Cleansed Along the Way
I went to a private Christian high school in Atlanta. Not long after I graduated, the administration invited all interested alumni to participate in a conversation about the religious character of the school and about some of their particular policies. It was a little like our Visioning Potluck. We began in small groups for table conversation, and then gathered together to share what we had said with the whole group.
Virtually everyone who spoke that evening all those years ago seemed to agree that Christianity ultimately boils down to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I have heard the same thing many times since then.
Now, for the record, I am officially pro-golden rule. We rightly teach and talk about it. Our world would be a very different place, and a much better place, if everyone actually followed the golden rule. Think how different our politics would be, or our legal system, or our financial system. Think how different our Churches would look!
But those folks were wrong to say that Christianity boils down to the golden rule. Important as the golden rule is, Christianity stands for much more. Finally one person stood up and reminded us that Christianity has something to do with Jesus Christ, that any summary of Christianity which fails to mention Jesus is radically incomplete.
If we want a better description of what our faith is all about than my schoolmates were able to offer, we can find one in our Gospel reading for this morning. It just takes a little digging.
Every miracle story, including our passage, demonstrates Jesus’ divine power, and that is important. But if we want to get at the deeper lesson of this passage, we have to pay attention to the little details that distinguish this one from other miraculous healings.
So, ten lepers approach Jesus and beg for mercy. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.
Here you need a little background. In the ancient world, they understood virtually nothing about how diseases spread. Whenever anyone showed symptoms of a potentially serious illness like leprosy, they were supposed to go to the priests to be assessed. If the priest believed there was danger of infection, he would effectively quarantine the person. That is what has happened to our ten lepers. If a quarantined leper healed somehow, he had to return to the priest who would pronounce him clean. Then he could return to normal society. When Jesus tells these lepers to show themselves to the priests, he is, by implication, promising them that they will be healed and can be pronounced clean.
But, and this is the interesting point, Jesus did NOT heal them on the spot. Jesus didn’t simply make them clean with a touch or a word, as he normally did. When these lepers walked away from Jesus that day, they were still suffering from leprosy. Their cleansing remained a hope, not yet a reality.
Imagine for a minute that you were one of those lepers as they headed towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem was roughly forty miles away, and they were on foot. So far, nothing has happened. What do you do? Do you keep going?
They kept going. “And as they went,” only as they went, “they were made clean.”
What is the lesson for us in this delayed healing? Well, that is how the Christian life often works.
Think about the promises we receive in baptism. In baptism, we are cleansed of sin. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
But at first it looks a lot like nothing has changed, like we are exactly the same after baptism as we were before. I was baptized at two months old, and I am sure I fussed that night just like I had fussed the night before.
We are like those lepers. We have glorious promises of God’s forgiveness and grace and healing. God promises to make us new. But as we begin our journey with Christ, often not much happens right away. Our first steps may not look particularly promising. And over and over again, we have to decide whether or not we want to continue on the journey.
Not everyone does. But if we do continue on, if we walk the way of Christ, the cleansing that is promised in baptism begins to work on us and in us. Sometimes the changes happen in great leaps. More often in my experience the changes are so gradual we can barely see them. But one way or another, over time, as we walk along the way, we are changed, we are cleansed of sin, we become more like the people God created us to be.
Our Bishop notes that one of Paul’s favorite phrase is “but now.” That is a transformation phrase. I was lost, but now I am found. I was blind, but now I see.
In my own case, I know I have a long way to go. But I also know that Christ’s grace and love have been at work in me. I was stuck in my head, but now my heart has been opened up a little bit. I was self-absorbed, but now I sometimes consider the needs of other people.
All of us have been touched by God. All of us have been transformed, even if only in part. I encourage you to take a few minutes this week to reflect on the difference Jesus Christ has made in your life. How have you been transformed by our risen Lord?
Because that is what Christianity is all about: being transformed by Christ, made over again in Christ’s image and likeness. As we experience the forgiveness of sin, as we receive the grace of God in Christ, we should surely do a better job of following the golden rule. But the point of Christian faith is being touched, being changed, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
We need to know that, and we need to let others know it, by sharing our own stories of transformation.
But we can keep going with our Gospel reading as a parable of Christian faith and life. Jesus sends the ten lepers to God’s temple in Jerusalem. God is our destination, too. We set out with the promises made in baptism, we are transformed along the way, and we end up in God. Thank God for that!
And our passage reminds us to give thanks to Christ along the way, Christ who alone has the power to make us clean and prepare us to encounter God.
Last Monday, we began a conversation about our vision for Saint David’s. We had a great night. The food was excellent, and the conversation was lively and upbeat. The vestry and I will be talking on Tuesday about follow-up conversations.
But our Gospel reading points the way.
We are a community of people whose lives have been, and continue to be, transformed by Jesus Christ. We are a community of people committed to travelling the way of Christ until we meet God face to face. And we are a community of people who gather to give thanks to Jesus Christ for opening to us the way of salvation, for accompanying us and cleansing us and supporting us along the way, and for eventually bringing us home.
I give thanks to God for you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who gather with me to offer our thanks and praise to Christ. And I pray that we all may continue to experience Christ’s cleansing grace as we continue to walk in his way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan