✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Jesus said to the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, “Your faith has made you well.” Now those words are easily misunderstood, particularly in today’s religious context. Often when people talk about faith, they turn the focus inward. The emphasis is on something that’s inside of you, something that you’re doing spiritually. And so a statement like “Your faith has made you well” could sound like there’s some inward characteristic you have that healed you. Basically, you healed yourself. And that’s not at all what Jesus is saying here.
All too often we think of faith as some special power within us. It’s all about my believing, my praying, my spirituality. The power is within me. That’s the way the world thinks of these things. “Just look within yourself for the answers,” they say. “You can do anything if you just have faith and believe.” But that’s wrong. Faith is not some power you harness to achieve your own personal goals in life. That’s not the way the Bible talks. Such thinking is faulty for several reasons, but especially because it puts the focus on the believer rather than on the One who is believed in. It locates the ability to save in man’s doing rather than in God’s doing. It gives the credit and the glory to the one who has faith rather than the One to whom faith clings.
You must understand that faith is nothing by itself–nothing. The power of faith comes from that which it trusts in. Faith is defined not by its own qualities but by the qualities of what or who it relies on. And in the realm of Christianity, faith relies on Christ alone. Faith by itself is like an empty glass. If you’re thirsty, I might give you the most ornate crystal glass in the world, but if there’s nothing in it, it’s not going to quench your thirst one bit. It’s not the glass but what’s in it that finally counts. That’s also how it is with faith. It’s not the faith itself but what the faith holds to, what or who you believe in that really matters. Your faith is just the cup. It’s the content of your faith–what it contains and embraces–that’s most important. The essential thing is not your trust but where your trust is directed.
That’s why the familiar statements, “You gotta have faith,” or “My faith saw me through” are really meaningless by themselves. They don’t say what you’re believing in! Faith in what? in yourself? in your doctor? in your bank account? in the government? in the forces of nature? in your horoscope? You see, when it comes right down to it, everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists. Everyone puts their trust in something. It’s just that not everyone has Christian faith. Some people believe in science and technology–they think that will give them purpose and provide all the answers they’re looking for. Others believe in a generic sort of God, not the God of the Scriptures but a false god of their own making that fits in with their own philosophy of life. Still others trust in worldly idols of power or prestige or possessions or their own wisdom and abilities. But Christian faith is directed toward Christ Jesus, the eternal and only Son of the Father, who together with the Holy Spirit is the one true God. That is what the Scriptures mean when they speak of faith: to fear, love, and trust in this God above all things. So there is true faith and there is false faith. There is misplaced belief, and there is properly placed belief.
Now Jesus’ words to the leper should be much clearer. When Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” He was not saying that the leper had worked up this thing called “faith” within himself that had healed himself or earned God’s blessing. Rather, Jesus was saying that by God's Word and Spirit this leper was brought to put his faith in the right place, the only place that could truly bring healing and deliverance from the deteriorating power of sin. It is as if Jesus said, “Your faith is the correct kind. You believed that I could help you, and rightly so. For I alone have the power to save–and not only from temporal bodily ailments, but even from eternal death. By the Father’s grace you have trusted in Me, the fountain of life. And so you have been made well.”
True faith isn’t just a generic belief that God exists. True faith actively and specifically desires Christ, trusting in Him and in all that He has done. A person can't have faith without desiring Christ in divine service. Faith seeks after Christ where He is to be found, in His words, His preaching, His supper. It calls upon the Lord in time of need and looks to Him and thanks Him for all good things.
The ten lepers in the beginning of the Gospel are a good example of this. They stood afar off because they knew of their uncleanness, even as we all should know of the uncleanness of our hearts. Yet they still were bold to cry for help, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So also, we should all be bold to do the same, letting our “Lord, have mercy’s” be full of faith. The lepers firmly trusted in Christ and were confident He would heal them.
*That is one of the chief lessons of today’s Gospel, that we should commend ourselves into God’s hands and trust Him for everything, for He will surely supply it. We should look to Him for all our needs and know that He is our only source of help. Do not doubt but instead say, “I know that for Christ’s sake God will hear me and give me what I ask. And even if He doesn’t do it in the way or at the time I prefer, He will do it in His own time and in His own way.”
A wavering heart that doesn’t believe, that isn’t convinced it will receive what it asks for, will certainly receive nothing. For our Lord God can give such a heart nothing, even though He would dearly love to do so. It is as if you have a glass in your hands, but refuse to hold it still and keep waving it back and forth. I can’t pour anything into it. If I have a bottle of fine wine and you won’t hold your glass still to let me pour some for you, I’m not going to waste it and pour it all over the floor. That’s the way it is with an unbelieving, wavering heart.
On the other hand, if you do not waver, but wait and endure–God loves to give to people like that, as we see in the case of the ten lepers. They wait patiently and never doubt that Christ will help them. That is why they get exactly what they believe. Let us take careful note of that, so that we too learn to trust God’s goodness implicitly, never letting our hearts falter, but patiently expecting what we pray for, be it health when we are sick, food when we are poor, righteousness when we are unrighteous and full of sin, or life instead of death, because God truly loves to pour out His blessings on us.
The Lord will sometimes make you wait, to see if you continue believing and praying. That’s how it was with these lepers. Jesus didn’t heal them right away. Instead, He simply said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” “Go to the temple in Jerusalem so that you can have yourselves legally declared clean by the religious leaders.” But Jesus sent them off without any apparent change in their condition. Then the Gospel says, “And as they went, they were cleansed.” As they held to Jesus’ words and proceeded down the road, then they were healed. These men had faith in the promise implicit in Jesus’ directions even without any evidence. They believed that they had been made well by Jesus, even though they couldn't see it yet. And in the end, it was revealed to have been true. Jesus’ words accomplished what they said, first in a hidden way, then in a revealed way.
And that is exactly how it is also for you. When you cry out to Jesus in your need, He calls back to you with His words of life. Of your uncleanness He says, “You are forgiven and cleansed in the waters of your baptism.” Of your physical health He says, “By my wounds you are healed. I have taken away all your diseases by my suffering. Death cannot harm you.” Of your struggles and difficulties He says, “I have delivered you from them all by my Easter triumph.” Yet, by all appearances, it may not seem to be that way. You may still find yourself facing many of the same things. Nevertheless, just as He did with the lepers, Jesus sends you on our way. He calls you to walk down the narrow road that leads to everlasting life holding only to His words. To be a Christian is to trust in Jesus’ promises even without any visible evidence, to believe that you have been cleansed and healed and delivered, even if you can’t always see it yet, to walk by faith not by sight. For in the end His words toward you will be shown to have been true all along. Jesus’ words always do what they say–first, in a hidden way, “down the road,” in a revealed way.
We know that Jesus’ words deliver these things to us because of the destination of His journey. Not only did the lepers go to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests, the Gospel says that Jesus was going there as well, to be our Great High Priest. The ten went to get a new lease on life; Jesus, however, went there to give up His life. His very purpose in coming into this fallen world was to make that ultimate sacrifice to release us from sin and suffering, from death and the devil. So it was that Jesus breathed in our sin-poisoned air; He was afflicted with our afflictions in order that He might save and rescue us, as it is written, “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.” When Jesus comforted someone, He took their sadness on Himself; when He healed someone, He took their sickness on Himself; when Jesus forgave someone, He took their sin on Himself. And Jesus has done that for you all. All of the weight of the fallen world was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, and He carried that load to the cross, where it perished with Him. Your sin and sorrow and sickness have been overcome, left dead and buried in the tomb from which Christ arose in triumph.
Believing in Christ, you have everything now. Through Him you have healing in the midst of sickness, holiness in the midst of weakness, victory in the midst of things which overwhelm you, even life in the midst of death. By faith you have it all in Christ, a truth that will be revealed to all creation at the close of the age. That is why St. Paul could confidently say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
“Your faith has made you well.” You can be sure you’re understanding the word “faith” correctly when you can insert the name of Jesus in its place. Since faith is defined by what it trusts in, you should be able to replace it with “Jesus,” and it should still be saying the same thing. “Your faith has made you well.” “Your Jesus has made you well.” Same thing. That’s Christian faith.
Let us then be like the Samaritan, who returned to give praise and thanks to the Lord, worshiping at His feet. And let us receive the words that Christ spoke to the cleansed leper as being spoken also to us, “Your faith has made you well. Your Jesus has saved you.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
* This paragraph and the following two paragraphs are adapted from a sermon by Martin Luther in The House Postils, Vol. 2, p. 423.