Sermon for Sunday 9th October, 2016
OT 29 Year C
‘Turning back . . . to Jesus’
If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’ Luke 17:3-4
One of the lovely co-incidences which mad Rose’s wedding such a joy for me personally was working with one of my former colleagues in Bradford, Robin Gamble, someone for whom my respect is unbounded.
Robin is a born evangelist with a desire for people to come and know Jesus, and even at the end of the wedding service he was issuing an invitation to any who had been touched by the palpable blessing of God on our worship, that they might come and explore faith with him!
Today’s gospel reading put me in mind of Robin for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was one of his enduring complaints that in presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ to children, we often distort is and water it down, and that this has an unhelpful effect when they come to encounter the church and the person of Jesus in later life. He used to put it like this ‘When people are young we inoculate them with a weak form of Christianity, so that when they get older, they are in no danger of catching the real thing!’ And of course we can see this working out in this familiar story of Jesus encountering the ten lepers.
It takes little is any imagination to hear the Sunday school teacher re-inforcing the voice of our mother ‘now then, what do you say to the kind man?’ – saying ‘Jesus wants us always to say thank you!’ But whilst giving thanks IS a Christian virtue, this bourgeois form of politeness – saying thank you to those who are kind to us, is nothing but an inoculation against Christian Gratitude – which is shockingly dangerous to our ears. As St Paul puts it, Give thanks in all circumstances . . .When you are ill, give thanks, When people assault you give thanks, When you are hungry, give thanks . . . The perfect expression of Christian gratitude is found in the words of Job, when everything he holds dear has been taken from him – ‘Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Although it ought to be pointed out that the very fact that we have to be taught to give thanks surely reveals something we’d rather not admit about our human condition, whatever this story of the ten lepers is about, we should flee any attempt to turn it into the tasteless gruel of a moral story about ‘saying thank you’, which inoculates us against the outrageous nature of Christian gratitude.
So what might it be about? Well, I remember something else about Robin, in particular his sermons. As I have already noted, his one desire was that people might know Jesus, and his sermons reflected this. As anyone who had heard him over any period of time would attest, Robin only had three sermons – all of what he said followed one of three patterns. Either ‘Come to Jesus’, or ‘Come closer to Jesus’, or, if you have been close to Jesus but drifted away, ‘come back to Jesus’
Now its always worthwhile looking at the context for a reading to better understand it. St Luke isn’t haphazardly putting material together – he like Robin is an Evangelist – proclaiming the Evangel, the Good News, which is Jesus himself – that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself, that Jesus Is the place of that reconciliation.
Just a few verses earlier, and curiously committed from our reading last week, we hear these words of which Brett reminded us: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’” And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
What is Jesus saying here? If they turn back to you seven times a day, day in and day out and say ‘I repent’, you must forgive? He is saying that you must put no obstacle between that person and Jesus. To encounter you seven times a day, to turn back to you seven times a day, mist be like turning back to Jesus himself, who forgives everyone for everything. He says ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble., therefore ‘Be on your guard! Be alert – be attentive!! Don’t forget whose servant you are!! Do not be an obstacle to them meeting ME. You Must forgive – you must not put a stumbling block in the path of your brother or sister however weak they are – you must not get in the way – if they encounter you, they must encounter my radical forgiveness.
They turn back, and they encounter Jesus, and to encounter Jesus is to encounter the Salvation of God . . . So we turn to the encounter of Jesus with the ten lepers.
We are told that Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. He was on the border somewhere – in an age without fences and walls and border posts, he was in that curiously undefined area – where he meets ten lepers – and of course their leprosy would have meant that they were pushed to the edges – they are even on the edge of the village in this borderland. ‘Ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ Why ten?? Well as we shall see in a moment, matters of worship are in the background here. You will remember the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and how the conversation gets onto where you should worship. This stuff mattered hugely, and of course the lepers were excluded from the Temple, THE PLACE in Judaism where you went up to regularly to worship. They couldn’t participate in worship because they were ritually unclean. BUT they could still engage in public worship, as long as there were ten of them. Ten was if you like the quorum for worshipping together – [note how Jesus reduces the quorum to two or three gathered in his name . . .] – primarily for Public praying.
But when you are the lowest of the low, you don’t get to choose your fellows, so in order to pray together, the 9 Jewish lepers have no choice but to get together with this Samaritan for public prayer, BUT Pray is what they do!! ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us!’ they cry out, publicly praying! ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us!’ The most basic of prayers, and one known well in the Tradition of the Church, the Jesus prayer. ‘Jesus, have mercy on us’ – this utterly transformative prayer which reaches deep into who we are as it reaches deep into the mystery of the Living God. ‘Jesus, master, have mercy on us’ Out of the depths we cry to you O Lord. On the edge – shut out by their disease – they get together and publicly pray, to Jesus.
And he Sees them – He is the God who sees, as Hagar, the mother of Ishmael call him, El Roi. Jesus Sees them – it is the strong Greek word which traditionally we translate, behold – he sees them and says ‘Go show yourselves to the priests . . . and as they went, they were made clean’
Now it is worth noting here that there is a profound act of faith on behalf of all ten. Here they are, in the nomansland between Galilee and Samaria – unclean – keeping their distance . . . and Jesus tells them to go to the priests . . . and they would have known that to do so would have resulted in their rejection! For they are still leprous. Go to the priests . . . but just as when you have nothing, you have to make do with the people around you to call them friends, so also, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose . . . still it is an act of faith, and they act in obedience to the Word of Jesus, ‘and as they went, they were made clean’. They epitomise the ‘unworthy slaves’ of whom we heard last week. They have no life of their own, so they respond to this command of Jesus the master – why not? They have no sense of their own worth or anything else and discover the wonder of a life lived in obedience to Jesus . . . and we hear nothing of them again, they are cleansed and become fit to enter the Temple once again, to worship with the crowds.
Their affliction lifted, one is now ditched, for they’ll easily make up a worship quorum now . . . their uncleanness now dealt with they are free from having to associate with the unclean Samaritan – There is one who still cannot come to the Temple, or can he??
When Jesus responds to the Samaritan ex-leper, he uses an unusual word. Now Jesus of course spoke Aramaic, but Greek was a public language. It was used widely on notices – for Jerusalem had visitors from all over as we know from the story of Pentecost, many of whom wouldn’t speak or indeed read Aramaic, but who would all know Greek, pretty much as English is a global language at present.
Jesus said ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ The Greek word used for foreigner is not found anywhere else in scripture, but it would be well known to any visitor to the Temple, where the very same Greek word, allogenes, was there for all to see, as in ‘No foreigners!’ Rather like post Brexit Britain, the Temple was a place where foreigners were told in no uncertain terms, keep out!
They were excluded from the place of the worship of God. But they had their own places of worship – upon Mt Gerizim, the Holy Mountain. The big dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans was precisely this – where did you worship . . . so the nine Jewish lepers go off to find the priests at the Temple – but what of ‘this foreigner’ . . . surely he’d go off to Gerizim?? We all have our own places of worship . . .
One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
Jesus Saw the ten lepers, but only one, ‘this foreigner, this allogenes’ who could not approach the Holy of holies, Sees Jesus, Sees Who he is . . . he falls on his face at Jesus’ feet in an act of worship . . . when he saw that he was healed, he turned back . . . to Jesus . . . and there he finds the much deeper healing. ‘Get up, go on your way’, Jesus says, ‘your faith has saved you’
When Jesus commands his disconcerted disciples ‘if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’ He is saying to them, in my name, in obedience to me, you become the gateway for the deepest of all healings . . . after all, which is it easier to say? Your sins are forgiven you, or ‘take up your mat and walk. Reconciliation is the heart of what God is doing in and through Jesus. Not to be reconciled to God in Christ and through that reconciliation to be reconciled justas deeply to one another is to miss out on the Salvation Life in and through Jesus.
And what of the other nine? ‘Were not ten made clean? The other nine, where are they?’ Day after day the goodness of God is poured out upon all people – in food, and sunlight, in clothing and warmth – week after week we come to his house, to Hear the word which brings Life, to feed on the bread from heaven . . . but do we give thanks? Moreover, praising God, do we fall on our face before Jesus in Worship?
Within just a few short years, the Temple is destroyed, never to be rebuilt – for God’s Temple, God’s dwelling place was now fully established in the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of His Son. There is Life, There is Healing, There is Salvation, In Jesus and Through Jesus and with Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And he still is that place today, now and forever, wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there He is.
A time is coming when all the places of worship will finally be closed, but the place of Salvation is always the Same, yesterday, today and forever. The Samaritan turns back to the place of healing and Life and Salvation – he turns back to Jesus. May we do likewise.