4th Sunday after Epiphany (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, January 28, and Sunday, January 29, 2006
Her name is Jade. I met her while on my vicarage, my internship year at a church in California. She was a junior high student in our church’s day school, and I caused her to stumble. I don’t mean I literally tripped her, making her fall on the sidewalk. I caused her to stumble in her faith, stumble as she learned about God.
Jade’s mother had placed her in our Lutheran day school for the extra attention in small classes so that she might be able to improve her grades. That was probably more important to Jade’s mother than the fact that there would be daily religion class, chapels, and other Christian teaching. Jade’s mother probably also didn’t realize that the religion class would be taught by Vicar Ben, an intern with no experience in the classroom.
I struggled those first days of school with teaching this 7th and 8th grade religion class, because the students kept talking and not listening. I had this great plan about all of the things we’d study together, but I knew nothing about how to handle the classroom. I made a seating chart, separating the talkers, and grew a little frustrated with them that first week.
On one of these first days of school, after I had finished teaching the religion class, Jade came up to me and apologized that she was talking to Stefanie during class. Jade told me how everything about Christianity was new to her; that she had never gone to church before. She didn’t know anything about the Bible, and during class, she was just talking to Stefanie because she was asking Stefanie to help her find things in the Bible.
That was the first time I caused Jade to stumble. I breezed into that religion class, made assumptions about what the students already knew and understood, told them to take out their Bibles and open up to the Gospel of Mark, and I never even paused to wonder if any of the students wouldn’t understand what I meant. I never paused to find out what the students already knew. I just started talking about a God, a Bible, and a faith that was completely new, strange, and bewildering to Jade.
I did just what Paul says not to do in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians—I was insensitive to someone weak in the faith. In fact, Jade was very, very new to the Christian faith, and I didn’t pay careful enough attention to that. I caused her to stumble. When someone stumbles, they might fall. Paul warns us not to cause a fellow Christian to stumble, because when someone stumbles in the faith, they might just fall away from the faith altogether.
As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I knew a lot about God, but I had let that knowledge go to my head, making me feel self-important and was insensitive to Jade who didn’t know as much about God yet. If I had understood God’s love, I would have focused on building up Jade, rather than just trying to tell her and the class how much I knew about God. Instead, I caused Jade to stumble, and she might have fallen away from this new Christian faith of hers.
Meanwhile, Jade was afraid to talk in class. After all, the vicar was mad that the class wasn’t behaving. Jade was afraid, but still she wanted to know, she wanted to understand, she wanted to find the Gospel of Mark in the Bible. Jade was afraid, but one day after class, she built up her confidence, approached this vicar who didn’t seem to be paying attention to her needs, and she told me that she didn’t know what I was talking about. I had caused Jade to stumble, to feel like she didn’t belong, to feel like she wasn’t going to be able to find out about Jesus because she didn’t know where the Gospel of Mark was in her Bible. I had caused Jade to stumble, but the Holy Spirit gave her courage to tell me, to press on, and to keep searching.
The Holy Spirit used Jade to teach me, to convict me, to help me see how insensitive I was to someone weaker in the faith. As looked up at me with her inquisitive eyes, her sad little mouth, and her fearful way of having to tell me I was being insensitive, it broke my heart. As much as I had always said that I want to be a pastor to tell all people about Jesus, here I was almost chasing someone away from God. I apologized. I told her that I would try to help her, and that it was OK if she didn’t understand everything right away. I told her to ask Stefanie for help during class. I said that I was glad she was there, and I definitely wanted her to know about God’s love.
As the school year continued, Jade began to really do well in religion class. She started to really understand what the Bible is all about and who Jesus Christ is.
And I began to understand what Jade was going through in her life. She had never really known her father. She and her mother were living with her mother’s boyfriend who also had children. Part way through the year, her mother and her boyfriend broke up, and he moved out. Jade had a lot going on at home, and she needed compassion and comfort. She needed to be built up in love.
That fall we spent our class time talking about the Gospel of Mark. It tells about Jesus, His teaching, His death on the cross and His resurrection, being raised from the dead. I told my junior high class that they could find comfort in the book of Mark.
As we learned about the different events in the life of Jesus, we found comfort in knowing that Jesus had gone through a lot of terrible things so He knows what life is like for us. We could pray to Jesus knowing that He understands when we say, “Life is very difficult. I am sad, tired and having trouble.”
We also found comfort in knowing that Jesus said that our sins could be forgiven. God isn’t just keeping a long list of the things we did wrong so that He can keep us out of heaven. Instead, God says He will forgive us and throw out the whole long list. Because Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life again, we too will be raised to life again after we die.
Jade began to find that comfort for her own life. Jade, who at the beginning of the year had never heard about Jesus Christ, was now able to see that Jesus didn’t just teach us what was wrong with our lives. She knows that Jesus also taught us about forgiveness, and how we can come to Him and know that all of our mistakes are forgiven.
Jade started to learn all of this, started to learn about God’s commandments—what He wants for our lives—and about God’s forgiveness—how He won’t hold our sins against us because of Jesus dying on the cross. Jade started to learn all of this, and then I made another mistake that could’ve caused her to stumble, to question what I was teaching.
That year the youth group did the 30 Hour Fast, inviting the 7th and 8th graders from the day school to join us. Just like we’ve done here at Redeemer, the youth went without food for 30 hours to raise money for the hungry around the world. I had never done this before—never planned an event like this, never gone that long without food. In other words, I’m about to make another mistake.
I knew that after 24 hours we’d need a break in the afternoon to rest, so I told some of the youth to bring a movie that we could watch. We all stretched out on the floor, ready to just watch a movie, perhaps catch a little nap. I was really tired and was only half paying attention.
The movie the students chose to watch was Austin Powers—which actually is very inappropriate with its crude, sexual humor. Yet, I was too tired to do something about it. I let the group watch the movie, and only later when there was food in my body again and I was thinking clearly, only then did I realize how much damage that movie could have done.
I didn’t think one movie could undo Jade’s faith, but I didn’t know if she was strong enough in her faith to realize that just because we watched that movie didn’t mean that I approved what it was about. Austin Powers wasn’t going to change my faith in God and my belief that we need to follow God’s commandments in our lives. Yet, I started to wonder if this experience would cause Jade to think differently.
Well, I apologized to the parents for letting the students watch Austin Powers. I talked a little about it in religion class, but all I could do was wait and see how it might affect Jade.
The year went on, and I kept getting in the way, stumbling over my own feet and words and potentially causing others to stumble in their faith. I’m telling you this story, because I’m guessing I’m not the only one in the room who has messed up in how they’ve handled being a Christian. I guess I thought if I told you about how I had made mistakes as witness of Christ, if I told you that sometimes in my life people haven’t always seen the love and truth of Christ, I guess I thought if I told you about this, you might see it in your own lives.
Who caused you to be turned off from the church? Maybe that person was like me—had good intentions, wanted you to know about God, was a sincere Christian, but made a mistake. Who has been turned off by how you handled your Christian faith? Maybe you’ve been like me—you mean well, you want others to know about Jesus, but sometimes you just don’t speak about it in the right way, sometimes your actions don’t match what you’re trying to say, and someone stumbled because of that.
In religion class, I kept telling the class that they would find comfort in the Gospel of Mark, but I started to worry that Jade wasn’t going to think it was such a comforting book. We were going through the book, chapter by chapter, and we were coming to chapter 10 where Jesus teaches about divorce. Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” This is a hard teaching: God does not like divorce. This was going to be a hard teaching for Jade to hear—Jade, whose mother was divorced, whose father wasn’t involved in her life, whose mother was living with her boyfriend who was also divorced. I was concerned that this passage would cause Jade to stumble, to question whether God really loved her.
Thanks to the Holy Spirit, though, this time I thought through how I was going to handle the situation. How could I teach that Jesus thinks divorce is a sin without making Jade feel like God hates her parents? I told the class that divorce is adultery, because God intends marriage to last the rest of our lives. Yet, divorce is permitted if there’s abuse, an affair, or neglect. Jesus wants us to understand, however, that divorce is still a sin. In some cases, though, we may have to choose that sin over another sin which would have worse consequences. And always, always, always, we are forgiven by the grace of Jesus Christ.
I left class that day worried that Jade’s inquisitive little eyes would be hurt and would turn away from God. I was teaching God’s Word, His knowledge, but this time I was trying to do it in love, trying to build up Jade and her classmates, instead of just dumping information on them. I was worried that Jade would be hurt, but I couldn’t tell until I got back her worksheet from that day’s assignment.
While going through the Gospel of Mark in class, we were working on writing a commentary, a little book written by the class that explains what different sections of Mark mean. The assignments asked the students to write paragraphs to put in this book. When I got Jade’s assignment back, I knew whether I had caused her to stumble again or not.
Jade wrote, “The section of Mark about divorce gives me comfort, because my parents have been divorced. The reason it gives me comfort is because I know my parents will both be forgiven for their sin. It also gives me comfort, because it stated that God will always forgive us.”
By the power of the Holy Spirit, this time I had taught Jade in a way that built her up in love rather than causing her to stumble. It’s very clear that on my own I taught in a way that made Jade feel uncomfortable, nervous, scared, and turned off by religion class where she was learning about Jesus. However, with God stepping in to change me, to change me into someone focused on showing His love to build up Jade, Jade then could hear a difficult passage in Scripture, a passage that pointed out a very personal sin in her life, and yet, she was still able to see that God was giving her comfort.
Jade experienced the love of God. Jesus isn’t just some distant god who has no understanding of how difficult her life is. Jesus knows that Jade’s life is hard, that she has gone through some very emotional trials, that she does not always understand why her parents are divorced or why her mom broke up with her boyfriend. Jesus knows what it is like to be a teenager, to be growing and changing, to be made fun of, to go through tough days, because He has been through it too. Jade found a comfort in the book of Mark and in Jesus. That comfort was completely new to her and not found anywhere else in her life. That comfort came from knowing that Jesus loves her and will forgive her and take her to be with Him for eternity.
That’s the same comfort I needed when I thought about how I had caused Jade to stumble, how I had potentially chased her away from God. I needed the comfort, forgiveness, and love of Jesus for my sin. That’s the same comfort that you need as you think of the times that you’ve caused people to stumble in their faith. They asked you about Jesus, and you only told them that God hates sin but didn’t tell them about God’s love. Someone knew you were a Christian, they also wanted to be a Christian, but then they got confused when they saw you treat a friend harshly. When you realize that you’ve caused someone to stumble in their faith, the Gospel that Jade found is the comfort you need also. Jesus loves you, forgives you, and will take you to be with Him for eternity. Jesus will always, always, always forgive our sins. Jesus died on the cross for all of your sins—even the sin of causing someone to stumble in their faith.
Jesus forgives me for not paying attention to Jade at first; Jesus forgives me for Austin Powers. And Jesus will forgive you for the times when you cause others to stumble.
The last I heard Jade went on to ask to be in Confirmation class and became a member of the church. That is all thanks to the Holy Spirit who taught Jade about the love and forgiveness of Jesus despite a young vicar who kept getting in the way.