thank you?” (In fact they had, but I just didn’t hear them). The inconvenience in my mind began to grow bigger; the fact that I had enjoyed helping began to get forgotten. I wanted thanks. I wanted recognition.
Giving of our time, giving of our skills, giving of our money, is not done for reward. It is done because God is worthy of such service. It is nice to receive thanks, but it is not why we do it. In the words of Isaac Watts’ wonderful hymn:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
May God help us to look at life through the lens of Christ that we may live lives of holiness, forgiveness, faith and service.