St. Luke 17:11-19
Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
September 2, 2018
Like last Sunday’s Gospel, we can understand today’s Gospel as about what we do, or, about what God does. Nowhere is the distinction more revealed than in the last sentence, “Your faith has made you well.” Where is the focus? On the believer, or on the One who is believed in?
We naturally want to put the focus on our own believing. The phrase, “salvation is by faith alone” thus comes to mean that our believing accomplishes our salvation. That’s wrong.
Faith doesn’t work if the objective of faith is unreliable. For example, you may have complete faith in your doctor – but he still might botch the surgery. A coach may have faith in a quarterback – who proceeds to throw an interception when the game is on the line. Have you ever had faith in a person, only to see that person betray you? Faith means nothing if the object of faith does not come through.
You’ve probably heard people say that they cannot believe in a god who would do this or that, e.g., “I cannot believe in a god who would condemn anybody to hell.” Here you see that it is the person’s faith that creates or manufactures a god. In the free marketplace of American religion, you can purchase a made-to-order faith so you can “live your truth.”
But none of that is Christianity. We have a Creed that does not change, because Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. The Creed isn’t made true by our believing; rather, we place our confidence in what is true.
So faith doesn’t save; Jesus saves. Faith didn’t heal the leper. Jesus healed the leper. He healed the thankful leper – and He also healed the other nine. There is no reason to think that the nine lepers who didn’t return were unaware that Jesus healed them, or that they were not grateful for it.
The one thankful leper didn’t have his leprosy cured because he believed hard enough. Jesus commends him because he saw in Jesus the merciful God. God had shown pity on him, and therefore the leper was glad. I imagine they all were glad, because they were healed. But the thankful leper was glad not just for his healing, but because he had found God. He wanted to be with him. This kind of faith ceases to be about the believer and becomes all about the object of belief. The Christian, then, never talks about his own faith, but the Christ in whom his faith is.
Christian faith is not simply a confident optimism, where you always look on the bright side of life. This faith isn’t about gazing inward and finding the god within. Christian faith looks outside of the self to the work of Jesus. This faith is in the Jesus whose blood atones for our sins and whose strong Word will carry us through the valley of the shadow of death through to the resurrection of our leprous, decayed, worm-ridden bodies, transformed into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself. We look to history in what Jesus has done. And we look to the future Jesus has promised. In between that history and the future is the life of faith: doing battle with the lusts of the flesh, living instead by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The Gospel forgives sins, but it doesn’t leave you there. It’s just like the leper cleansed from his disease. Now that he’s free, he can begin living the life he was meant for, back in community.
For nine of the lepers, they were content to go to Jerusalem. But one of the lepers had figured something out. “This Jesus who healed me, that’s where I want to live. That’s where I want to live.”
So when he returns to give thanks to Christ, he is not being polite and saying “thank-you” as his mother taught him. He is, in effect, saying, “Lord Jesus, You are the object of my faith, the One who shows mercy and compassion. You are the enfleshed God. You healed my leprous skin, Your cross will heal my sin, and only You can keep me from bitter death and the agonies of hell. Heaven is where You graciously are, and so there I wish to be. Having You, I neither want nor need anything else. Bring me to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”
And that, my dear friends, is precisely what we should be saying when we go to the Sacrament. Like the leper, we have been ruined, cut off from God, estranged from our neighbors. Our sins destroy us from the inside, and harm our relationships with all around us; and the sinful nature is wreaking havoc within our bodies, for the wages of sin is death, and it is creeping upon us always. An unseen, cancerous tumor; a gradual hardening of the arteries; the madness of old age; a random act of violence – our faith in the things of this world will never sustain us.
Coming to His Supper, we confess, “Dear Jesus, I am lost, and soon, too soon, the darkness of the grave will be upon me. I have no excuse for my horribly sinful life.” “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
“Dear Jesus, my Lord and my God, save me from my flesh, save me from this world, save me from the hell I deserve. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Speak only Your Word, and my soul shall be healed; wash me with Your Baptism; nourish me with Your saving Body; refresh me with Your life-giving Blood. Absolve me, and at the last, carry me home on Your mighty shoulders, stretched wide in death to deliver me from death.” “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
And then, on the last Day when the trumpet sounds, we shall hear the same words He spoke to the Samaritan: “‘Arise, go your way,’ into the kingdom of My Father.”