(A) Introduction. Read: Luke17v1to10

There are many sharp lessons for us in Luke's gospel and this passage is no exception. Most commentators are of the opinion that nothing links the sayings of Jesus in the verses under consideration. I beg to differ. I believe Jesus teaches us three lessons on faith.

(B) Hindrances to faith. Verses 1 to 4.

(1) A serious offence.

Jesus would hardly advocate putting a millstone round a person's neck and throwing him or her into the sea for a trivial offence. Jesus must be addressing a very serious matter to advocate such a draconian punishment.

(2) The nature of the offence.

Jesus was not referring to trivial sins when he said, "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. We all do foolish things sometimes that tempt Christians to gossip and pass unkind remarks. A better translation would be: "Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come." (After G.B. Caird.)

Jesus was warning his hearers not to put stumbling blocks to faith in the way of new disciples. We do this when our behaviour makes it harder for those immature in the faith, like the publicans and sinners, to make progress as Christians.

(3) How we can hinder faith.

My experience as a schoolteacher helped me to identify three ways:

    (a) By leaving mistakes uncorrected. Jesus said: "If your brother sins rebuke him."

    I would have been the worst kind of teacher if I failed correct my pupil's errors. An 'anything goes' attitude is most unhelpful to a student.

    My pupils made many, many mistakes. Some children committed minor offences, like failing to underline titles, over and over again. Often I only had to speak to a pupil once about a more serious misdemeanour. Emma, for example, was making lady members of staff twitchy by rolling about on the school field with her boyfriend. She stopped when I warned her that such behaviour meant she was in danger of losing the respect of her teachers.

    Immature Christians must be told what is appropriate and what is inappropriate conduct. My brother for instance needed to speak to a member of his church about being over-familiar with the ladies. Sometimes even experienced Christians have to be spoken to. Paul took Barnabas and Peter to task for their attitude to uncircumcised Gentile believers in Antioch. see exposition on Acts15v1to5

    It is never easy to rebuke a fellow Christian. Usually it needs to be done tactfully and graciously - but sometimes it has to be done forthrightly - as in the case of Paul and Peter.

    (b) By making it hard for a person to repent. It is hard to repent when:

    • Correction is harsh and oppressive. An ultra critical teacher who does nothing but moan, moan, moan, will just produce resentment and bitterness in his pupils. A telling off that is much fiercer than the fault merits will harden an offender's heart. There will be no repentance and no change in attitude and conduct.

      There are Christians who are always having a go at the younger, immature element in their churches. They condemn them for: being late, noisy before the service starts, making a mess and never clearing it up, wearing casual clothes, clapping during the hymn singing and so on. A highly censorious attitude may prove a very real stumbling block to some immature believers.

    • Humiliated. A teacher who humiliates a pupil for making a mistake may never be forgiven. I hope I never did this often in my career - but I did it once with disastrous consequences. My relationship with a girl deteriorated catastrophically because I deliberately made her look foolish. The girl certainly never repented of her mistake - she took umbrage and gave up Geography.

      We should never humiliate a fellow Christian. I knew a believer, an Irishman, who used to swear like a trooper whenever he got excited. A young fellow in his church used to delight in stirring him up and provoking a foul mouthed outburst. He thought it was funny. I'm sure Jesus did not find it amusing! We all find it difficult to overcome our weaknesses. Anyone who humiliates us over our weaknesses puts a stumbling block in our way. Plenty of people drop out of the church because they get discouraged.

    (c) By lacking forbearance. Jesus said: "If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."

    A schoolteacher does have to show a great deal of forbearance. Small boys and girls need to be forgiven for the same offence over and over again. Even older pupils can be serial offenders! I had a pupil, Rachel, who could not stop talking when I was teaching. I told her about it over and over again!! She would say, "But I am just discussing what you have said with my friend." I think she was because Rachel turned out to be an excellent Geographer - but how I needed to exercise forbearance. I taught boys who repeatedly shouted out answers, looked out of the classroom window, handed in homework late and yawned.

    Most teachers know that if someone makes an attempt to improve, their past mistakes shouldn't be held against them. Every effort must be made to encourage improvement and build confidence. Pupils do not forget those teachers who put them down! I heard Delia Smith talking on TV about her old headmistress who told her, "Delia, if you try really hard you might just get a job as a secretary." The famous TV cook did not take it as a compliment!

    Some Christians show very little forbearance - make one mistake and you are condemned for life! They are no better than old Harry Laflin who never let my father drive a tractor again after backing one into the ditch. I have preached at several Grace Baptist churches - ONCE. If something is wrong about a man's preaching why doesn't the offended church get in touch with him and give him the opportunity of putting it right. But that is not how it is done - because Christian show far less forbearance than the average state school teacher. They take the easy way out and decide, "We shan't have him again!"

(4) Conclusion.

It is a serious offence to hinder a pupil's progress in school. How much more serious to be a stumbling-block to those young in the faith - to stunt a believer's spiritual growth or, at worst, cause such disillusionment that a brother leaves the church.

(C) Achievements of Faith.

(1) A wrong attitude to faith.

The apostles did not think much of Jesus' teaching on forgiveness! In their opinion forgiving people for repeatedly making the same mistakes was too difficult. So they put the onus back on Jesus by saying: "Increase our faith." If the Master gave them a great big dollop of faith then, perhaps, they would be able to do what he wanted. But this is not how we get more faith!

(2) The history of faith

Jesus knew that great faith has a history:

    (a) It starts small. "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed .... ." v6.

    Only a small amount of faith is needed to get started on a project. There are many examples in the Bible of this. Moses, notwithstanding his encounter with God at the burning bush, had very little faith that he would bring God's people out of Egypt. But he had just enough faith to set out to meet his brother Aaron who had left Egypt to meet him. Gideon did not respond very positively to the angel's greeting: "The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour. Judges11v12. AV He had just about enough faith to destroy his father's altar to Baal and cut down the adjacent Asherah pole - after dark. Nehemiah did not have a great deal of faith that he would be able to anything about the walls of Jerusalem. When king Artaxerxes asked him why he was looking miserable Nehemiah confessed: "Then I was very sore afraid." Ne2v1. AV But Nehemiah had sufficient faith to explain to the king why he was sad.

    (b) It grows stronger with exercise. Faith is exercised as we continue in and develop the work God gives us to do. Moses' faith grew as he battled with Pharaoh. Gideon's faith increased as he first collected and then reduced the size of his army. Nehemiah's faith blossomed after he travelled to Jerusalem and commenced the work of rebuilding.

    (c) It grows even stronger with testing. The faith of Moses became stronger and stronger as he overcame with God's help one setback after another. Gideon's faith increased as his army got smaller and smaller. Nehemiah's faith positively thrived as he nullified all the efforts of his enemies to thwart the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

(3) The accomplishment of faith.

Jesus said: "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." v6. By this Jesus mean't that what begins as little faith has the potential to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

It didn't seem possible that the Jewish slaves would march out of Egypt - but they did! It didn't seem possible that the broken down walls of Jerusalem would ever be rebuilt - but they were! It didn't seem possible that fearful Gideon could under any circumstances defeat the Midianite hordes - but he did.

That is how it is! A man or a woman commences a project with a little faith and revivals are born, missions are founded and charities set up. The founding and growth of the Savalvation Army was a triumph of faith - as was the establishment of the hospice movement in Britain. On the 13th Jan 2010 BBC Songs of Praise featured Henrietta Barnett. Her life illustrates the extraordinary achievements of faith - from the creation of Hampstead Garden Suburb to the setting up of Toynbee Hall. See article on Henrietta Barnett

(D) Obligation of faith

Faith or belief in Jesus is exhibited in service; the work we do for him. We are obliged to put the interests of Christ before our own. This is the purport of the story Jesus told to illustrate the relationship between master and servant.

Our conditions of service involve:

(1) A lot of effort. "Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep ... .

Christians are expected to work hard for Jesus. Our work does not have to be academic or creative; it can be practical and mundane. One of the visiting speakers to our church at Brockley in Suffolk, Mr Maurice Wade, told us about a lady who used to attend the Fellowship of Youth house parties. She was slightly mentally handicapped and earned her living by washing up in a London restaurant. She did exactly the same work for Jesus on house party.

(2) Deferred gratification. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat: Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink.'"

There are pleasures we must forego or defer in order to serve Jesus as we should. I always admired those Christians who gave up their annual summer holiday to work at Pioneer Camp - a Christian holiday camp for young people that I attended. It wasn't so bad for me as I had six weeks holiday but for someone with only two it was a considerable sacrifice. But the sacrifice was worth it because at those camps boys and girls were saved.

I was a very, very keen cricketer. I loved to play for my club in all sorts of competitions - but to the considerable amazement of my fellow sportsmen I would never play cricket - however prestigious the match - on a Tuesday evening - the evening of our prayer meeting. I have to say I was never even tempted. It is not something that Jesus will commend me for - it was my reasonable service.

(3) Carrying on for long periods without thanks, recognition or reward. "Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do." v9.

We have to accept that we will engage in some forms of Christian service over many years without much reward. This is particularly true of prayer. My dear old Grandfather Reed prayed for his brother in Ipswich Asylum for 40 years before he saw him released whole and in his right mind. I may have 100 people a day access my website but I often go two months without any feedback whatsoever. Jesus does not expect me to give me up!

I am a great fan of the United States comedy series M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.) I very much enjoyed the episode when Father Mulcahy (the chaplain) learns that a cardinal is going to visit the hospital. He was desperate to make a good impression. He tried to get the staff to stop drinking, gambling and swearing - without much success. He grew increasingly edgy and irritable.

The night Father Mulcahy sat trying to prepare an eloquent sermon to please the cardinal he got called away to a soldier who had just been informed he had leukaemia. Hawkeye Pierce, the surgeon, wanted to send the soldier to hospital in Tokyo but he was unwilling to go. The man wanted to stay with a severely wounded comrade - to be there for him - and help with his recovery.

In the end Father Mulcahy did not deliver his prepared sermon. He spoke, instead, about two men - one preoccupied with himself who hoped his efforts would be recognised - who hoped for some appreciation, a pat on the back from the cardinal - and another man with a sentence of death hanging over him who wasn't thinking of himself; a man who put the interests of a wounded comrade before his own; a man who was prepared to serve a fellow soldier in his need without thought for himself; a man who expected no thanks for doing what was right.

(4) Cheerfully and humbly accepting the conditions of service. "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have done our duty.'" v10.

There is something refreshing - life-affirming and heartening - about hard-working, dedicated, humble, cheerful and, yes even, joyful Christian workers.

We should not serve Jesus for glory, for a pat on the back or for recognition or reward. We should just be glad to be of service - to have done our duty.

I went to a funeral a couple of weeks ago of an old colleague - Fred Styles. He was a lovely man - a fine teacher and loyal colleague. He was the sort of teacher who gives the profession a good name. During the last five years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer's disease. But he had a great asset - a loving daughter who cared for him. She did her duty by her father without thought of reward. It is in that spirit that we should serve Jesus - our Saviour and Lord.