Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on when, 2005
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Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
Ten lepers, ten healings, and only one turns back to praising God and honoring Jesus. This sermon is about grace and gratitude.
In the ancient world there were a number of skin diseases that the New Testament calls leprosy. These various skin diseases caused the one so afflicted to be considered unclean and outside of regular society. Depending on family circumstances the ones so afflicted would have to beg or do other unpleasant things to survive.
In today's gospel passage, Jesus was passing through a region that had a mixed population of Jews and that ethnic group the Jews were particularly un-fond of, the Samaritans. Ten lepers call out to Jesus for mercy, and he tells them to go show themselves to the priests in accordance with the Jewish law. As they are on their way, they are made clean - purified of their leprosy. Nine continue on their way to the priests and disappear out of this story.
One leper, a Samaritan, turns back when he sees he has been healed and praises God with a loud voice and gives thanks and honor to Jesus. Jesus asks, "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?" Apparently not.
The Samaritan's response to Jesus' gracious act of healing was gratitude. He turned back, praised God, and thanked Jesus. The other nine, no doubt pleased to be healed, go on their way, taking their blessing in stride.
Jesus says something further to the Samaritan leper, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." This phrase "made you well" is, I think, better translated as "saved you." The verb in Greek is the exact same verb that is translated as saved in many other places, "sodzo". There is a connection between salvation and wellness, wholeness, and healing in the ancient world, so the translator has to make a choice when he or she comes across this verb "sodzo." So I read these words of Jesus to the Samaritan leper as, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you." All ten lepers were healed, but not all ten were saved in the fullest sense; only the one who turned back in gratitude praising God and thanking Jesus.
One more note on Greek - the word "thanking" - the leper falls at Jesus feet "thanking" Jesus - the Greek word is "euchariston." You may recognize the Greek word we in Church use regularly, that is, 'Eucharist.' It is no coincidence. Luke is a skilled writer, and the connection would have jumped out at any early Christian reader / hearer of this text. "Euchariston" is an important word and would call to mind a similar set of meanings as it does for us.
So the lesson from this story is that the proper response to God's
gracious action is gratitude, is thanksgiving. God has healed all ten
lepers, but only the one who has gratitude, who gives thanks, is made
well. Only that one is saved.
God is working out many things in many people's lives. God's grace "precedes and follows us" as a certain collect says. Grace is that unmerited goodness of God that surrounds us and holds us up. It's amazing, as a certain familiar hymn has it. All ten lepers received God's grace and healing. I would go so far as to say that God's grace and healing is working in some way in the lives of all people. But not all people turn back and give thanks. The nine other lepers who go on their way are healed - Jesus doesn't undo that because they don't thank him. But the faithful response of the one leper who turns back, giving thanks and praising God allows him to be more than healed. He is made well," "saved."
What I make of this is that the fullness of our own healing, our own being made well, our own salvation is wrapped up in our faithful thanksgiving to God. The right response to Grace is Gratitude. This is the deepening spiral of the Christian life, I think too: God works in our life, and we give thanks to him, and our very act of giving thanks to him invites him to work further in our lives, giving us more reason to give thanks and praise. It is right for us to give him thanks and praise.
The thing we most praise God for is the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ: that Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection has created the possibility for an estranged humanity to be drawn back to God. It is with gratitude for this, and all the other gracious acts of God in our lives that we will turn to the Holy Table and give thanks, that is, make Eucharist in just a few moments. We Christians follow after that one leper. He was a man who gave thanks. We are a Eucharistic community. We are a community that gives thanks because we have been made well. Praise God.
©2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York