Sermon for Trinity 14
Jeremiah 17:13-14 + Galatians 5:16-24 + Luke 17:11-19
There is a battle raging on in this country right now between good and evil. You know what I’m talking about. You fight in this battle every day, if you’re a Christian. In fact, you only fight in this battle if you’re a Christian. But this battle isn’t waged with other people. It’s waged within you. It’s a battle fought between the flesh and the spirit, the Old Man and the New Man, the selfish sinful nature that is hostile to God and the spiritual nature that loves God.
St. Paul teaches us about this battle in today’s Epistle, and we see it played out in our Gospel of the Ten Lepers. We see the saving effects of faith in Christ. We see the tragic results when that salvation is taken for granted and faith is allowed to die. But we also see the victory of faith over the flesh, and we’re encouraged to stay in the battle to which God has called us.
It was during His final journey to Jerusalem, on His way to the cross, that Jesus encountered a group of ten lepers, there along the border between Galilee and Samaria. Leprosy was a disease of the flesh that left a person with flesh that was spotted, disfigured, twisted, rotten, and sometimes even crumbling to pieces. It was a horrible disease that isolated a person from the rest of society and from the temple of God. These lepers had heard the good word about Jesus, and that word, powerful as it was, kindled faith in their hearts and convinced them that Jesus was kind and good and merciful, and that His mercy had power behind it, power to heal even their dreadful disease. Faith is what drove them to go out to meet Jesus and to stand there calling out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy!”
That’s what faith does. It drives a person to run to Jesus, to seek help from Him and to expect help from Him, not because you deserve it, but because you know Jesus is willing and able to help those who don’t deserve anything but wrath and punishment.
Jesus honored their faith, which means that He honored His own Holy Spirit who had created that faith through the word in the first place. Go, show yourselves to the priests! That’s what lepers were supposed to, according to the Law of Moses, after their leprosy had healed, so that the priests could evaluate them and certify that they were indeed healthy again and ready to reenter society. Jesus asked for nothing in return. He didn’t ask for them to prove their worth. He just showered them with mercy and healed the disease of their flesh.
The Holy Spirit uses this account to teach us once again how Christ heals all sinners who come to Him seeking mercy, who come to Him in faith, for the healing of the disease of our flesh.
Our fleshly disease is called Original Sin or hereditary sin. It infects everyone from the moment of conception and it has various symptoms, some of which Paul listed in our Epistle: the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like. And then Paul tells us what the judgment of God is: I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
So the holy Law of God bans us from the society of God’s people, because we are by nature sinful and unclean. But then Jesus comes to us through the word of His apostles and says, Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. So faith heals and Baptism cleanses. It doesn’t take away our flesh so that it’s gone. It absolves us of the guilt of our sins. And, as Paul also writes to the Galatians, it crucifies our flesh, it hangs it up there on the cross together with Jesus, where God the Father punished our sins, leaving us spotless and blameless in His sight.
Faith alone does that. As Jesus said to the one leper who returned to give thanks, Your faith has made you well. But that brings us to the tragedy we encounter in our Gospel. All ten lepers were healed by faith. But nine out of ten quickly fell away. What happened?
Luther assumes that, since Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, they all went to the priests immediately. But when they arrived, the priests turned them against Jesus—as we often find the priests doing in the Gospels, urging the ten healed men to give glory to God, but not to give glory to God where Jesus was, in the person of Jesus, urging them to go fulfill their legal obligations and to trust, not in Jesus, but in their obedience from this time forward, so that they may remain clean.
Whether it was the priests who persuaded the nine to trust no longer in Jesus, or whether it was just their own sinful flesh that fought against their faith and won, turning them away from Jesus to focus inward again, to focus on themselves, as the sinful flesh always likes to do, we don’t know. The result was the same. A falling away from faith, back into unbelief. The Spirit of God who created their faith in the first place was urging them all back to Jesus, to go back to where Jesus was, to give glory to God in the person of Christ, to give thanks to God through Jesus Christ for the healing they had received. But nine of them were led by their flesh, not by the Spirit of God. Nine of them left Jesus behind in their rearview mirror, as it were, and carried on with their lives without Him.
Understand this, dear Christians: your flesh would like to do the same thing. You have been healed before God. You have been baptized and brought to faith and cleansed of your guilty record in God’s courtroom. Most of you have taken your catechism classes; you have been confirmed as Lutherans, that is, as Christians. Now that you’re healed, your flesh thinks, you can back off from the Word of God and from the Means of Grace. Now that you’re healed, your flesh thinks, you should focus on yourself, and your family, and your friends, and your job, and your hobbies, and your leisure activities, and…what were you healed from, again? Who was responsible for that? Oh, that’s in the past. Surely God just wants you to be “happy” now, right?
Beware of your flesh. It’s still hostile toward God. And “the heart is deceitful above all things.” It wants to lead you away from Jesus any which way it can, whether by temptation or by false doctrine or by plain old apathy or by spiritual atrophy—by lack of the spiritual nutrition that comes from the Word of God. The flesh was successful in nine out of the ten lepers, because, although their physical flesh was healed, they all still carried around with them their corrupt spiritual flesh, and they let it get the better of them in the battle.
It didn’t have to be that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way for you, either. Look at the one who came back in our Gospel account. Look at the one who was still a believer in Jesus, who came back to give glory to God in the person of Christ and to give thanks at Jesus’ feet, even though all nine of his friends had left him to go back to Jesus all by himself. He was a Samaritan, Jesus points out. Of all the ten who were healed, he was the least likely to remain a believer. And yet his faith was preserved. It was victorious over his flesh. And Jesus acknowledged him before men.
The battle rages in every Christian between the spirit and the flesh, between faith and unbelief, and you’re most susceptible when you forget that this battle exists. If you remember the battle, then you’ll remember Jesus, who gives you the victory over every battle, because He is victorious over sin, death and the devil. That’s why you’ve come to the Divine Service today, isn’t? To remember Jesus? To seek mercy from Him and to give thanks to Him? Remember what we call the Sacrament of the Altar? The Eucharist! The Thanksgiving! It’s where poor sinners who have been cleansed of the guilt of sin in Holy Baptism now come back to Jesus regularly to give thanks to Him. How? Not by offering Him our works, but by simply acknowledging Him as our Savior, and by receiving again His mercy and His forgiveness in the place where He has promised to be found by us, where He has promised to be present with His own body and blood.
Christ Jesus, who has cleansed you from sin and made you whole before God, now calls you to battle—a battle that begins and ends with thankfulness, a battle that, if you’re fighting it, you cannot lose, because the battle depends solely on the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, who will always strengthen and fortify you through His Means of Grace. The battle rages on as long as you live on this earth, because as long as you live on this earth, your crucified flesh is still clinging to you. But if you are led by the Spirit of God here on this earth, you are not under the law. You live by the Spirit. Let us, then, as Paul says, walk by the Spirit and pursue all the fruits that He produces: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Even if you see other Christians abandoning these things, as the one leper saw his nine friends abandon Jesus, don’t you abandon them. Remember Jesus, who loved you and gave Himself for you. And keep fighting the good fight of faith. Amen.