Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/ZkOFYg0Fo8U.
On this final Sunday I could have wished for a lovely bit of narrative that I would have enjoyed preaching on so much, but here we have one of the most difficult bits of teaching from Jesus. Three years ago I preached about faith from the second half of the passage and I will send that off to be put up on the website so that you can refresh your memories. But today, as I reflect on the end of my ministry among you, I want to tackle the extremely difficult area of “causing another to stumble”.
What does Jesus mean by this? Well, I think we all stumble, have difficulty, come up against things in our lives that cause us to make wrong choices, or feel very down, or even give up for a time. And Jesus says that these things are bound to come. The human condition is both one of joy and one of difficulty- that is the paradox of human existence. “But woe to anyone by whom they come,” Jesus says. “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard!” What a terrible threat that is.
I think that in the nature of our life together we often bump against each other inadvertently and cause a little stumble, but I don’t think that every one of those occasions are of the order to result in a terrible punishment. However, if you are a church leader, lay or ordained, and you wittingly, and intentionally cause a situation that diminishes someone else then that may be what Jesus is talking about. As I was thinking about this I remembered a man- ordained a priest, who refused to go to the hospital to baptise a dying baby because the family were not “Christians” by his reckoning. Someone else went, but by the time they got there the baby had died. The man who refused those parents in their moment of need surely caused them to stumble and I do think that perhaps he will be called to account for it. He will reply to God, just as he did to me when I asked him about it, that he was doing the right thing by God and the church, because baptising the child of an unbeliever would be wrong! I have to say, I disagreed with him profoundly. He did it with complete conviction of his rightness, and that is one of the great dangers of Christian ministry. This is why Jesus says, “Be on your guard,” as it is incredibly easy, particularly when taking the higher moral ground, to cause a brother or sister to stumble. It is a great temptation to allow yourself to dislike, speak against and even vilify someone when you are sure that you are right and they are wrong, however this is exactly what Jesus tells us to guard against.
Take for example the current debate about same sex marriage. Within the Christian church there are a range of opinions from a very definite belief that homosexuality is a sin, and marriage is only between a man and a woman, and therefore that we cannot support the legalisation of same sex marriage, to people at the other end of the spectrum, who believe with their whole being that God loves all, that God is the creator of all, and that it is good and right to marry homosexual couples. Both sides of the debate claim that there is a scriptural basis for their position. I saw a great article, just the other day, written by the Archbishop of Wales, setting out a scriptural support for same sex marriage. He thinks he is right, but then so do the others who say that the bible condemns it. The problem is that we can only read the bible through the lens of our own experience and prejudices, and whichever position we take on such issues potentially causes someone else to stumble.
So how do we see that in terms of having a millstone tied around our neck and being thrown into the sea? I don’t really know. But I do think that there are two clues in the passage. The first is that Jesus makes the point that these, “occasions for stumbling are bound to come”. This is part of being in the body of Christ together, and while you should never intentionally cause the stumble of another, you will by the very nature of living. The other clue is, I think, Jesus’ use of the phrase, “little ones” by which I believe that he means the more vulnerable part of society and also of course the “weaker” members of our church.
The problem is twofold. The first aspect is that sometimes people, for the best of motives, make huge mistakes and can cause a dramatic fall rather than a small stumble. I recollect another incident when a minister encouraged a woman to return to her abusive husband because it said clearly in the bible that the only ground for divorce was adultery. That he was violent was not a ground for divorce in this literalists mind. If that woman had been killed by her husband, (which she wasn’t because she ignored the well meaning instruction from her minister and escaped), it would have been a more than a stumble, wouldn’t it? And it would have been caused by the best of motives- the minister didn’t want her to sin by leaving her husband. And if, when she left her husband, she then felt that she had acted wrongly in biblical terms, she would have been caused to stumble, as well.
The second problem is the dilemma that I myself have faced here in this congregation. And that is the tension between doing what is right by one person or group and thereby causing someone else to stumble in their Christian life. In my support for refugees, which I believe with all my heart is both biblical and essential as a Christian, I have caused a number of you to stumble, and if I were to cease supporting the social justice agenda because some people didn’t like it, it would cause another, much larger, group to stumble. These two examples both done quite intentionally, first by the minister, who had in mind the moral welfare, however misplaced, of a woman in his congregation, or secondly done by me, the social justice advocate, may have caused others to stumble. So as Christian leaders what do we do? Say nothing and do nothing? Well, then we would not be leaders, would we?
One of the difficulties is that people are at different stages of their spiritual journey. We all have our own experiences and have been taught by a variety of persons so we have differing ideas and opinions. The Christian life would be very easy if what we had was a blueprint and an instruction manual to go with it. But, instead we have the example of one man, told to us by four different people, all from their different view points, and a library of books, written over a very long time period, by diverse individuals and even groups, edited and translated and filtered through our personal and current world view. That is why there are so very many disagreements as to what “the bible says” and what we are to do in response. It is easy to cause others to stumble intentionally and unintentionally. And it is also true that what is good for one sometimes has a less good effect on another.
In our life together as Christians the problem of hurting one another can only be mitigated by unreserved repentance and an equally generous forgiveness. Any of us who intentionally cause someone to stumble must be repentant, apologise and be forgiven. Jesus says to us that we must forgive a person seven times in the same day, if they say that they repent. This is another big ask, isn’t it? To forgive and forgive and forgive again, but that is how the Christian life works. We are called upon to be as generous and as gracious as God, God’s-self. We must forgive the repentant brother or sister unconditionally, just as God does.
But what about the unrepentant person? What about the minister who quite intentionally gave what I think was the wrong and very dangerous advice, and would do so again, because he believes that it is what the bible teaches? Or the priest that also believes that the bible teaches that she must continue to advocate for others and is quite unrepentant about it? Well, perhaps in both cases the person might apologise for causing someone to stumble, even if they cannot apologise for what they have said or done. Even when we are quite sure that we are right, to acknowledge that others don’t agree and may be hurt, is the gracious thing to do, isn’t it? And so, let me apologise for causing some of you to stumble as you were confronted by my convictions.
And if we, as a Christian community can be caring and concerned for others on the one hand and generous in response on the other, instead of being at each other’s throats, we will be, as Christ says, showing that we are Christians by our love. Sadly, that is not always evident in our response to each other. If we take for example the debate within the Christian community over same sex marriage, we have seen and will see in the near future a lot of angry and unforgiving words mixed into the quite legitimate debate. There will be a lot of stumbling going on and I pray that we might be able to both apologise and generously forgive.
And for you, facing a new phase in the life of the congregation, there will be adjustments and accommodations necessary. Your new priest, whoever that might be, will surely cause some of you to stumble, and indeed some of you will cause him or her to stumble as well and in the journey you undertake together as the body of Christ there will be disagreements, and difficulties. Let me encourage you to take Jesus’ words very seriously and to both repent when you have caused others to stumble and forgive when you have been offended. The thing to remember is that God values each of us, God loves each of us, and God forgives every single one of us and has generously poured out his grace in Christ Jesus.
“And they will know you are Christians by your love.” This is my prayer for your future at St Mary in the Valley.