In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
It would be interesting to know the back story of each of the 10 lepers in today’s Gospel. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about them, not even their names. But I’m sure they all had a tale to tell about how they ended up in their current circumstances. Each one of them had been expelled from the life that they had previously known. Each one of them were outcasts, cut off from family and friends and society by this contagious skin disease that they had. Where would they sleep? How would they eat? Maybe food was brought out and left for them; maybe they had a way of getting food for themselves. But the Old Testament Law of God Himself said that they were to live outside of the city and apart from the community. If anyone came near them, they had to warn them of their uncleanness. They were isolated and alone.
But here in the Gospel, we see that they are not alone. They are isolated together. They all have the same ailment, so they are drawn to hang out with each other–something that otherwise might not have happened in regular life; even normally estranged Jews and Samaritans are here together. They are a community of those who are all in the same predicament. They are a fellowship of outsiders, finding at least some comfort in facing their disease together.
It occurs to me that in many ways, this is what the church is. We all feel isolated in one way or another–sometimes by afflictions of the body or the mind which cut us off from others, sometimes by the duties and the obligations of life that consume most of our time and energy. Always we are isolated by our sin which alienates us from our neighbor and which divorces us from God’s presence. We are a motley gathering of people who might not ordinarily hang out together, except for the fact that we all know that we are broken in body and soul, that we don’t really fit in or belong in this fallen world, that we are outsiders looking in from a distance at the life which we were originally created to have. In that isolation we gather together and are united, a fellowship of those who hope for deliverance from God and a better life and healing in Jesus.
In the end we are exactly like the lepers in their prayer: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” We’ve already prayed it more than once today, “Lord, have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord, have mercy upon us.” We’ll continue to pray it later in the liturgy, “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” For that is our only hope. Who knows how the lepers heard about Jesus, but the good news had gotten even to them. Their prayer may have proceeded from very weak faith, perhaps little more than a cry of desperation. But it was directed to the right place, to the One who truly is merciful, to the One who hears our cries and our prayers, and whose mercy endures forever.
We must learn to be like these lepers, to not give up calling on the name of the Lord for help, but to have confidence that He will answer us for our good. For the temptation exists for us to grow weary of that and to look for our primary fellowship in places other than His church and to put our hope in something other than the mercy of Jesus. With the God-given institutions of family and church breaking down, various identity groups have risen to fill that void, people who define themselves primarily in terms of their ethnicity or their sexual proclivities or their political ideology. The truth is, everyone needs fellowship; everyone is a leper looking for some community to belong to, even if it’s just by sharing a common hobby, or a sports team to root for, or a favorite bar to have a drink together at, or a social media interest group to be a part of, or a child’s athletic event to cheer at with other parents. But we should never fool ourselves into thinking that those things can give us the deeper fellowship that we need and crave, when they only dull the symptoms of our brokenness for a time. These worldly fellowships promise a place where we can just “be ourselves,” but so often they can end up being a diversion and distraction from our greater need for divine mercy.
There is no distracting or pretending with Jesus, no call to just look on the bright side and have a positive mental attitude and “manifest your truth” or whatever the current gobbledygook is. He deals with us as we are, decaying and dying, and He calls us to live by faith that in Him there is real hope and real healing and real fellowship to be had as His followers. He tells the 10 lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” That’s what you do when you believe that your leprosy is cleansed and healed.
The thing is, nothing appeared to be any different with the lepers. Outwardly they looked the same. But they believed the promise implicit in Jesus’ words that in fact, things were no longer the same. And it is written that “as they went,” they were cleansed. As they held to Jesus’ words and traveled down the road, they were healed.
That’s exactly how it is for you and me. Jesus comes to us with our leprous spirits and declares to us, “You are clean; you are forgiven; you are holy. Sin and sickness, death and the devil have no power over you.” And yet it doesn’t look or feel like much has changed. By all appearances it seems that we’re still dealing with the same old problems and challenges. But what has changed is that now we have the words and promises of Jesus to hold onto. And He does not lie; His words are true and powerful to accomplish what they say. And so we walk by faith, not by sight. As we journey, believing Jesus’ Word, we are cleansed and saved and made whole. Down the road, on the Last Day, our faith will turn to glorious sight, and we will see how what Jesus said was indeed true all along. Our bodies, together with our souls, will be fully restored and glorified in the presence of Christ.
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 Himself, 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 priestly sacrifice to release us from sin and suffering, from death and the devil. Jesus came into direct contact with our contagion and breathed in our sin-poisoned air; He was afflicted with our afflictions in order to 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 also for you. 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 brokenness, 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’s how Ephesians 5 can speak of giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Samaritan leper is our example here. He goes to the true Priest, bowing before Him, worshiping Him, giving Him thanks. This is what divine service is all about: recognizing the Lord as the Source and the Giver of every good gift, receiving those gifts with thanksgiving, glorifying Him as the leper did with a loud voice–no need for us to be bashful about speaking up and singing out in church.
One more thing: Jesus asks a haunting question near the end of the Gospel, “Where are the other nine?” He might ask of us, “Where are the other 70 who aren’t here this weekend, who didn’t come back to give honor to the Source of their life and healing and joy and hope and every good thing that they have?” It’s not as if Jesus gets grumpy when He doesn’t get a proper thank you. But He is saddened by the great harm we do to ourselves when our heart is attached more to the gift than the Giver, more to the creation than the Creator. You wonder what eventually happened to the other nine. Scripture doesn’t say. The one thing we do know is that it’s the outsider who got it right, the one with nothing in himself or his lineage to boast of, the one who was just overwhelmed with thanksgiving for what Christ had done and who bowed before Him as the living Temple of God on earth.
Let us, then, also bow before the Lord this day; let us kneel at His feet before this altar, where He is truly and bodily present to cleanse leprous sinners like us. One of the names Christians use for the Lord’s Supper is the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving. For as we receive His life-giving body and blood into our mortal flesh, our hearts are filled with thanks, and our mouths speak out this thanksgiving. We declare that it is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to God for His mercy in Christ Jesus and especially for giving Himself to us here in this Sacrament.
This is what binds us together in a true and lasting fellowship: this communion, this receiving together of the medicine of immortality, this flesh and blood of Jesus which restores our flesh and gives us new life. Here is the fellowship you seek. Here is your identity group. You are Christians. You are those who call out to the Lord Jesus for mercy and who receive it from Him with a resounding “Thanks be to God.” Listen again to what Jesus said to the Samaritan, for He speaks it also to you: “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