The Glove of Willie Mays
Surely you've seen the video of Willie Mays' play in center field. What a nice glove he had on his hand. Fine leather, strong stitching, broken in just right. No wonder they still show that play decades after. You just don't see baseball gloves like that around today. Of course, what I'm saying is nonsense. They don't show the video of Willie Mays' famous play in center field because of his glove but because of the fact he caught the ball. They show the play because of what ended up in the glove not because of the glove. Sports fans would consider you a fool if you talked about Willie Mays' over-the-back catch of the ball and focused on how nice his glove was. Yet, Christians are prone to making a similar mistake when talking and thinking about their religion. This is what is going on in our text.
The text opens with Jesus preaching the Law specifically to His disciples. He tells them 3 commands. First, our bulletin tells us Jesus says, "Don't cause people to sin." But the word "sin" isn't there in Greek. Literally, Jesus says, "Don't be a death trap for people." Jesus uses the Greek word for the part of an animal trap that springs it. Think of the place you put the cheese on a mouse trap. Jesus isn't warning them about causing people to sin but about causing people to fall away from Christ because sinning itself isn't a death trap, but falling away from Christ is. False teaching is the primary way someone is led away from Christ because it puts before people a Christ who doesn't really exist.
Second Jesus commands them to rebuke a brother in Christ who sins. Don't say, "Who am I to correct him?" Don't pretend you don't know. Don't act as if it doesn't really matter. Don't make believe it's not your responsibility. If you see your brother or sister in Christ caught up in sin, you must rebuke them; you must call them to repentance. You must break once and for all with the most prevalent sin of our society: tolerance. That is, we should all accept one another's sins since we are all sinners. Jesus says, "No, you must rebuke each other."
The third thing Jesus commands us to do is to "forgive brothers who sin against you often." We are not to do like parents do to kids. We are not to say to brothers and sisters who have wronged us repeatedly, "Well sorry isn't good enough." Sorry is to be good enough. As often as they repent, that's how often we are to forgive.
Let me put what Jesus is doing here in terms of the opening illustration. Jesus is setting before His disciples how difficult it is to catch a ball. It is coming hard, fast, and carried by the wind. Actually, what Jesus is saying is: it is impossible to catch the ball. And do you know how the disciples respond? They ask for a bigger glove.
The disciples are as stunned as we are at the demands of discipleship. Jesus doesn't say, "Try not to be a death trap." He says, "Don't under any circumstances be one unless you think you can float with a millstone around your neck." Nor does He say, "Disciples SHOULD rebuke their brothers who sin. He says they MUST. And the same goes for forgiving repeat sinners. Jesus doesn't say make an effort, but do it. No forgiving of brothers, no being a disciple. Likewise, no rebuking the sins of brothers, no being a disciple, and if you're a death trap, you can't be a disciple, and you're going to be swimming with a millstone.
So, tell me how are you doing with these 3 commands? About as well as the disciples in the text. They felt stunned and hopeless as you do now, so they did what we often do. They tell Jesus they need more faith. If they just had more faith they could avoid being a death trap, rebuke sinning brothers, and forgive repeat offenders. How often as a pastor, I've heard someone lament, "I wish my faith was stronger." But dear friend, that's like saying, "I wish I had a bigger glove." Would having a bigger glove make you catch like Willie Mays did? Faith like a baseball glove receives, it catches. Faith is judged not by how big it is but by what it catches. People don't talk about the catch of Willie Mays because his glove was so nice but because the ball he caught saved the game.
The disciples are just like you. When they hear the impossible demands of discipleship, they think what they need is more faith. They think like you do: they don't have enough faith; they need a bigger faith like so and so has. They need to believe harder and more. But hear well what Jesus says. He says, "No." O shout this from the mountain tops! Trumpet it in the streets! Engrave this on your hearts! The disciples say, "Increase our faith," and Jesus says, "No!"
In his response Jesus speaks of faith as small as a mustard seed. He is condescending to us poor, miserable sinners. He's looking at this the way we do. Jesus knows we look inside of our hearts especially in times of doubt and crises. He knows we look there and see faith as a tiny, small thing. A mustard seed is about the size of the head of a pin. One is taped inside your bulletin. We see this tiny faith, and conclude, "If I don't have more or bigger faith, I'm lost." Jesus, however, says, "That is enough." Faith the size of a mustard see uproots a mulberry tree, which is as much below the ground as it is above, and plants it (not just throws it) in the sea so that it grows. When you see inside you nothing but a mustard seed sized faith, not to worry, that's enough to do the impossible.
How it that? Why is that? Because the tiniest amount of faith in Christ apprehends, receives, catches, all of Christ. If Willie Mays had had an old glove, a dirty glove, a small glove, it would not have mattered as long as he had the ball. The glove he had on illustrates faith; the ball illustrates all the benefits of Christ. Our glove, our faith, may be no bigger than a mustard seed, but it receives all that Christ did. Christ went to the death trap of the cross because we are death traps. Christ died the death of a sinner because we don't rebuke sinful brothers and sisters. Christ suffered as one not forgiven because we withhold forgiveness from others. The tiniest Holy Spirit created faith receives all of that, and that is enough to save you for all eternity.
Actually, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's recap where we've been. The text begins with Jesus preaching the Law; He tells them if they want to be His disciple they've got to catch this hard hit fly ball rocketing their way. The disciples respond with "increase our faith," that is, give us a bigger glove. Jesus then says, "There is no need to; the tiniest of gloves is big enough." But there is more Gospel here. Jesus goes on to say, "Look, you already have the ball."
The ball, as I was saying, is the grace, the forgiveness, the victory, the payment Christ won on the cross. Jesus tells them in this text, "You have the ball," but that's probably hard for you to see. He tells them a parable about a man with a slave who comes in from the field after a working all day. Jesus says no master tells the slave to sit down and eat first, but he tells him, "Prepare my supper; wait on me; after that you may eat and drink." The bulletin then says, "Would he THANK the servant because he did what he was told to do?" The word "thank" isn't there; the word "grace" is. Jesus says no master has grace toward his slave because of his works.
Dear friends, the Lord Jesus doesn't have grace toward us because we do as we are commanded. He is not gracious to us because we are never death traps, always rebuke our sinning brothers and sisters, or always forgive them. He has grace towards us not based on our works but based on the works of Christ. He is gracious to us not because we keep the Law perfectly but because Christ did. He is gracious to us not because we have suffered enough to earn it but because Christ so suffered. For the sake of Christ, God places the ball in our glove; he places all the benefits of Christ in our faith.
Luther said, "If one were to preach faith and not grace, then people resort to their own works, and eventually they despair." Friends, the reason why so many of our Missouri Synod people despair over the size of their faith and lament they want more is because we've preached faith and not grace. We've preached about the glove not about the ball being placed graciously in their glove. We've made them think the size, the age, the cleanliness of their glove is what mattered when all that really mattered is whether they had the ball of God's grace.
And how do we preach grace? By preaching the means of grace. God places the ball in your glove in Baptism. All the benefits Christ won on the cross are given to you in that font. In Absolution, Christ sends away from you all your failures, all your sins, all your flaws. He takes the forgiveness of sins that He won for sinners on Calvary's cross and places it in your glove no matter how old, small, or dirty it may be. And in Holy Communion not only all that Christ won on the cross, but all of Christ Himself, His very Body and Blood, are given to you. God almighty has such grace in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion towards us not because we do everything right or try our best or perfectly believe but solely for Christ's sake.
We come back to this grace of God by confessing, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty." At no time do we plead our works before God. At no time do we approach Him based on our merits or what we've earned. We approach Him ever and always as unworthy slaves. This means our relationship with Him can't be based on works, on how good we are, or on how big our faith is, but only on grace. We come to Him not because our glove is so big, so new, so clean, or so capable, but because He Himself gives us the ball.
Folks, keep your eyes on the ball not on your glove. Keep your eyes on the ball that God for Christ's sake has placed in your glove. In fact, I want you to stop thinking of the glove at all. Does that surprise you? Does it surprise you that a Lutheran pastor who believes in salvation only through faith should tell you he wants you to stop thinking of your faith? Well that's exactly what a 17th century Lutheran pastor named Johann Gerhard said. He said that he made it his practice not to think of a quality called faith in his heart. He didn't keep looking inside of himself to see how big or how small this thing called faith was in him. Instead, of seeing faith in there, Gerhard says he saw Christ Himself.
Think about that a second. Instead of looking inside of yourself and seeing how big or small your faith is, look inside there and see Christ. Isn't that what Baptism, Absolution, and Communion deliver to you? They bring Christ. And Christ will certainly be saved, won't He? Christ can certainly be confident of the grace of God, can't He? Christ has nothing to fear from sin, death or the devil, does He? Nor do you who have Christ in you through Word and Sacrament.
Willie Mays is remembered not for his glove but for the impossible ball he caught. May we remember not the glove of faith which receives the grace of Christ, but the fact that God places that grace in our glove. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XX (10-21-01) Luke 17: 1-10