A Pattern of Grace

Luke 17:1-19

I think it's funny that our gospel reading for today begins by letting us know that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  And the reason I think it's funny is that Luke seems to be reminding us of where Jesus is actually going, because it's taking so blessedly long to get there.  Way back at the end of chapter 9, we hear that he "set his face towards Jerusalem."  That phrase makes it sound like Jesus is moving with more than just a sense of purpose: it sounds like the divine wind that launched him into the wilderness after his baptism was building up at his back again, about to send him headlong into the holy city. 

But the truth is that he's hardly gotten anywhere in seven-and-a-half chapters.  When he set his face towards Jerusalem, he was hanging around Samaritan villages (not that they wanted him there), and today, he's still in the region between Samaria and Galilee!  It'll be another two chapters yet, before he parades, donkey-riding, into Jerusalem.  Along the way, he's been telling stories about what God is like, teaching his disciples and sending them to teach others what it means to live in the topsy-turvy way of heaven's kingdom; eating with anyone who will eat with him; healing all manner of things that needed healing; and generally causing trouble for the local religious authorities.

His face is still set towards Jerusalem, there's no turning back; there is a goal.  And the enormity of that goal is not a secret.  He's talked about it pretty openly--that he'll be handed over, and killed, but also that three days later he'll be raised from the dead, and that this has something very much to do with God's healing of the world, God's new-making work for all things.  But I've got to be curious about this God who doesn't do things the way I'd like them to be done, who doesn't rev up the holy bulldozer and get straight to the point, but instead seems almost to stroll among the holy and the heretics; leading his disciples not in frenetic religiosity, running everywhichway, getting things done in the name of righteousness, but moving in the ponderously slow ways of grace--the kind of grace that wanders into a village (a village not important enough to be named), and finds himself diverted by a group of outcasts, whose wretched unworthiness seems self-evident to anyone else. 

Let's pray: Holy God, draw us into the deep currents of your grace.  Stir in us a desire to know you more, so that we can make you more fully known wherever we go.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight.  We pray in Jesus' name, our Rock and Redeemer.  Amen.

I think this story almost works like a parable, a story we might set alongside our own lives to learn more deeply what it means to get bound up with the likes of the kind of God who would show up in Jesus.  To begin, it's important that everything begins with Jesus' movement into the village.  The first movement belongs to Jesus.  He moves towards this unnamed place.  This is God on the move--not frantically or manically, not efficiently or mechanically, but on the move nevertheless.  He enters in.  This is not a religious sage who stays put, sets up shop, offering oracles and waiting for folks to come and pay homage.  Jesus enters the village.  The first movement is his. 

And it's wildly good news that he does enter the village.  It's as if the lepers have been waiting for him, hoping that he might show up.  It's as if someone's told them that hope is on its way; that though they've been walking around in the darkness of isolation and shame, light wasn't as far off as they'd imagined.  He enters the village, and they--as the downtrodden and despised seem to do--move towards him.  They approached him, Luke tells us.  Of course, they keep their distance as they've been taught to do.  In first century Palestine skin disorders of any kind (what gets called leprosy) were thought to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible mess.  It was, as likely as not, some sort of punishment for some sort of sin, and nobody wants that sort of person around.  Lepers were forced out of their communities, excluded from religious practice; they were unclean and untouchable.

Fortunately, we don't tend to exclude people on the basis of eczema anymore.  But we've got other ways.  I can't tell you how often I've had someone say to me, when they find out I'm a pastor, something like: "If I (a sinner like me) walked into a church the whole thing would fall down, or burn up, or generally be struck by catastrophe."  I often think that I should let anyone who says something like that know that they're not that special, that we're all more or less equally broken and wretched--some of us just hide it better. 

But then, maybe there's a bit of honesty behind that sentiment, and behind the lepers' inclination to hang back.  Because if we're going to talk about grace--which we tend to do a lot in the Church; if we even have the audacity to suggest that God's grace is our only hope--then the thing that we need to remember is that we don't deserve it.  That's the thing about grace.  The focus of grace is not all the things we get right; it's all the stuff we fail to do that we should do, and all the stuff we do that we shouldn't.  At the heart of any talk of divine grace, any experience of its wonder, is the sure and certain knowledge that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  Luke's point, that the lepers were a mixed-race group of Jews and Samaritans, folks who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other but who are suddenly bound by their brokenness, by their common disaster, may be worth a closer look, when we think about what it means to be the Church.

So, the tension of the scene is not Jesus coming into the village, or the lepers crying out for mercy.  The tension is built as we wait to see what Jesus' response will be.  Will he be merciful?  Or will he confirm their deepest fears--that they're not worthy of mercy and compassion, that they are not worthy of God's presence and power, that healing and reconciliation won't come, and isolation and shame will remain? 

If we can't feel that tension, we should maybe spend some extra time sitting in this story.  We need to know that by every rule and norm, Jesus is well within his rights and well within religious expectation if he passes by, if he chooses not to see them, not to respond to their desperation.  There is a popular theological idea lurking around the edges here.  It's an idea that I know, if I look closely enough, I often share: that God treats us like we deserve to be treated.  That's the way so much religion is understood.  Do this, this, this and this, and God will love you.  Measure up, and you'll get divine favor. And in a lot of cases, for most of us, that seems fine.  And at the end of the day, for all of us, it's utterly hopeless.

But, this is not so much religion.  It's gospel.  And if we sit with the lepers for even a moment, I think we can't help but be overwhelmed by what happens next.  They approach Jesus, they cry out.  And if they're really crying for mercy, it's not hard to imagine their eyes clenched shut, their faces skywards.  Their desperation is clear. And then it's not hard to imagine the joy and fear and wide-eyed surprise when, wonder of wonders, they look to see him coming towards them.  They had to call out.  Jesus only has to speak.  He's come even closer.  He's not just entered the village; he's come into their space.  He's seen them.  He's heard them.  He comes to them.  He tells them to go and show themselves to the priest, who will pronounce them healed.

Perhaps they were just so surprised that Jesus responded to their cries, that they actually do what he says.  Luke reports that they weren't healed until they were on their way.  So, at first, the command is ridiculous.  They won't get near the priest if they're not healed.  But they go anyways, because sometimes grace is so surprising that we can't help but respond, even when we know it's nuts.  (I've come to believe that if something feels impossibly ridiculous, but I kind of have to do it, it's probably Jesus.)

They go, and they're healed on the way.  And you can see them walking timidly, maybe doubtfully, until they look down and notice that whatever was wrong with their skin isn't wrong anymore, at which point they must have run like mad.  I have a fair bit of sympathy for the ones who run home, or run to worship, or into the market to see people they'd been forced apart from, to take up work they'd been removed from.  I have a fair bit of sympathy for the ones who got distracted by the extravagance of the blessing, and a world around that must have been like new.  That feels familiar.

And I'm kind of amazed at the one who, when he saw he was healed, when he saw that his world was new, stopped in his tracks and ran back to the one who made it that way.  He falls on his face in wonder, love and praise; the sheer grace of it all drives him to his knees, overflowing with thanksgiving. 

And Jesus' response is odd, isn't it?  All ten were healed but this one--the one, Jesus points out, who shouldn't have known better--is made well.  In the Greek, it's a turn of phrase that has salvation overtones.  Something more than skin deep is healed in this one, something more than visible blessings have begun to pile up.  It's not just a new lease on life, or a return to what was normal.  It's new life altogether.  Commentators tell us that when Jesus says, "Get up" the word has a hint of resurrection about it, that Luke's congregation would have heard clearly.  This Samaritan-former-leper has found himself in an unexpected kingdom of heaven reality, a resurrection life.  Get up.  Your faith has made you well


We could speculate all day about why the other nine didn't come back.  The possibilities are endless.  But I think that misses the point.  Lots of people experience the wonder and love of God and don't turn that experience into thanks and praise.  I think that Luke gives us this story; the Holy Spirit sets it in our midst as a pattern for the Church.  This is the cycle of Christian life.  St. James says, Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.  I think we should hear that, with this story in the background, as "Draw near to the God who has drawn near, and God will draw nearer still; nearer to you than you could ever imagine."  It's what we see in the story.

It's what, as we grow in faith, hope, and love, we come to know ourselves.  We come to know that God moves first.  The first move is God's.  God speaks and the world is.  God breathes and we are brought to life.  God calls and a people is formed.  God loves and the world is saved.  God blesses, and breaks, and gives, and we are nourished and satisfied.  The first move is God's. 

And because God moves, because God shows up, because God's Word is made flesh and enters the village, we find ourselves moving, maybe in spite of ourselves.  When we see holiness stroll in among us, we can't help but recognize our need for it, our need for more than our best efforts and intentions.  When the light shines it reveals stuff that would otherwise stay hidden.  If it's true that we all fall short of God's glory, that we are all broken and weighed down by sin, then we're all carrying around stuff that slows us down, and keeps us bound, that keeps us from life that is truly life, as Paul puts it.  (It's good to know we're not alone.)  And so we hear the cry on our own lips: "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us."

And chances are, before we get the words out of our mouth, we look up to see the one who says, Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  We look up to see that the God who has drawn near, has drawn nearer still.  And not only drawn nearer, but taken the weight, taken the burden, cleansed us of all unrighteousness, reconciled, restored, made new.  That's the pattern of grace.  It happens again and again.

It's marvellous.  And I don't want to be distracted by other stuff--I don't want to be forgiven, set free, and back to the way things were.  I want to look like the Samaritan, singing and dancing back to the One who makes all things new.  I want to know that joy, that clarity about God's mercy over all else, the height and depth and length and width of God's love for us in Jesus Christ.  I want it for all of us.  I want us to hear those words, Get up.  Go into the world full of resurrection life; made alive with life that is truly life.  Your faith has made you well

Thanks be to God.