Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 33:38 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At one time or another, probably every single one of us has known what it feels like to be excluded. Maybe it happened in high school, at the lunch table, or with the cool kids. Maybe it happened because of some disagreement in your family. Maybe it happened with an organization you wanted to join. In some way, at some time, probably all of us have known the feeling of being excluded.
So we can understand, at least a little bit, what it’s like for these lepers. But even though we know the feeling of exclusion, none of us has experienced it to the extent that these 10 men were excluded. They were excluded completely, from everything. They are excluded from their families, from their villages, from their communities. But even more, they are excluded from their religious and spiritual communities. They cannot take part in the services or sacrifices, in the gathering of God’s people around His word and gifts. They have to be apart, removed, far away from other people.
When we are excluded from some group, we are often very good at forming our own groups. We make our own communities, in which we are included. We use them to form and fashion our own identities. We form them around what we share with other people, what we have in common with other, like-minded people. We choose our affinities and identities and communities, and we are included. And often, then, we can take our revenge by excluding those who do not fit the criteria of our group.
The lepers are also in a community of similar people. Except they don’t want to be in it. They would do anything to get out of this community of those with skin diseases, excluded from their former human relationships. They see Jesus, and from far off, they cry out: “Jesus, Master, mercy us!” It is the same thing we sing every Lord’s Day: “Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us.” This is not only about mercy for our sins, but mercy for everything we bring into the Lord’s House with us. This is mercy for every struggle, every sickness, every difficulty, every heart-break. Jesus, Master, mercy us!
Jesus’ mercy is not, at first, apparent. He says, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” That’s the command of God’s Law in Leviticus. Leprosy was any number of skin diseases, not only what we think of as leprosy. So it was up to the priest to examine each person with a skin disease, and determine, according to the Law, whether the person was clean or unclean, included or excluded. And when someone’s skin problem cleared up, it was up to the priest to examine the person and determine, according to the Law, whether the person had been cleansed. Then they offered a guilt offering and a burnt offering in thanksgiving for their healing.
So Jesus has them do exactly this. Go to the priests, do what the Law says. And while they were going, they were cleansed. Now they can be included again, among the human communities of family and village, as well as in the spiritual and religious community of the Temple and synagogue. But one of the ten, when he saw that he had been healed, returned to Jesus. In a voice louder than when they had cried out for mercy, he praises God. He falls on his face at Jesus’ feet, and thanks Him. I don’t know if he went to the priests later; probably he would have had to. But he finds his true High Priest, and offers Him the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Whatever the priests may say, he knows where his healing has come from, from God, in the person of this Man.
But he was a Samaritan. That is, he was not only excluded from the community of Israel—even by his own choice, as the Samaritans had their own mountain on which they worshiped God—but he was excluded because of his leprosy. He may be able to go back to his family, but as a Samaritan, he’s still going to be excluded from the Temple and from Israel. He is doubly excluded. Even so, his cleansing by Jesus means he is included in the only community that finally matters: the one that is gathered to and around Jesus, by faith in Him.
All of our attempts to create communities in which we can avoid exclusion and create inclusion for ourselves, are attempts to regain the Garden of Eden, in which we lived at one with God and with each other. God made us for communion with Himself and with each other, and our rejection of His command is the cause for our alienation. Just as we cannot live without worshiping something, even if it is only ourselves, so we cannot live without community, even if it is one we create for ourselves. And none of them will finally give us what we crave. These self-chosen human communities may seem to satisfy us for a while, but they cannot replace what we have lost. Everything that humans can create will be a poor substitute for the full and perfect love of God and the full and perfect love for one another.
The worst part is that we often do not even recognize it. At least the lepers in that place knew that a community based around their shared disease was something to be escaped. But how often we revel in the spiritual leprosy of our sin! How often we desire to be included in a community that has in common only its rebellion against God’s creation, against God’s word, against God’s command! And a symptom of at least our modern forms of leprosy is a lack of feeling, numb to what is wrong with us. We don’t even recognize that we need to be cleansed, let alone desire that cleansing.
But here comes Jesus, even this morning, walking between the regions of belief and unbelief, making Himself available to sinners, to the sick; to the spiritually leprous, and those suffering in their bodies. Here He is for mercy to you, in both body and soul, because the forgiveness of your sins will mean the healing of all physical effects of sin, including especially your death. Here He says a word that does not sound like much, especially spoken by another sinner like me, but it is the very cleansing of all the baptized, as His word has cleansed Marlee this morning. In His word attached to the water, He gives a new name, a new identity, a new community. Here is how our exclusion and separation end: as Jesus makes us one in His own body. Once we were, like the lepers and especially the Samaritan, far off from God’s word and promises and life in Jesus. But here we cry out for mercy and God gives it. In Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. He includes us in His own holy Body. He gives us His own holy Name. He makes us part of His own holy Church.
Where we were once alienated and excluded from God, and from God’s people, and we were united with the world in all our self-chosen communities, now He has made us one with His people, and now we are alienated from this world. We no longer belong to the inclusion of this world with its communities, either incomplete or even contrary to God’s word and people. So we are going to be excluded from some of the groups and communities this world thinks are important. But we have been included in the only community that lasts forever, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Whatever and whoever includes you in this world, all that is passing away. They will not fill up the gaping hole in your desire to be one with God and with people. Only God makes you one with Himself in Jesus, and He restores your community with one another in the Church. This is not an inclusion you would have chosen; it is not a community of like-minded individuals. Instead, God has chosen you in Christ to be part of this eternal and holy Body, and that is an identity and a Name that cannot be undone or changed by the exclusion of this world. Whatever else changes or fails or however you may be excluded in the world, God’s Triune Name on you means that His promise to you will never change, just as it will not change for Marlee. It is true that some go away from Jesus, as the nine did. Some ignore or reject their cleansing and do not return to the one who cleansed them. Even so, God never takes it back, just as Jesus did not take back the cleansing of the lepers. He is not vindictive. But we have come to Jesus because we know Him in whom we have believed. We know that He is faithful, even if we are unfaithful, because He cannot deny Himself. We are like Ruth, refusing to let go of Jesus, whose Father and people have now become our Father and our people.
And Jesus says to you, Go in My peace. Your faith has both saved and healed you, because it is in Me, your Savior and Healer. And He will keep you in that promise until the day we see Him face to face, and we see our healing fully and completely.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/8/22