Stumbling Blocks

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September 30, 2018. Jon Heerboth preaches on Philippians 1:18. We may have many points of view about our best way forward here at Christ Lutheran. Our agreement though should be just like Paul said. “What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.”


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If I were in a classroom instead of in a church today, I would say that we’re going to have a brief review here before we start the lesson for today. Last week we heard Jesus explain that he would be put to death, and three days later he would rise again. But the disciples didn’t know what he was talking about. They didn’t understand him and they were afraid to ask, so instead they were arguing about who of them was the greatest. Jesus sat them down and explained that whoever wanted to be first must be last of all and servant of all, and then he picked up a small child and held the child in his arms and said that whoever welcomed the child welcomed Jesus, and the one who sent Jesus.


Now, in today’s gospel Jesus is still holding the child. He still has the child in his arms while he’s talking with his disciples. But John interrupted Jesus to report that some other healer had been casting out demons in the name of Jesus. The disciples went and told him to stop it because he was not one of them. “You can’t use Jesus’ name unless you’re one of us,” they said. Now you can imagine the disciples gathering around Jesus closely to hear what he had to say about this. Jesus began to speak, but he could see that they weren’t getting it. He had to make his point three times. “Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to soon afterwards speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Jesus had to work hard to make that point to the disciples, but it’s a point that we need to hear as well.


We are used to hearing phrases like, “If you’re not for me you’re against me.” Pro or con. X or not x. No middle ground. The problem is that this kind of thinking excludes so many people, and Jesus turns it on its head: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Just the opposite of the way we often think. With these words, Jesus moves us from excluding people to being inclusive, from suspicion to welcome, from left out to invited in. The love of Jesus and the power of God can cut through this “friend or foe” thinking, so that we can welcome almost everyone into our fold.


My dad related his experience years ago, before Lutherans were talking about working together as church bodies. It was 1949, just four years after the end of World War II, when my parents arrived in Sapporo, Japan to begin their careers as missionaries. Shortly after they arrived, Dad and his good friend Paul were invited to a prayer group of Japanese Christians. Dad said they really wanted to attend the meeting, but they were troubled and a little worried because none of the attendees was Lutheran, and they were not permitted to pray with people of other denominations. Dad and Paul decided that they would attend the prayer meeting, but they were worried that a very strict colleague might create a problem for them by reporting to the mission board in St. Louis. So, Dad and Paul went and they were introduced to a group of Japanese Christians. Dad said that each one introduced himself with a name and his former Christian denomination. “I am of Baptist antecedent.” “I am of Methodist antecedent.” “I am of Roman Catholic antecedent,” and so forth. Before World War II these Japanese Christians stayed with their denominational groups, but when the war started it turned out the secret police didn’t ask their denomination. They all got locked up together for the duration of the war. “When they came for us, they came because we were Christian.” Denomination became irrelevant to them. What mattered was that they all followed Jesus. The two missionaries learned what mattered and what didn’t.


Now, we worship here among like-minded Christians for the most part. We know we have a lot of work here to do at Christ and in the world at large. We would like to grow as a congregation. Our congregational leaders and our members have been looking at this growth from several directions. The monthly newsletters and weekly announcements remind us of how often we tie in with other Christians in our area and throughout the world. There are many opportunities here to work together for others and to bring others to Christ. Our doors are open and we hope they are welcoming. In addition, we have been thinking about how to improve our outreach by maintaining and improving our facilities.


Now the last thing we want to do is what Jesus warned us against in today’s gospel. We want to be open to all, and we do not want to place any stumbling blocks in the path of one of these little ones who believe. Now Jesus was speaking directly of a young child he was still holding in his arms during all of this, but you could substitute the child with anyone who feels like he doesn’t quite belong, any one of low social standing, anyone who’s felt like an outsider instead of an insider, anyone who is different and feels different and feels like they don’t belong with the rest of us. Jesus is talking about doing things that make other people feel unworthy, like somehow they are not good enough or their differences are somehow too great to receive salvation through their faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus has harsh words for them: a millstone, a big one, pulled by a donkey, tied around the neck, tossed into the sea for those who leave stumbling blocks.


Now it’s really easy to read through this and skip over those passages about millstones cutting off hands, feet, tearing out eyes, and just say that Jesus was exaggerating and move on. But if we do that we, miss the central point, that we don’t want to be the cause of anyone stumbling in faith. Jesus was still holding that small child. He was absolutely serious about stumbling blocks and coming judgment.


Do we want to hear the truth, that we could be the cause of someone tripping up in their discipleship, that we could be the cause of someone stumbling in his or her faith, that we could be the cause of someone questioning whether or not he or she is truly a critical and viable member of God’s kingdom. And we would rather blame someone else, or just conduct safe and secure demonstrations of faith, than take accountability for the ways in which we might have prevented others from living into their fullness as disciples, their fullness as children of God. We would like to assume that putting stumbling blocks in the ways of others is just a temporary misstep in their lives. We think they’ll quickly get back up on their feet and get over it. A nondescript, almost unnoticeable trip up along the way couldn’t lead to a lifelong trajectory, could it? Maybe we could convince ourselves of that. But yet, if we’re honest, we know that tripping over something, a little stumble can lead to a major fall, a fall from which it takes a very long time to recuperate, if ever. We learned that this week from watching the news, didn’t we? When we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God’s call, as they and only they can hear it and live it, we are essentially silencing them. “No,” said Jesus. “Don’t you dare.”


We do not want to feel that unquenchable fire. Now we will have many points of view here and differing opinions about our best way forward here at Christ. Our agreement though should be just like Paul said in Philippians, chapter 1. “What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice.”


We Christians here at Christ, and wherever our brothers or sisters gather on Sunday morning, are united in our desire to hear the word, pray together, and to gather at the Lord’s table. We don’t want to be salt that has lost its flavor, and we sure don’t want to be salted with fire. Our salt is from God. So let us all be at peace with one another.




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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jon Heerboth, Philippians 1:18