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Sermon for Trinity 14
Galatians 5:16-24 + Luke 17:11-19
Today’s Epistle talked about “the flesh” vs. “the spirit.” What is “the flesh” St. Paul was referring to? I think you know he was talking about the sinful, spiritual disease that dwells in our flesh—in the flesh of all people. The infectious, inherited corruption that runs throughout ourselves and our race, passed down like a disease from Adam and Eve after they fell into sin. The disease lives in all human beings and is the source of every wicked work, of which St. Paul listed a number 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.
You know how the Bible often uses the physical maladies of some people to illustrate the spiritual defects in all people? Blindness depicting spiritual blindness? Deafness pointing to spiritual deafness, etc.? Today in our Gospel we see the disease that pictures for us “the flesh”: Leprosy. A disease of the whole flesh, spotted skin riddled with sores. A disease that made a person unfit to live with “healthy” people, a disease that kept a person far away from the holy things in God’s temple.
That’s what the flesh is like, a spiritual disease of the whole person, making us sinners before God from the time our mothers conceived us, blemished, spotted, unfit to live among the saints, unfit to approach God.
But see what happened in the Gospel! Ten men with leprosy somehow, somewhere heard the good report about Jesus, that He was “the Master,” that He was powerful to heal every kind of disease, and that He was merciful to all who came to Him for help. They heard it, and they believed it. You can tell they believed it from their cry of faith, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!
The word about Jesus had already kindled faith in the hearts of the lepers—at least, faith in Jesus for physical healing. And so He healed them. He didn’t wave their leprosy away then and there, but instead He sent them on their way to the priests in Jerusalem, who were charged with examining lepers to see if they were truly healed.
The priests—the keepers of the Law—were the ones who could pronounce lepers clean. But the priests—the keepers of the Law—weren’t the ones who could cleanse them. Only Jesus could do that. And there’s our first spiritual lesson in this Gospel. The Law can’t save anyone, can’t heal anyone before God, because we start out life diseased, infected with original sin and condemned by the Law for it. But by faith in Christ Jesus, there is cleansing before God, and not just of original sin, but of all sin, so that, by faith in Christ Jesus we can now stand before God and the Law has to pronounce us Christians righteous—not because we have a cleanness of our own, but because faith in the cleansing, forgiving power of Jesus, makes us clean. As Jesus said to the leper who returned, “Your faith has saved you.”
But you remember how the story went on. As the lepers were journeying to the priests, they looked down at their flesh at some point, and they saw that they were no longer lepers. They had been cleansed by Jesus. Nine of the ten kept going to the priests, but one of them stopped and turned around and glorified God with a loud voice. He ran back to where Jesus was. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and gave thanks to Him.
Luke notes that he was a Samaritan, which should remind you of another Samaritan encounter we heard about last week—the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans practiced false worship and were despised by the Jews for both religious and racial reasons (the hatred was mutual, from what we can tell). But this Samaritan gets it right. He recognizes the true God in the person of Jesus. He won’t be satisfied with anywhere else for giving thanks to God than at the feet of Jesus. He doesn’t care that Jesus is a Jew. What does that matter? Jesus is his God who came to his aid. He had to return to where Jesus was to give thanks.
And Jesus was glad he did. But first Jesus had to note the absence of the other nine. 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? Clearly it mattered to Jesus that the other nine failed to give thanks to Him, because it revealed something about those nine men. Although they had started out well, believing in Him for healing, they quickly forgot about Him. And that’s not what saving faith does.
Saving faith doesn’t believe in Jesus for a moment and then leave Him to get back to our own life apart from Him. When the Holy Spirit works faith in a poor sinner, He grants forgiveness through faith in Christ Jesus. Another way of saying that is, He gives the sinner new birth, to be born again, “regeneration,” we sometimes call it. The flesh, the sinful nature, isn’t wiped out and destroyed, in the process. Instead, it’s “crucified,” as Paul wrote to the Galatians. It’s “drowned,” as we confess in the Small Catechism, in Holy Baptism. But it’s drowned “daily” as we return each day to our Baptism, in contrition and repentance.
And then what? A New Man daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. As Paul said to the Ephesians, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Walk in the Spirit, Paul wrote in the Epistle, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
The first step in that walk in the Spirit is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for God’s giving of His Son into death for our sins. Thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice of love. Thanksgiving for the Spirit’s free and faithful gift of forgiveness, for the sake of Christ.
Jesus praised the one who returned to give Him thanks, because it was a sign that the man’s faith was genuine, a sign that the man had truly been born again, as opposed to the other nine whose faith flickered and died as quickly as it had been kindled.
Assuming you all meant the words you confessed already today in this service, you came here, first, to seek the Lord’s mercy in Christ Jesus. Lord, have mercy! Who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us! That’s good and right. The whole Christian life begins with that cry of faith, kindled by the word you have heard about God’s mercy in Christ. And you also came here this morning to give thanks to God in the place where God has promised to be, here, where the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered. Glory be to God on high!…We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory… That’s the response of faith.
Let that cry of, Kyrie! Lord have mercy, and the response of thanksgiving characterize your life throughout the week. You can’t be here in church every day. You’re not supposed to be. God has given you duties to perform in this earthly life. But what happens here on Sunday mornings—your cry of Kyrie and your response of thanksgiving—can play itself out every day as you live in daily contrition and repentance, and as the New Man emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Walk in the Spirit, according to the new, cleansed man, not according to the flesh, for the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another. Remember your Baptism! Remember that you have received God’s forgiveness, and with it, a New Man. Not that you won’t still struggle with sin. On the contrary, you will see that sin is your constant companion.
But so is the grace of God in Christ Jesus, which saves you from the Law’s condemnation and from the guilt of your sins, and inspires you to produce all the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
You noticed, He didn’t mention “thanksgiving” in that list, did he? That’s because thankfulness to God characterizes the whole life of the Christian and accompanies every fruit of the Spirit. It’s a part of every truly good work. Lord, have mercy! Lord, thank you for your mercy! That’s the Christian life. May God give you strength to live it again this week. Amen.