Monday, October 15, 2007

Sermon for October 14th: Luke 17:11-19

How to be Made Whole

When Bishop Jack Sperry was translating the Gospels into the Copper Eskimo dialect he had to improvise quite a few words when there was no direct Inuktitut equivalent for the familiar English term. In one of those cases, however, the word he used was closer to the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek than the English word. The Hebrew word ‘shalom’ and the Greek word ‘eirene’ are usually translated by the English word ‘peace’, but in fact in the original languages they mean far more than ‘the absence of war’. The Inuktitut word that Jack chose was the word ‘naamangnik’, which could roughly be translated as ‘a state of being okay’, and this is very close to the original meaning, which is ‘a state of untroubled, undisturbed well-being’.

Today in our society there is a great hunger for ‘naamangnik’ - ‘a state of being okay’. As a society we seem to have not just an awareness of disease but an awareness of ‘dis-ease’. At the level of physical illness there is the spread of AIDS all over the world and especially in Africa, where so many families have been decimated by it. There is the increase in heart disease and other illnesses, many of which are related to our unhealthy diet and the fact that we are so much more sedentary than we were even fifty years ago. And of course if we go beyond the physical to the area of mental and emotional health, we know that there has been an explosion of stories about abuse and family disfunctionality. Twelve-Step groups and other groups to help people in recovery are mushrooming throughout our society. All of this tells us that there is a great hunger for healing and wholeness. And we haven’t even begun to talk about people’s fears around the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Today’s Gospel deals with the idea of being made whole. In the Greek language there is another word, ‘sozo’, which has a very broad range of meanings - it can mean ‘to save’, ‘to rescue from danger’, ‘to make well’, ‘to make whole’. The interesting thing about this is that, although in our reading for today ten lepers are ‘made clean’ or ‘healed’, only one is described by Jesus as being ‘made well’ or ‘made whole’ using this word ‘sozo’. In other words, nine get the healing they asked for, but one gets more than he asked for. Jesus’ work in his life goes deeper. Let’s take a closer look at the story and try to figure this out.

The word ‘leprosy’ as it is used in the Bible covers not only what we now call ‘Hansen’s Disease’ but also many other skin diseases, some of which were highly contagious. These diseases were seen at the time of Jesus as being a sign of God’s curse; people would ask as they do today, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ The sufferer was required by law to leave town, to wear their clothes in a dishevelled state, and to cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’, whenever they saw someone approaching. So the disease isolated people from their families and their communities, and also from God who was seen as being angry with them. If by some chance their disease was cured, they had to go to a priest at the Temple; he would then certify their cure and offer a sacrifice on their behalf.

The ten lepers in our story today had grouped together in a colony as they often did in those days. We can imagine them staying close to a road so that they could beg, but also keeping their distance as the law required. When they saw Jesus they cried out, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ In response to their cry, Jesus challenged them to an act of faith before they received their healing. Without doing anything about their condition he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’, and we’re told that as they went, they were made clean’. Rather like Indiana Jones, who in the Last Crusade had to step out from the edge of a precipice before he saw the invisible bridge, they had to step out in faith and trust that God would honour their faith.

In the Gospels Jesus often asks people to act on faith before they have evidence to support it. In the second chapter of John, when he turns the water into wine, the servants are asked to take it to the master of the feast while it is still water - only on the way is it turned to wine. Peter is asked to step out in faith and walk on the water even though the evidence tells him that it won’t support his weight. And in Mark 11:24 Jesus says to his disciples ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’.

Of course, this approach is very common in other areas of our life. We don’t wait until we’ve learned to swim before trying to swim; rather, we learn to swim by swimming. We don’t wait until we’ve learned how to be married before we get married; rather, we learn to live as married people by living as married people! In these cases, you don’t wait for the evidence of your eyes before you act; if you did, you’d never act.

But this is very difficult for us when it comes to the area of prayer and faith. And we also have to recognise the fact that, although in the Gospels 100% of those who came to Jesus were healed, even in the rest of the New Testament this is not the case. Paul prayed for the sick to be healed and they often were, but he prayed to be healed himself on three occasions and his request was not granted. I don’t know about you, but when I come to the Lord for help and healing and he asks me for faith, the best I can do is often to say with the man in the Gospels ‘I believe - help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24). And I take courage from the fact that that man’s prayer was granted too!

So ten lepers came to be healed, Jesus invited them to act on their faith in him, and all ten were healed. Nonetheless, Jesus doesn’t say to all of them ‘Your faith has saved you’ or ‘made you whole’; that’s only said to one of them. So let’s go on to look at the one who came back, and what we can learn from him.

When I was living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, people in financial difficulty would frequently come to me for help. Often those who came were not church members, but they knew that Christians were supposed to help the poor and I guess I was the most visible Christian in the community so they came to me! When I could, I would help them, and often that was the end of it; I didn’t see them again until the next time they needed some money.

There are people in the world who treat God like that. They don’t come to God primarily to get to know him and to learn his ways. Rather, there is something specific that they want from God; if they get what they’re asking for, they’re happy, but if they don’t, they might be angry or upset. In neither case, however, does it go any deeper than that. This is the situation with these nine lepers; they came to Jesus to be healed, and they got what they wanted from him. Only one of them was different. There are two things about him that are unique.

Firstly, he is a Samaritan. In other words, he is a descendant of a group of people who were brought into Israel after most of the Jews of the northern kingdom were exiled to Assyria in the eighth century B.C. These people intermarried with the Jews that were left, and as the years went by they became a mixed race whose religion had some elements of Judaism but some foreign elements as well. The Judeans saw them as heretics and foreigners and didn’t allow them to enter into the Temple in Jerusalem and offer sacrifice there; they were excluded.

The second unique thing about this man is that, alone among the ten lepers, he comes back and offers thanks to God at the feet of Jesus. And what does this mean? To ask for something, to receive it and then not to offer thanks - surely that is to devalue the relationship. It shows that you’re only interested in the gift, not the giver. But to come back and say ‘thank you’ is to show that you value not just the gift but the giver as well.

But there’s even more to it than that. The lepers were sent to the Temple to show themselves to the priests and to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for their cure. But this Samaritan leper recognised that, if God was working through Jesus to bring him healing, then it was more appropriate to offer thanks to God at the feet of Jesus than at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a recognition that God is working uniquely in and through Jesus. This Samaritan leper didn’t just want a healing; he also wanted a relationship with God - the God who he had thought was angry with him, but who he had now discovered loved him and wanted to help him. And he recognised that the way to enter into a relationship with that God was through Jesus.

Let’s try to connect this with our own lives.

Many of us start out in the Christian life because we want something from God. That was true in New Testament times, too; in fact, in the Gospels Jesus sometimes says to people ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ So it’s legitimate for us to want God to do something for us! We come to him and we say, ‘Lord, I want you to fix my marriage’ or ‘heal my cancer’ or ‘help me to be a better parent’ or ‘take away my loneliness’ or ‘fear’ or whatever. And Jesus doesn’t frown on us for coming with these requests; he encourages it. This is a common starting point in the Christian journey.

So we come and make our request; then what happens? Well, perhaps we receive what we’re asking for: a healing, or a miraculous intervention that causes some dramatic change in our circumstances. What happens after this? You would think that receiving this kind of help would make such an impression on us that we would want to get to know God better; we’d want to live in relationship with God and learn how to follow Jesus. And sometimes this does happen - but not always. I know of people who have received God’s miraculous help, sometimes including dramatic healings, and yet have gone on to turn away from God. So the fact that we receive a healing doesn’t guarantee that we then go on to grow in our relationship with God.

On the other hand, perhaps we don’t receive what we’re asking for. Suffering is a mystery and we often don’t understand why some prayers get a ‘yes’ answer and some don’t. We don’t have all the answers. All we know is that sometimes when we pray, we don’t get what we ask for. And then what happens? Some people turn away from God in bitterness and anger, but some continue to follow Christ anyway, trusting that he knows best.

In other words, whether or not we receive a healing often has nothing to do with whether or not we’re made whole or well in the deeper sense. In order for us to find real wholeness, it’s necessary for us to do what the Samaritan did - to go beyond the gift to the giver. We have to go beyond loving God for the sake of what he can give us, and begin to learn to love God for his own sake. Because we won’t find true wholeness or wellness until we stop thinking of ourselves, and start thinking about God and God’s will for us.

The earliest Christian confession of faith was the simple statement ‘Jesus is Lord’. That’s what the Samaritan was saying by prostrating himself at the feet of Jesus. And when we follow Jesus as Lord - when we re-order our lives around him, around his Gospel and his teachings - that’s when we find true wholeness, true ‘naamangnik’, ‘a state of being okay’.

So let me close by asking you – when it comes to God, are you more interested in the gift, or in the giver? Are you following Jesus primarily for what he can give you, or are you on the road of a deeper obedience, loving Jesus for who he is, and learning to reshape your entire life around his kingdom and his will?

Today in this service we are going to come to God with our requests, in the confidence that those requests are welcome. Jesus encourages us to come and ask! So let’s pray boldly, putting our trust in the one who is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine, the heavenly Father who loves to give good gifts to his children.

But let’s not stop with that. Jesus longs for us to go further than that; to go beyond seeking the gift and to seek the giver as well. So let’s put our lives in his hands as our Saviour and Master and commit ourselves to following him in faithful obedience every day. That is the way to experience, in the deepest parts of our being, the wholeness that is his will for us.

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