Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Galatians 5:16-24 + Luke 17:11-19
How do you measure the health of a church? A friend asked me this week, “How is your church doing? Is it growing?” People mean well when they ask that question. But they’re usually under the false impression that growing in numbers is the mark of a church that is doing well. To them, the corollary would then also be true: a church that is not growing in numbers is doing poorly, and if it’s shrinking in numbers, it must be in crisis mode.
Let’s just dispense with all that, shall we? Let’s learn a lesson from Jesus’ encounter with the ten lepers. There are many lessons to be learned here, but today, let’s focus on the numbers: the ten, the nine, and the one.
The ten lepers were very sick. Leprosy was such a devastating disease at the time of Jesus, an infection that spread throughout the body, and from one person to the next. Spots would break out on the skin, often turning into sores or deformities or rotting pieces of flesh. Lepers were “unclean.” They were cast out of society and made to dwell in isolation, in leper colonies on the outskirts of town, making it the worst physical ailment a person could suffer, not because it was necessarily the most painful, but because it took everything away from you—family, friends, home, work, synagogue, Temple. And there was no cure for it.
But these ten lepers heard the good word about Jesus, that He was merciful and good, that He had power over sickness and disease, that God had come to earth to visit, to help His people, and that He had even come near to where they were. So they begged Him from afar, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!
Jesus said to them, Go, show yourselves to the priests. That’s what you were supposed to do, according to the Law of Moses, if you had leprosy and then got better. You would go to the priest to have him examine you, and to certify before the community that you were indeed cleansed of your disease and welcome to rejoin society. Jesus sent them away with the assurance that, by the time they got to the priest, they would be clean.
Those ten lepers represent all Christians. Not all people. All Christians. Like the rest of mankind, all Christians are infected with that devastating disease called sin. We are, by nature, unclean before God, with a flesh that is prone toward that whole list of fleshly works that the apostle Paul mentioned in the Epistle: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like. Just turn on the TV. That’s what you’ll see, whether it’s on the news or depicted on a show or in a movie. Just look hard enough in the mirror. You won’t fail to see the items on that list, hidden just under the surface, like a volcano that’s getting ready to erupt.
Like the rest, we Christians were dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul writes to the Ephesians in chapter 2, walking according to the course of this world, walking among the sons of disobedience, conducting ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind. We were “children of wrath, like the rest.”
But then, like the ten lepers, we heard the good word about Jesus, that He came to bear our sins and to take up our infirmities. We heard that He forgives sins to all who come to Him seeking mercy. And so we came. We were baptized and cleansed of our sin. Even though we still carry around the leprous sinful flesh, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and clean in the sight of God. All the baptized start out their life diseased before God, and then, through Holy Baptism, all the baptized are healed before God—forgiven and cleansed.
So much for the ten. All ten lepers had those things in common—their crippling disease, their hearing the good word about Jesus, their plea to Jesus for mercy, and their healing.
But now the group of ten, after they are healed, divides into two groups: the nine, and the one. The nine receive their healing from Jesus, and when they realize it, they hurry to the priest. Why? So that they can get on with their lives. So that they can get back to their homes and their families. So that they can find work and make a living and take hold again of the life that was stripped from them when they became ill. They were excited and eager to get back to the way things were. Who could blame them?
And yet, Jesus does blame them. Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner? Nine out of ten of those who were once healed by Jesus went on with their earthly lives—without Jesus.
Now, someone might argue that the nine could have given glory to God in prayer, without returning to where Jesus was, right? Jesus’ words indicate that He was looking for more than a prayer of thanks uttered to the omnipresent God while they ran to get their earthly lives back.
First of all, true faith in Christ doesn’t consider Christ to be an afterthought. For the believer, giving thanks to Him isn’t one item among many on the “to-do” list or something you do so that you can get back to the really important things like living your earthly life. No, faith in Christ keeps Christ at the center of everything. Faith in Christ makes giving thanks to God the very goal of our existence, the activity in which we are continually engaged, no matter what we’re doing in the world. But that wasn’t the case for the nine.
Secondly, faith in Christ isn’t satisfied with a prayer uttered to the omnipresent God. Yes, prayer is good. Prayer is right. God hears your prayers, whether they’re uttered in church or in your bedroom closet. But when God makes Himself present on earth, when God comes near to help, as He did when Jesus came near to the lepers, faith seeks Him where He makes Himself present. But the nine did not return.
This is what happens with many—maybe even nine out of ten?—of the baptized. They believe at first. They believe for a while. But then they get tangled up in their earthly life—friends, family, career, entertainment. They stop struggling against the sinful flesh that clings to them and let it reign over them again. They stop participating in the Eucharist—the great “Thanksgiving”—where Jesus makes Himself present again on earth in the preaching of the Word and with His body and blood in the Sacrament. The apostle’s warning to these Christians couldn’t be more stern: of which 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.
But then there is the one—the one who, when he is healed of his leprosy, rejoices in God. He rejoices in the mercy of Christ. He isn’t forced to return. He isn’t obligated to give thanks. It’s just what he is eager to do, what he now lives to do. He has been recreated as a new man, a clean man, a man who clings only to Christ, even as he goes about the rest of his earthly life. His is a life of ongoing repentance, a life of Eucharist, a life of thanksgiving, a life of purpose in which Christ is the focus; Christ is the center; Christ is the goal.
So it is with some of the baptized, and so God wants it to be for all of you who hear this Gospel. It’s why He confronts you again today with the ten lepers, with the nine, and with the one. The merciful Lord Christ has come near to you again today in Word and Sacrament, because He knows you need His forgiveness again, and His strength. He knows your flesh is strong and is tugging at you to indulge in wickedness, to pursue your own self-interests, to turn Jesus Himself into an afterthought in your life. And so He has come near to help, to forgive and to strengthen, and also to receive your thanksgiving as you gather around Him in this Eucharist where He is really present again on earth.
How do you measure the health of a church? Not by the numbers, but by the presence of the true Word of Christ, and by the faith of His members which expresses itself in thanksgiving and in love. Some of that can only be measured by God Himself, who alone sees the heart. But some of it—the presence of Christ’s members here, at Christ’s Service, the joyful expressions of thanksgiving, and the zeal to fight against the flesh and to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—that can be seen, to some degree. May God strengthen you, His baptized children, to abandon the nine and to join the one in a lifelong returning to give glory to God in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.