In preparation for today’s sermon, I took a walk. It sometimes helps clear the mind. Even if it doesn’t, it seemed particularly appropriate to walk while thinking about this story about Jesus which Luke tells us. Because it is a story set against the backdrop of walking. And so, today, I thought we should walk through this story, so to speak, stopping at points of interest along the way.
As we join the story, we encounter Jesus walking. It is pretty much how he always travelled, with the exception of a few trips in a boat and a ride or two on a donkey. People now are always being encouraged to walk more, because it is so healthy, good for the body and the mind. It is not so long since walking was the only way for ordinary people to get anywhere. That Jesus is walking places him among ordinary people, not above, but one of us.
This was not just aimless wandering. Jesus was on a journey. He was going to Jerusalem. Depending on where he started from in Galilee, Jerusalem was about eighty miles away. If you were going directly, would have been a journey of at least five or six days, but for Jesus it was much longer, because, for him and the gospel writers, Jerusalem is more an event that a place. When the gospels say that Jesus was “on his way to Jerusalem” it means he was on his way to crucifixion.
At this point, he was physically only a little way into the journey. We know that because Luke is as precise as he can about where Jesus was. In those times, borders would not have been as hard and fast as they are now. To our minds, there can be no region between Galilee and Samaria, for the two districts border each other. But then, of course, there would have been an area where Galileans and Samaritans lived intermixed, as is true in any place which has a land border. We need to think of this border more as an area of gradual transition, rather than abrupt change.
Let’s pause here a moment and ponder that image. Does it work as a metaphor for our lives, for where we are as Christian people? I think it does. I think we can think of the Church as being a border region, an area of gradual transition between the world and its ways, and the kingdom of God. The church is neither wholly of the world, nor wholly of the Kingdom. It is the place through which we gradually move from one to the other. We, followers of Christ, inhabit this border place, neither wholly of the world and not yet wholly of the Kingdom.
What happens in border areas, in regions between, in places of transition? Many things. We encounter the other. We meet people both like and unlike us. That, again, is how the Church should be a place where we both find comfort and challenge. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable, out of place. Sometimes we feel secure, utterly at home.
In this border area, Jesus was approached by ten lepers, like him in their humanity, divided from him and everyone else by their disease. But this is a place of encounter, a place of risk. The lepers risked coming to Jesus. Jesus risked being near enough to them to communicate with them. “Have mercy,” they cried.
They asked for mercy because they were suffering. Relief from suffering would have been merciful in their lives. In Jesus, they saw, not the source of their suffering, but one who could possibly lift it, and make them whole, whole in body again, fully able to re-join family and community from which they were excluded. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus shouted back. An odd response, perhaps, to our ears, more used as we are to stories of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. But Jesus is recalling an old practice, described in the Hebrew Scriptures, of people suffering from leprosy seeking healing from priests. He is forming a continuity with the past. That is one of the roles of the Church too. But Jesus is also pointing the way forward, to healing, to new life. When the Church is faithful to Jesus, it does this too, pointing the way forward to new life while at the same time holding the past in deep remembrance. It values both the traditional and the contemporary, the old and the new, the past and the yet to come, neither fetishizing nor dismissing either.
On this occasion, it was not from the priests that healing came. The priests would have seen only flesh restored and people made healthy again. This is one of those occasions on which Jesus healed at a distance, as the lepers were walking away from him. Hold that image for a moment. We focus so much on people coming to church, imagining that this is the place that people may encounter Christ, that Jesus is waiting for people to come to him. These lepers though, were leaving him, most never to return, but still he reaches out to them to serve them at the point of their greatest need.
Did they ever make it to the priests? Who knows. For one, at least, the priests were no longer his priority. Seeing himself healed, he turned back to Jesus and came in thankfulness.
We should pause here a little. If the church is a border area, a place of transition, it should not only be a piece of encounter and challenge, but place of thankfulness. A couple of weeks ago, we sang, “Come, ye thankful people, come.” That’s us. We are thankful people; thankful for who we are and all we have; thankful to God who made us and who provides for us. When we celebrate Holy Communion, we always say, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise. It is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places, to give thanks and praise. Our duty and our joy. Think about that for a moment. In the Communion liturgy, in the defining act of Christian worship, we assert that the source, the cause of our deepest happiness is our thankfulness to God. And that is true because thankfulness brings us close to God.
Thankfulness brought the healthy former leper close to Jesus, closer than he had been before. Only as we see him on the ground before Jesus, transformed by joy and thankfulness, does Luke tell us that he is a Samaritan. The information comes as a shock, as a rebuke. A rebuke to others who maybe had more reason to know better, to know that they should have been grateful to God for their healing. These lepers had been outcasts because of the disease. To Galilean and Judean minds, this man was doubly an outcast because his religion was not considered proper. But it was he who did the right thing. It is he who shows us that it is the other, the one not quite like us, be that in belief, in ethnicity, in sexuality, in social acceptability, who can challenge our assumptions and point us to truth and, indeed, if we are open, lead us closer to God. This interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan former leper challenges the temptation towards rigid orthodoxy which is not open to other wisdoms.
As Jesus speaks to the Samaritan before him, there is sadness in his voice. Sadness that only one returned to him. But there is commendation for the Samaritan man too. Words of kindness and blessing. And so we see how this is a story about ministry. It is a story about serving, about ministering indiscriminately. It is a story about not looking for a return on effort, but being thankful when one occurs. It is a story that shows us that return on ministry often comes from unexpected people. It is often the case that those most grateful for the church are those who have least expectation that the church will care about them. But of course, we do not minister in order to receive gratitude. We minister because we ourselves are grateful to God.
As we have walked through this story, alongside Jesus, on a little part of his journey, we have encountered some of the great themes of our faith – thankfulness, wholeness and salvation. Thankfulness flows from and is a response to the other two, the restoration of wholeness and the experience of salvation. It is easy to think of these somehow separate, but this little story, this chance encounter, shows that they are not. In God, through Christ, our brokenness is made whole. In this story, as in many others in the Gospels, physical illness and disease are metaphors for humanity’s broken relationship with God. Christ offers to all, the familiar and the stranger, the thankful and the unthankful, a new relationship with God in which sin is forgiven and we are made one with the One who made us. In other words, Christ secures our salvation and gives us the gift of faith to see and feel and understand that all are made well with God.
To God be all thanks and praise.