The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
“Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” With these very familiar words of Jesus many a sermon launches right into a very familiar lesson on giving thanks to God. In fact, the lectionary assigns this specific reading to be read and meditated upon on Thanksgiving Day every year. This all makes perfect sense, right? It’s important to give thanks. It’s important to say “thank you.” We start teaching this lesson to our kids before they’re even on solid food. It’s an important lesson for life in general; a lesson that runs your entire life, and it’s an even more important lesson for the life that’s lived in faith.
But…what if there’s more to this than simply a lesson on saying “thank you”? What if Jesus’ focus and concern here wasn’t really centered on saying “thank you”? That’s preposterous, right?! What else could this lesson be about? Jesus Himself answers this with the very words He spoke to that Samaritan leper who had returned to give thanks to Him for the miraculous healing. “Arise; that is, be resurrected and go. Depart in peace, for your faith has saved you.”
Now…if you’re paying attention, you will immediately catch the fact that pastor has changed up the words a little bit. The printed lesson in the bulletin says, “go, for your faith has made you well.” That’s not what Jesus said. That’s a softer, nicer translation of what Jesus said. That’s the Word of Jesus, with all the sharp edges sanded down and rounded off. We don’t want to hurt anyone! The problem here is that such a softer, nicer, weaker, sanded-down translation fits well with what we want to hear. “Your faith has made you well. Go, for your strong faith has contributed to making you all better. Your strong faith is what made the difference.” Add in the fact that this text often gets reduced to an etiquette lesson on saying thank you, and you have the makings for some very bad, harmful, misleading doctrine.
And before we get off on a tangent about the theological difference between being “saved” and simply being “made well,” let us remember the fact that Christ speaks these words to the lone guy who had returned to Him to render thanks and praise to God. Folks: This is what the text is really all about! Remember: All ten lepers were healed of their disease, not just the Samaritan with the commendable faith. In fact, we could rightly say that all ten lepers had faith in Jesus. They all cried out to Him to be merciful to them and heal them. They all immediately obeyed His command and Word and went to the Temple to show themselves to the priest, just as Jesus had told them to do. That’s pretty good example of faith, don’t you think? They were all healed as they went. They all rejoiced over their healing. And we’re never told (nor are we to believe) that the other nine got their leprosy back as some sort of divine punishment because they didn’t return to say “thank you” to Jesus. I mention this last part only because this is how we behave. This is how we treat the ungrateful in our daily lives. We can be, and we often are, very quid pro quo in our dealings with others. We’ll do something nice for you a time or two out of the goodness of our heart, but if you don’t ever say thank you, then we’re probably going to stop being so nice in the future. If you don’t send a thank you note, then you’re probably not going to get a gift next time around. That’s just how it works. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.
But I digress. All ten guys did have faith in Jesus. But…what was the difference? What made the lone Samaritan’s faith different from the other nine guys, who were most likely all Israelites and not some despised, outsider Samaritan? Again, all ten were healed, so it’s obvious that faith was not the difference or deciding factor that brought about physical healing or restoration of health. Don’t get me wrong: The difference between the Samaritan and the other nine lepers did come down to faith, but faith wasn’t the healing difference.
Basically, it comes down to this: The faith of the Samaritan leper, as Jesus Himself said, saved this man. These are some very strong and unsettling words if you let the Lord do the talking and you’re willing to listen! How often, though, these words are glossed over, sanded down, and or just plain ignored. The difference between this lone Samaritan leper and the other nine guys was the fact that the lone Samaritan leper had a saving faith. The other nine guys, although they were made physically well by God’s good grace and providence, were still outside of saving faith. Their faith did not save them. It could not save them. Why? Because their faith was not focused on and centered in Christ Jesus.
Now, I know this sounds contradictory to what I just said a few moments ago. I just got done saying that these guys all had faith in Jesus, but now I’m telling you that only the Samaritan leper had faith in Christ Jesus, while the other guys did not. It’s true though! You see, the other nine lepers didn’t recognize Jesus as the Christ; the Messiah; God Himself in the flesh. They undoubtedly recognized Jesus as a great miracle worker. Like Nicodemus, they may have even recognized that Jesus certainly had God on His side and in His corner. “No one can do what you do unless God is with Him.” But…they didn’t recognize Almighty God in the person of Jesus. “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this guy?” They ran off to the bricks and mortar of the temple; they ran off to the blood and ash of barnyard beasts and to priests of the household and lineage of Adam. Yes, they did what Jesus told them to do. They obeyed the Law of God, but they failed to recognize the Gospel standing before their very eyes, pouring out His grace, mercy, and love upon them. They were blinded by their own crosses. They were blinded by obedience to the Law. Their focus was on getting right with the Law.
The Samaritan, on the other hand, as soon as he recognized God’s gift of healing in his body, made an immediate one-eighty and fell at Jesus’ feet in humble, thankful worship. Jesus, knowing this man’s heart, knew that this guy got it; he was thanking God-in-the-flesh for the undeserved goodness and mercy shown to him. This guy recognized and praised God in the work and person of Jesus Christ. This is what set this guy apart from the other nine. It’s not that he simply said thank you while the other nine did not. This guy’s faith is what set him apart from those other guys. This faith is what saved him—eternally. Holding fast to this doctrine in the flesh; this Word and teaching of Life in the flesh meant life—eternal life—for this lowly, undeserving Samaritan leper, which was about as low you could get in life according to Jewish law and understanding. This lowly schmuck was saved. Salvation was his. “Be resurrected. Arise and depart in peace. You are saved.”
Now, if you’re sitting there and starting to worry if you have faith like the Samaritan leper or faith like the other nine guys, then you really don’t understand what all this [the crucifix, the Word, the communion elements] all means. Let me set your mind at ease. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is almighty God in the flesh? Do you believe that Christ Jesus died and rose again; that God Himself died and rose for you? Do you believe that Christ Jesus paid for each and every sin with His life-blood? Do you believe Him when He says, “it is finished”? Do you recognize Christ here and now in the good and life-giving gifts that He’s nourishing you with right now? If so, then you have NOTHING to fear! Be at peace, for your faith has saved you!
I can say this with all certainty, not because you have some exemplary, level-10 ninja faith that puts all other people to shame, but solely because of the almighty and all-powerful object/person your faith humbly clings to—Jesus Christ, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. Everyone has faith in something. Everyone trusts in something, be it money, intellect, the ability to reason and argue, job security, Buddha, Mohammed, good works and happy-clappy feelings and emotions, or Jesus Christ. Yes, I do separate the faith that trusts in good works and happy-clappy feelings from saving faith in Jesus Christ.
People who claim faith in Christ quite often reveal the truth of where their faith is really grounded—their works, their feelings, their emotions. If they feel happy and healthy and prosperous, then God must be happy with them and all is well. However, if things aren’t going well, then maybe God is angry with them. Maybe God is punishing them for their sins (which means that Jesus was wrong when He said ‘it is finished’). Maybe they need to do better. Maybe they need to do some more good works in order to get back into God’s good favor. If they don’t feel that God is near to them; if they don’t feel the happy breezes of Jesus blowing in their hearts, then maybe that means that God is not around. Maybe God is keeping His distance. Maybe God has forgotten about us. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for my feelings tell me so.” This just isn’t true.
Such a faith, whether it’s in Buddha, Mohammed, or good works and happy-clappy feelings and emotions, is not saving faith. Such a faith is deaf and blind to the objective Christological reality of “I am with you always.” Such a faith is corrupted and leprous, dead to the objective, concrete grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus; grace, mercy, and peace that is ever-present in God’s Word and His blessed, life-giving sacraments. Be still and listen! Turn around and speak! Folks: It’s that simple! Here is God, holding out His arms to you! He’s not far off. He’s not aloof or indifferent. He’s right here! He’s right here, doing what He has always done—holding out His Word of Life to all those who will hear it and hold fast to it and live.
And this is precisely why I will end now by simply pointing you to Jesus Christ—God in the flesh. This doctrine of Life in the flesh; this Word of God in the flesh that comes to us this very day in His Word and His body and blood, comes to us to have mercy upon us, to feed us, to nourish us, to heal us, to restore us, to love us. He comes today to us with His victory. “It is finished!” All of sin’s wages have been paid in full by Him. All the corruption of sin, death, and the grave was taken into Him and put to death in Him. Behold, the full wrath of God against sin, and the unconditional, incomprehensible love of God for you—in the flesh and in the work and person of Jesus Christ Himself. I point you to Christ alone, for He and He alone is Life—your Life, now and into all eternity.
And when, by the Holy Spirit’s gracious and miraculous working, your eyes and ears of faith are opened to understand and see and recognize all this in your midst and in your life, the new man—the new resurrected-unto-new-life you—will naturally eucharisteo, which is Greek for “render thanks and praise to God” for all His benefits to you. Can you hear the word “eucharist” in there? That’s what Holy Communion is sometimes referred to as—the eucharist. “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.” This is what saving faith in Christ brings to the Lord’s table—the sacrifice of thanksgiving. We come humbly, joyously, and empty-handed. We come with thanks and praise for all that God has done and continues to do for us. We come before Him as ones who were corrupted in the leprosy of sin and death, but who have now been made clean and pure and blameless in Christ, coming before Him and humbling ourselves and falling at His feet in thanks and praise. It is finished, in Christ alone and because of Christ alone. Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow!
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