Questioning Your Faith
I find that when most people say they're questioning their faith, they aren't. They aren't questioning anything about themselves but questioning what God is or isn't doing. Our text moves us to question ourselves.
I have the faith of the 10 lepers? The focus is usually on the 1 who returned,
and all that is said about the 9 is the accusatory question.
"Where on the other nine?" But it's worth asking, Is your faith even at the level of the much maligned nine?
First a little background about leprosy. The Old Testament Church was given extensive laws about it. God said if you had the disease you were physically cut off from the community and from the worship life of the church. Contrary to what most think this was not because leprosy is a highly contagious disease. The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia says, "It is transmitted chiefly by close contact with the patient for months or years. Incubation period is commonly 5-20 years" (608). God's laws dealing with leprosy were not to prevent physical infection. The people knew this. Even the Rabbinic laws, that were stricter than God's, did not apply in the case of a heathen, a proselyte before conversion, or an Israelite at birth. Also priests didn't examine or put into isolation a person on a feast day or at the beginning of the marriage week.
So what were the purposes of the laws regarding leprosy? They taught the Old Testament Church how original sin separates us from others and from God and how you couldn't do anything about this. The leper was regarded as the walking dead. There were not even suggestions for cures or helps. The leper was as good as dead, and so are all infected with original sin from the moment they are conceived.
The 10 lepers see Jesus from an afar and call out, "You must mercy us." That's a fitting thing to pray to one whose mercy endures forever. That's a fitting thing to pray to the one who had said twice publicly, "Go learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.'" In response to this open-ended, undefined plea for mercy Jesus says, "After going, you must show yourselves to the priests."
Everyone knew that priests couldn't heal leprosy. Their duty was to examine a person and declare the person clean or unclean. If they declared them clean, they would be restored to the community and to the worship life of the church. The point being that no leper went to a priest with what he knew to be an active case of leprosy. That would be foolish; that would be pointless. But all 10 uncleansed, unhealed lepers went.
Do you have the faith all 10 lepers had? You surely have the leprosy of Original Sin which is the total corruption of your human nature having lost the image of God. You have the Original Sin which makes you spiritually blind and dead, yet still an active enemy of God. As they had proofs of their physical leprosy in their bodies, you have the proofs of your spiritual leprosy in your bodies and souls. That gray hair or that new ache testifies you are dying. You always wanting God to show Himself, prove Himself indicate you're blind to spiritual truth. The fact that like Adam and Eve you want to hide from God behind fig leaves of excuses, promises, or self- justification show God is still your enemy.
You have an active case of Original Sin pulling you relentlessly toward hell even as those lepers were being pulled relentlessly toward death. In response to Jesus' command to show themselves to the priests, with the implied promise that by the time they got there they would be healed, all 10 went, all 10 believed Jesus' command and promise without one ounce of physical proof that there was any validly to what He had said to them.
Does your faith do that? Your heart cries for mercy in dark nights, gloomy days, or everyday despair. You know you don't deserve mercy. Mercy deserved would be merit not mercy. God sent His only beloved Son into the world to live a merciless life under His judgment to win mercy for all sinners. Jesus didn't need mercy. He was perfect, sinless, holy. And after picking up every sin, every shortcoming, every wretched thing you ever did, said, or thought, He stood before the God's judgment seat to be sentenced for your Original Sin and for all your sins that come from that.
For the sake of what perfect Jesus meek and mild suffered in place of you, God's Word declares you forgiven, free. Do you have the faith all 10 lepers did? Do you act on God's Word of forgiveness that is in your ears for Jesus' sake even though you have no sign of the forgiveness? I mean you don't feel forgiven, do you? You don't look forgiven, do you? And when all 10 turned to go to the priests, their fingers were still numb; their flesh was still rotting, and they were still lepers. But because Jesus commanded they believed and off they go to see the priests relying on Jesus promise that they would be healed. Do you have the faith of those 10 lepers? That's the question. Do you act on God's Word to you?
There's another question looming in this text. Do you have the saving faith of the 1 leper? I'm not telling you that the 9 who didn't return lost their healing, but based on what Jesus says to the 1 I don't think they got the salvation he did. You have to go to a literal translation to see this. Jesus says to the one who returns to Him, "The faith of you has forever saved you." The insert translating "made you well" doesn't reach to this level. Others translating "made you whole" are closer in that salvation is ultimately of body and soul. But translating "made well" or "made whole" don't show you that 1 leper got something 9 did not.
This leper knows that Jesus is God. It says, "One out of them, seeing that he had been healed returned with a loud voice glorifying the God." And at whose feet does the text say he fell? "And he fell upon his face next to Jesus' feet giving thanks to Him." Only 1 out of 9 lepers went back to church. Only 1 saw the connection between his healing and Jesus. Only 1 saw that obedience to laws or commands wasn't what healed him. Jesus had.
All sorts of questions fly through the head. One is: Couldn't this leper have dropped to his knees right where he was when the healing happened and thanked Jesus right then and there? You know such people. These are the Christians who say they can worship God anywhere outside of church just as much as people do inside of church. Then why does Jesus ask the haunting question, "Where are the 9?"
A few things about this. Jesus who John 2 says knew what was in man and didn't need anyone to tell him about man; Jesus who knows the thoughts and reasoning of every human heart; Jesus who know that men are but dust weak and fallen nevertheless marvels at their unbelief. Jesus can't believe their unbelief. 9 out of 10 healed lepers fell away.
How often I have seen this. I've seen people delivered from health, marriage, job problems, from death itself and seldom return to the God who delivered them. O while they were in the valley of the shadow of death, while they were in the depths, they were at the feet of Jesus in Divine Service, and they welcomed me as his minister in hospital, rehab, or home. But the crisis gone, sickness, sadness, or death averted, and they reverted to thanklessness and having no room for God. And I don't know why it surprises me when this happens because it happens to me, regularly.
It happens this way. Go back to the 9. Imagine the moment when they first realized they are healed, delivered from a living death. The 9 could have and probably did defend their decision not to return to Jesus because after all He had commanded them to go to the priests. They had to go or else. They thought they were healed by keeping God's commandments. In crisis, this is a very easy tack to take. When they use to have transplant wards in hospitals, I noticed this feature in them. Virtually every single patient there had his own little altar, his own little shrine set up. This was his liturgy, his divine service centering on his transplant. Even people not waiting for such a big thing as a life-saving transplant, develop a liturgy focused on being delivered from whatever especially afflicts them.
Here's where the two errors come together. Forsaking the One who saved you once you've been delivered and thinking that your keeping of the law while in crisis is what delivered you have a common error. I should know. I have done both. What the two have in common is that neither are about Jesus. Both are about me.
We are not saved by keeping God's commandments or by believing God's promises. You probably get the first; what Lutheran doesn't know you can't be saved by keeping the Law. The second is harder, but if you fall into the trap of thinking your believing is the power that saves you, you're sentenced to constantly taking the temperature of your faith to see if it is hot enough to save you. What delivered the lepers from the original sin of leprosy was a Word from Jesus. Noticed He didn't touch them at all. And it wasn't their doing what Jesus had commanded or their believing the implied promise. It was Jesus. One leper, by God's grace got that, and so He returned to His Healer, Savior, Lord, and God. And notice Jesus sent him away again. Sent him back on his journey to the priest.
Something is wrong with the faith of Christians who aren't continually drawn back to where the Jesus who healed them, forgave them, saved them is: in the Waters of their Baptism; in the Words of His Absolution; and in particular to His Body and Blood in Communion. They either think that knowing something is the same as believing it. But none of the 9 would ever forget that Jesus had healed them, but that isn't the same as believing in Him. Or they think that trying their best to be a good person, a Christian person is the path that Jesus has set them on. No by forgiving our sins, Jesus hasn't sent us on a journey away from Him but in orbit around Him.
Faith can be a nebulous thing. So ask yourself from whom do I go out and to whom do I return? Whom am I in constant communion with? Like the 9 you can decide it isn't Jesus, but there was no decision for the 1. There was no question about it. His life now revolved around Jesus. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (20161009); Luke 17: 11-19