“Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: common politeness dictates that you tell someone ‘thank you’ when they give you a gift. We teach our children this, and we hammer it home, whether it’s for a bike on their fifth birthday or for a college scholarship. A thank-you acknowledges the gift, it acknowledges its importance, and it honors the giver. It demonstrates how highly you hold that gift, and how highly you respect the one who gave it to you. In the fifth petition to the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” Martin Luther teaches us to confess: “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” All people receive daily bread from God; they all are provided for out of His abundance with what they need for this body and life. The rain doesn’t just fall on the fields of Christians; it is not only Christians that have food to eat. But only Christians give thanks to the right person, only Christians give thanks in the right place; only the voice of faith gives thanks to the God who gives all good things, while the voice of unbelief gives thanks in the wrong place or not at all.
Ten lepers stood at the side of the road, just outside of a village. They were afflicted with a terrible disease, a disease of living death, that would not only one day claim their life, but until that day made them outcasts, isolated from their people and from the worship of their God. The book of Leviticus tells them how they are to live. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone.” They are lost, without hope, condemned to death, estranged from their people, estranged from their God. But then they see Jesus. They see this man they have heard so much about, this great miracle-worker from Galilee, the teacher, the healer of so many. This is their chance, their one hope, and so they do not cry, “Unclean, unclean!” but, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Their voices utter a cry of faith. They believe that Jesus can heal them; they believe that He can do something about the terrible state that they’re in. They trust that He will have mercy, that He will have compassion, that He will not hold back, but will act. They cry out to the only One who can do anything about their situation, the One who has proven again and again that it is to Him that all who are broken by the effects of sin must go, that it is He alone who can give the healing that all men need. They believe that He can heal them; otherwise, they would’ve kept quiet in their dark despair. But when they see Jesus, they see hope, when they see Jesus, they see healing, when they see Jesus, they see the coming of light and life into their darkness and death.
And they were right. Their faith has the proper object; they believed in the only One on the planet who had in Himself the power to heal. Their faith would’ve been of no benefit if they would’ve believed in the next guy to come into town, or if they would’ve put their trust in a Greek, Canaanite, or Egyptian god. Dear friends, faith is only as good as its object. If the object cannot heal or save, no amount of faith will help. The object of their faith was the only one who could heal them. And heal them He did. “When He saw them He said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ He calls them to a further exercise of their faith; He does not heal them immediately, but He sends them to demonstrate their healing to the proper authorities, trusting that it will happen, indeed as if it had already happened. They do not waver: they trust, they believe, they go.
“And as they went they were cleansed.” Death reversed. Life restored. Skin renewed and reborn. They actually experience Nicodemus’ sarcastic question: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” The ten lepers are reborn; they pass from death to life, from outcasts to full members of the community. Imagine the sight, as they watched their skin renewed and restored, made whole again, cleansed from its corruption. Now all that was left was to go, as Jesus instructed them, to the temple. There they testify to their healing; there they demonstrate that the Law’s demands have been fulfilled: they are clean! Christ has done it all for them, they are healed by His work, not their own. They simply believed in the One who had power to heal, and He healed. The Law which once excluded them now brings them back into the fellowship of their people, the fellowship of their God.
Nine former lepers returned home, certainly rejoicing, certainly giving thanks. The miracle worker had worked a miracle in their lives, they believed that He could heal them, and heal them He did. Now they are restored to their community, and they will begin the rituals to be fully integrated back home. But that’s all. Certainly this has been an amazing, miraculous, wonderful day, but there is nothing for them beyond the physical healing. So ends the story of the nine; once lepers, now clean. But as great as the cleansing of leprosy is, for one man this miracle has meant much more than the healing of his body. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” Something much more important happened to him than the cleansing of his skin.
The same Word that cleansed his body also cleansed his soul. The new birth that he experienced on the outside was mirrored by a new birth on the inside. He received both what Nicodemus sarcastically asked for and what Jesus actually promised: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He knew what it meant to be baptized into Christ; he saw in his body what Christ had done to his soul. Ten men were healed, only one was saved, only one believed. The nine believed that Jesus was a miracle worker, a rabbi who could restore their skin; the one believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the One who could restore his soul. His skin was afflicted with living death—the exact same state of his soul—but both were restored, both were healed, both were saved. The nine left the temple with clean bodies and still corrupted souls; the one returned to Jesus restored in both body and soul.
Faith gives thanks in the proper place to the proper person. In this case, the proper place and the proper person are the same. Only Christ has healed him, only Christ has saved him. His voice, once raised up in cries for help, is now raised up in cries of thanksgiving. Ten were healed; one was saved. God sends rain on the just and the unjust, and He sent His Son for the healing of all people, to cleanse them from the leprosy of their sin. The Law’s demand on the leprous in soul is not only death, but eternal death, to be outcast from God forever. But Christ fulfilled the Law’s demands, bearing your sin in His own flesh; dying and rising again as your substitute, in your place. And now His healing, won by His blood, is for all, it is freely given to all, to be received by faith. Go and show yourselves to the Law, dear friends, and because you are in Christ, it will have nothing to say against you. Your soul has been restored like the skin of the ten lepers; you have been washed clean by Christ’s shed blood, poured out on Calvary’s cross.
But what is true of daily bread is also true of the bread of life: unbelief gives no thanks. The voice of faith gives thanks; it can’t help it. Gratitude overflows from one who has been given all things, the healing of body and soul. The voice of faith gives thanks to the One who is Himself the presence of God in the flesh, it realizes that every good gift comes from God, and that God is to be found where the flesh of Jesus is. And where is the flesh of Jesus to be found? In His Church, His bride. Where the bride is, there the bridegroom will be, serving the wedding guests. And there Christians will be gathered, giving to Christ great thanks and praise, falling down before His feet, as the psalmist says: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!”
Elsewhere, away from Jesus, is thankless unbelief. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It’s just common politeness, after all, to give thanks when a gift has been given, but Jesus has much more in mind than proper etiquette. A lack of thankfulness isn’t remedied by a good scolding or taking away a toy; a lack of thankfulness indicates that there is no faith. Once again, as Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” The difference between a believer and a non-believer is not in the gift given—as God gives daily bread to everyone, so Christ died for the sin of the world—but in the thankfulness born of faith. The believer gives thanks, the non-believer gives no thanks at all, or (perhaps even worse) gives thanks to someone else.
But thanks given to anyone other than Jesus is misplaced. Only He comes to give the healing that all people need, even foreigners, even Samaritans, even you and me. He comes to heal our souls by washing them clean in His shed blood so that one day our bodies will be cleansed from the leprosy of sin, the disease that is at the root of all others, the only malady that can condemn to hell. When the Samaritan leper sees his skin restored on the road, he is seeing a preview of the Last Day, when his flesh, resting in the grave these past two thousand years, will be raised up and restored to perfection forever. He already saw in his body, in some small way, what you too will see in your body on the Last Day, when Jesus will summon you forth from your graves with a voice of compassion, of love: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.