Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Very Practical Question

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Luke 17:11-19

For those who pay attention to sermon titles, you’re probably wondering what the “very practical question” is that we’re met with in today’s Gospel reading. It is this:

What do we do?

There are Christians who ask this all the time. For some, it’s the main thing they’re concerned with. Some want to know what we need to do in order to be saved. Others emphasize this aspect: now that God has saved us, what do we do? Lutherans get uncomfortable with talk of what we do. Isn’t it about what Christ has done for us? Aren’t we to focus on the works of Christ and not on what we do?

But are we Lutherans playing fast and loose with the Words of God in the Holy Bible? Doesn’t today’s Gospel reading show us that we play a part in our salvation? The lepers cried out to Jesus. Can we deny that that was an action on their part? They also did what Jesus told them to do, go to the priests. Isn’t this something they were doing? And then of course we have the one leper who praised and thanked Jesus. Those were actions on his part, were they not? And Jesus commends him for them, does He not? Conversely, He questions why the others didn’t. Shouldn’t that tell us that we ought to do those things? And then there’s the clincher: Jesus statement to the man, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.” This is pretty clear, isn’t it, that it’s the man’s faith that saved him? And Paul himself says that we are justified by faith.

Well let’s take a look at exactly what those lepers did so that we can find the answer to our question, “What do we do?” Let’s look at what Jesus shows us as the way so that we may know what it is we are to do.

It may seem like it’s just a detail, a part of the account of Jesus and the ten lepers, but it’s telling that the episode begins with Jesus Himself. Luke inspired by the Holy Spirit is telling us straight off that this account, and what we are to gain from it, is about Jesus. It’s not just an account about the lepers. It’s first and foremost about Christ. He was the one who entered the village. He sought out those lepers. They didn’t do anything to meet Him. He entered into their wretched lives.

One thing we can’t know is what was going through their minds or what was in their hearts. But that’s the way it is with everybody. We shouldn’t read into the words they spoke to Jesus, but we can see them for what they are as recorded in the Word of God. They are words the Holy Spirit inspired to Luke to set down on paper. And for what reason? To show us that they wanted help? Could be. Very possible, even. But could it also mean that their words as Luke has recorded them point us to something greater than deliverance from leprosy? After all, was Jesus entering that village only for the sake of those ten lepers? Or also for you and me? And even for everyone? After all, did they not have a greater need than their leprosy? Did they not have the same need that we all have, which is deliverance from sin? Is their cry for mercy really just a request for deliverance from their leprosy?

We wouldn’t be able to empathize with those poor men. The condition they lived in was horrible. But whether they knew it or not, it was the condition of their soul that gave them their greatest need. Here were men that weren’t able to carry out an ordinary life. How do you think they felt? Ostracized? Left for dead? Do you think they wanted more than anything to be delivered from their miserable condition? Not only did they endure pain and suffering from their skin condition, they experienced loss of community and friendship because they weren’t allowed in the everyday life of society.

None of us here suffers from the horrible disease of leprosy as those men did. But we can look around and see the effects of sin, can’t we? There are plenty of people in the world suffering from some ugly diseases; some in our own neighborhoods. Some of us ourselves are facing severe illnesses or medical conditions. Is there anything we long for more than relief from that pain and emotional turmoil? I’m sure the lepers would scoff at the notion that we share the same condition they did, but we can in fact identify with those men. That’s because we are diseased not on our skin but in our heart. Our sinful flesh is rotting ourselves away. We are just as much in need of crying out for mercy to Christ as they were.

Here we learn a very important thing about what we do, since that’s our question of the day. What does Jesus direct them to do? Go show themselves to the priests. And what do they do? Exactly what Jesus tells them to do. It’s not what saved them from their leprosy, of course, it’s the Word of Christ that He spoke. But nevertheless, they obey His Word and go. All, that is, but the one. He came back. He had something else he needed to do, even though Jesus was clear in His command. The Samaritan came back to praise God and give thanks to Jesus.

It is in this that we see there is nothing we can do. It appears the lepers are doing all this doing. But whereas the nine go to the priests to get that work done Jesus had talked about the one can’t see anything but the mercy that has been poured out upon him. Whereas the nine are busy with the question, “What do we do?” the one is filled up with relief, gratitude, and thanksgiving. The priests will have to wait, because Jesus is the source of salvation, of life, of healing, of mercy. This one man realized there was indeed nothing He could do—Christ had done it all! That there is indeed no sense anymore in trying to figure what can or should be done when the one who is crying out for mercy is crying out for mercy because he is unable to do anything to save himself!

I wonder why Jesus made a big deal about the nine? Was it because He wanted everyone to know they blew it and others should learn from their ungratefulness? Or was it because they had asked for mercy and really missed the point of it—to bask in it! To stand and be awash in the renewing flood of His compassion, grace, and salvation! To not be caught up in what it is they felt they were constrained to do!

That’s what Jesus is getting at when He tells the man that He may go in peace, that his faith has saved him. Jesus here shows us what faith is all about. That our answer to our question “What do we do?” is not about what we do but completely about what Christ has done for us. Here we come to the crux of the matter. The word “crux” comes from the word “cross”, and that my friends is the crux of the matter—the cross. Where does Jesus meet us? The cross. Where is our cry for mercy met? The cross. Where does our faith save us? The cross. The cross saves us. Christ saves us.

What do we do? Receive His forgiveness. It is given to us. We are met by Him. Here we are in life when Jesus comes to our village. We stand afar off. Dare we come to Him? Can we? But what does He do? He cleanses us. He Baptizes us, removing the sin that clings to our flesh as the leprosy clung to the lepers’ flesh. Our cry for mercy reaches His ears and ours are met with His Word, “Take, eat, this is My body, given for you. Take, drink, this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”

What do we do? Thank God He has done it all in His Son Jesus Christ! Amen.



Anonymous said...

Keep on publishing your sermons, Paul. They are good.

See you soon.


David Contra Mundum said...

Amen, Paul, amen!

Peter said...

An excellent approach to the question, "What do we do?"

Your sermon also made me consider something I hadn't before: could the Samaritan have gone to the Jewish priest and be declared clean? If not, he realizes who his real priest is: Jesus Christ, the one who made him clean and now declared him clean. All the rich high priestly imagery ascribed to Christ in Hebrews is then brought to mind.

rev.will said...

Hi Peter:

Thanks. I hadn't considered that point before either. Fascinating. It's interesting that he *did* begin to go, along with the Jews he was with. Regardless, I like your connection with the High Priestly imagery of Hebrews.