Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sermon: Trinity 14

9 Sept 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 17:11-19 (Gal 5:16-24, Prov 4:10-23)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There are two approaches to the Christian faith: gratitude and ingratitude.

For the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world – the whole world. Our crucified Lord took upon Himself every sin committed by every person in the history of the world. Strictly speaking, he didn’t die for “sins” – for individual sinful acts that seem to be totally unconnected – rather our Lord died for “sin,” the root cause, the condition, the sickness that causes us to commit sins – those individual thoughts, words, and deeds that appall us.

We are very much like the ten men our Lord healed in our Gospel text. These beggars of the Lord’s mercy didn’t have just a few blemishes or a case of the sniffles. They were suffering from leprosy – a deadly disease that not only destroys the immune system, but literally causes the flesh to rot right on the body, part by part.

They didn’t need healed of a few isolated individual maladies here and there. They needed a complete and total physical restoration for them to have healing.

Of course, the Lord has come for this very purpose – to heal, to recreate ailing and terminally ill people into what they were meant to be from day one: perfect, clean, wholesome, healthy, and eternal. They were meant for full communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be worthy to stand nose to nose with God with no guilt, shame, or self-consciousness – for all eternity.

And so the Lord’s miracle of cleansing these men of leprosy is only a hint at what he truly gives them. For as horrible as leprosy is, it only hurts the body and brings physical death. But the malady that caused the leprosy in the first place – sin – causes eternal death of the body and the spirit. As Paul reminds us in our epistle, the works of the leprous, gangrenous, flesh are “evident,” they are obvious, they are right before our eyes and impossible to deny: “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissentions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.”

But the cause of this unholy litany of sins is something more sinister than individual acts of depravity, greed, and ungodliness. The deeper cause is sin – not an act, but a condition, a sickness. It is a terminal disease that eats away at our flesh as surely as leprosy.

To one who sees no connection between his disease and the fallen world, the ravages of sin, the rebellion of our dying flesh against the living God, to him, the only thing that matters is to fix his disease. For him, pardon of sins doesn’t matter. Living in communion with God means nothing. Being able to stand nose to nose with God is of no consequence. He is not interested in the recreation of the new man – for he sets his sights lower – only on the temporary repair of the body. Apart from faith, that’s all he sees.

Of course, one leper that Jesus cures has something the others don’t. Obviously, he has gratitude – but that is only a sign, a symptom, an indicator of something more important. He has “faith” – and that faith not only cured his disease, it “made him well” – which more literally is “saved you” or “made you whole.” Jesus is telling him that more has happened to him than that his leprosy is cured – something supernatural, even something sacramental. In fact, the Greek word St. Luke uses to describe the grateful leper’s action in “giving Him thanks” is “euchariston.”

His Eucharistic attitude of thankfulness, of falling at the feet of Jesus in worship, in confessing Him as God, in praising Him and in thanking Him, in desiring to be in His presence, in having physical and holy communion with Him is an example of the fruits of the Spirit Paul speaks of. For in being cured – in body and in spirit – the Samaritan leper – or should I say former leper – now demonstrates “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” He is not too proud to fall at Jesus’ feet and publicly submit to him, thank and praise Him, serve and obey Him. For “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh” – the once rotting, mortal flesh – with its passions and desires.

Our Lord expresses a certain sadness and frustration at the ingratitude of the nine others – who were presumably not Samaritans, but fellow sons of the covenant. Our Lord is flabbergasted that only 10% of these recipients of this life-giving miracle even bother to show up to say “thank you.” Of course, they, unlike the grateful Samaritan, lack saving faith. For they were cured in the flesh, sure enough, but nowhere are credited by our Lord as having the “faith” that has “made” the Samaritan “whole.” They do not give glory to God and worship Jesus in His flesh and blood. They are eager to take the minor gift, but seem oblivious to the major one that has been handed to them – and so they reject it. They miss out on the greatest healing of all – the one that will never end.

It is a great and wondrous thing when in response to our prayers our Lord heals the sick. Often, it is through ordinary and natural means. Sometimes it is through what can only be described as a miracle. And yet, as sinners for whom Jesus took on our flesh and died, we ought to see through the eyes of faith that physical wellbeing is only a small part of the equation. For even if we are miraculously cured of a life-threatening disease – be it leprosy, cancer, AIDS, or some other plague – we will still die. A miraculous cure – as wonderful as it is – is only a reprieve. For we all face death. It is the cure of death itself that is the greater miracle – the one for which we Christians should – like this humble Samaritan – be grateful.

For there are indeed two approaches to the Christian faith: gratitude and ingratitude. Gratitude means kneeling before the Lord in adoration and worship, seeking Him out where He is physically present, enjoying a bodily communion with Him who has made us whole and saved us. Gratitude means giving God worship and praise before His face, confessing Him as God before men and angels, and truly receiving His greater gift that restores our flesh to eternal life and not merely the temporary healing of some illness or another.

For again, we are sinners not because of our many sins, but we commit many sins because we are sinners. The Lord Jesus has come into the world and suffered His passion and death in order to remove the cause of sins from us, to make us whole not merely by applying an ointment or sticking on a band-aid. He came into the world and was sacrificed for our wholeness, our re-creation. He has given us far more to be thankful for than taking away our guilt and shame (though this is a gift beyond all measure in and of itself). He has given us far more than payment for our sins (even though this gift would be more than we could ever dream of receiving). Indeed, our crucified Lord has given us the gift of faith – which makes us whole, which recreates us in an indestructible new creation, a removal of the disease of sin that causes the symptoms we call “sins.”

And having been so healed, what else is there to do but gather in His presence to sing His praises, give Him thanks, confess Him as God, and enjoy physical communion with Him? In other words, how can the Christian not unite with God in the mystery of the holy liturgy of the Church, the Divine Service, the hearing of the Word and participation in the Sacraments – as often as physically possible?

For in the case of the nine lepers, being ungrateful is not just a matter of bad etiquette. Rather, this is indicative of the refusal to let go of the leprosy of sin itself, a stubborn clinging to that which caused the deadly malady in the first place. To accept the Lord’s baptism, to be confirmed – and then suddenly disappear from God’s house, to absent oneself from further contact with Him who has given you the healing gift of baptism, to refuse to come back to say “thank you” and to glorify and worship Him who is both God in the flesh and Savior – is very dangerous. Our Lord’s frustration with the nine reflects his frustration with those who do the same today – those who are confirmed and view their confirmation as a graduation that excuses them from coming to church again. To be that ungrateful and selfish is indicative of a lack of faith. Parents, I’m pleading with you to hear the Lord’s words and take them to heart.

For we can all learn a lesson from this “foreigner.” Once again, the Kingdom of God is illustrated by the deeds of a Samaritan. For God’s Kingdom has nothing to do with your race, your denominational affiliation, your pedigree, your past involvement with the church – but rather it has to do with your faith. Your faith is not gratitude, but gratitude does reflect it. Your attendance at church, your desire to study His word with your Christian brothers and sisters is not a sacrifice you make to earn God’s forgiveness, but is rather what the Old Testament calls a “thank offering” – the very same lived-out gratitude that prompts our Lord’s declaration and blessing over the grateful leper.

Let our Lord’s blessing over Him ever ring in our ears. We aren’t perfect. We have not yet been recreated to where we will not suffer physical death. But we have been reborn by the cleansing of baptism, by the removal of the leprous flesh of the Old Adam in exchange for the flesh of Christ given for the life of the world. Let us return again and again to where Jesus is found in His body and blood, where we can physically bond with Him, hear Him speak to us, and where we have communion with Him.

Let us hear Him proclaim these words to us every time we gather for worship: “Your faith has made you well.” For these words “are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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