Our church has been in the Gospel of Luke for an entire year. We started in Advent of 2020 and just kept going. We did skip ahead during Lent and Easter 2021 to synch with the cross and resurrection, then went right back to where we were. Now we’ve nearly finished, having completed roughly 50 sermons in Luke. I know, I know, it’s not really what they recommend in these days of shortened attention spans and topical sermon series. Still, it feels like something special that we have been saturated in the gospel story for this long.
Each week when I do my sermon prep, I try to translate the text from the Greek. And I do mean try. Reality means stumbling through the Greek New Testament while it sits right next to an open NIV. I was only an average Greek student when I was working constantly at it in seminary…which is now 25 years ago. Nevertheless, in honor of my mentor and Greek professor, Dr. Cullen Story, I persevere. Dr. Story was actually retired when I arrived at school, but he had consented to teaching a class here and there, so I was lucky to get him. We struck up a friendship. He prayed for our kids, wrote them letters and delighted in seeing them face to face. He even came down to the gym a few times with me and shot hoops. We played H-O-R-S-E, which he of course insisted I spell in Greek. I-P-P-O-S.
So this week in worship we were at the beginning of Luke 17. Jesus is speaking to the disciples. It’s a training session for them as leaders. What is life in the community of faith going to look like? That’s when my pseudo-translation work paid off. The NIV begins with Jesus’ words, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come,” but that translation is a little soft. What it literally says is: “It is impossible for scandals not to come!” That’s the word. Impossible.
Hey, you church leaders, guess what? The Church will not only stumble but be scandalized. It will be flawed. It’s unavoidable. It will at times be awkward, uncomfortable, broken or scandalized. It will happen. Imagine using that as a recruiting pitch when you invite someone to visit your church. What a pitch! “Our church is amazing! Flawed. Uncomfortable. Broken. Inevitable scandals. You really should come check it out!”
But there’s something refreshingly real life about this. Stuff is going to happen, among the people of Jesus. Threats to the life of the community. Situations, schisms, personality conflicts, theological disputes. Some will catch us off guard. Some we will probably cause. This is messy work. I think it’s on my mind right now because:
a) I spent time with a group of younger pastors recently on a retreat, and wow…some of the church stories that were told through tears and exasperation and desperate laughter. Lack of trust, sexuality, a dearth of leaders, immaturity, on and on.
b) I spent time with another group of church leaders in my local area, most struggling with the continuing Covid saga, in uncharted waters as they try to keep their communities together, figure out who has moved or who is staying home watching livestream, and how to care for people they can’t see in-person.
c) Every church I have been at has driven me to my knees, feeling inadequate for any number of challenges. How many times have I empathized with Moses telling God that Aaron should lead the people because he himself wasn’t qualified?
“It is impossible for scandals not to come,” Jesus said. I think that’s right, inevitably and yet by our own choosing. If we need more evidence, we look to our media. Nearly every Jesus follower I know has listened to at least some of Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcasts. And if not, they have certainly read “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart” by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic Monthly. Our beloved Body of Christ continues to shoot itself in the foot at every turn. Wrong priorities, tainted hearts, weak theology, falling leaders futilely substituting politics and nationalism for faith in a culture that celebrates every failure. Scandals all around us. What does a pastor, a leader, a Jesus follower do to try and guide the Church?
It’s at this point in Luke 17 Jesus makes what was surely a gigantic tactical mistake. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” In teaching his disciples how to navigate in the community of faith, he brings up all the words I doubt were very popular in his day, but I know for a fact are steadfastly avoided in ours: Sin. Rebuke. Repentance. Forgiveness. How dated. Tired Boomer-language. Old-fashioned. But Jesus speaks the simple gospel to his followers, from painful start to glorious finish, Creation-Fall-Redemption-Completion. Nothing new here. Not glamorous or sexy or fame-producing or innovative or cutting edge. He just tells people the Truth. And then he lives–and dies–it in front of them.
We know the gospel. We have the great privilege of speaking it. And we live it out, dying here and there along the way because we are broken people serving in the midst of broken people. In the Church of Jesus Christ. Stay with it. We are not alone.
Peace of Christ, Dan Baumgartner
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.