Galatians 5:16f ; Luke 17:11f
The Christian Life, in one common account, is a movement of the soul from Guilt, by Grace, to Gratitude. We turn away from Guilt in repentance, receive grace by faith, and give gratitude in acts of love toward God and man. The teaching of this Sunday leads us through this threefold movement, and it shows us the significance of our Baptism, and the life that begins in baptism.
Guilt is represented in the gospel lesson by the lepers. The Law of Moses defined those who suffered from leprosy, which meant any skin disease, as ritually or ceremonially defiled. They were excluded from the worship of God in the Temple, and because physical contact with a defiled thing is itself defiling, they were outcasts from society, condemned to live at the margins, required to keep their distance. The Law provided for readmission after the skin disease cleared up, but it of course could do nothing to heal the condition. Now leprosy is not the same thing as sin: lepers are not morally responsible for their condition. Nonetheless, it represents and symbolizes sin, a condition not of the body but of the soul which makes one outcast to God, a spiritual sickness and a spiritual defilement separating from God. The Law allows us to recognize the leprosy of sin, or its healing, but it is powerless actually to heal it.
This is where the second element in the Christian life, of Grace apprehended by Faith, comes in. The ten lepers had not experienced anything of Christ first hand. They had not experienced his power to save and bless. All they knew was rumour and report – the word of the gospel, that this man Jesus had come proclaiming the gospel of God, of God’s coming to save and bless his people, in words and deeds of power, and even in cleansing of lepers. To this word of the gospel they respond not with skepticism or incredulity, but with faith, and it arouses in them a great hope. In that hope, they go to meet him, and standing far off, as the law required, they lifted up their voices – not to warn him off, as the law required, but to implore his loving-kindness: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us”. They have not themselves personally experienced Jesus’ power to save, they have nothing offer him in return for his healing them, and there is nothing they have done or could do that would put him under obligation to do so: yet, nonetheless, on the basis of the gospel word they are ready to trust in his goodness alone. This is the faith spoken of in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction [or substance] of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Jesus does not bother therefore with any word or sign of assurance. He simply bids them “go, show yourselves unto the priests”, who would certify them as clean and undefiled according to the Law, and thus re-admit them to full fellowship within Israel. He speaks as if they, in virtue of their faith, were already healed, already clean: and they, believing in his good will and power to save, are willing to comply. In their faith they obey his command, even though they do not yet see themselves cleansed. Thus believing and obeying they go on a journey which would prove an exercise in futility, unless their faith were proved true; but thus believing and obeying, they are cleansed as they go.
The example of the lepers’ faith is pertinent to the condition of all the faithful in this world. We too are to take Christ’s word that we will be cleansed, that in some sort we are so already (John 15:3), for in baptism we have the pledge and promise and initial act of it all. And this we must believe, even while we still feel in us the leprous defilement of sin, and the lusts of the flesh which war against the Spirit. We must go forward in faith and obedience, being confident that in the use of his Word and Sacrament, and all the appointed means of grace, slight though they may seem to meet and overcome such great evils. We will find that health which according to the sure word of promise is already ours; and as we go, believing this word, using these means, we are healed.
A story this edifying could have come to an end right there. In fact, it takes its most dramatic and troubling turn, but one in which its full significance is revealed. For “one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan” – a despised heretic, an outcast not just by leprosy, unlike the others who are presumably Jews. The implications of his solitary witness are not lost on Jesus, who asks, “were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger”. Jesus’ question is heavy with rebuke. To have glimpsed the goodness of God, and to turn away from it, to refuse to glorify God, is the act of godless pagan, not of God’s own people; it is to prove oneself unworthy of his gifts (cf Romans 1:18ff).
We should not be surprised by them. Such ingratitude is only too common among men, above all in our culture of entitlement. Their faith born out of need and hope was eager to receive a gift of God’s grace; but having got what it wanted, it died. Calvin comments: “so want and hunger give birth to faith, which fullness kills”.
What is surprising is the attitude of the one who does return in thanksgiving to glorify God at the feet of Jesus. What compounds this surprise is that he is not even a true Israelite, but a Samaritan, in Jewish eyes a kind of pseudo-Jew, trying to pass himself off as a man of God’s chosen people. Yet this despised heretic shows himself more spiritually perceptive than the people of God. In gratitude for the gift of God’s grace, he directs his attention not just to the gifts, but to their giver, and not just to the giver, but to the one through whom the giver gave, to Jesus, the mediator of God’s grace, the man through whom God’s gifts have been given. His glorifying God “with a loud voice”, shows that he saw the hand of God in the cure, and he was ready to let every one know it. Falling down on his face at the face of Jesus, giving him thanks, acknowledges Jesus Mediator of God’s grace. It is a confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And Jesus responds: “Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole” – it has given him health and salvation. The Samaritan perceives what the nine somehow missed or refused to see: that their adversity had opened them to the grace of God, a grace designed to bring them not just to a comfortable life in this world but to God himself. A faith expressed in gratitude would have led them to the grace that heals, cleanses, and makes whole not just outwardly but inwardly, not for just for a time but for ever.
The failure of the nine perhaps describes too well the worldly and carnal faith of many Christians. Though our liturgy teaches us repeatedly to glorify God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, our hearts and our lives are really not invested in gratitude. Our faith is perhaps much like that of the nine lepers – an insurance policy kind of faith, in which God is the means by which we attempt to secure a comfortable life for ourselves in this world. That God would lead us further than the world – that he would lead us to himself – this we perhaps resist. But the worldly faith in which God is just a means to a nice life in the world – this does not save. Fullness of faith finds the world and everything in it simply as means of living for God and his glory.
The contrasting attitudes of the nine and of the one, corresponds to the opposition set forth in Paul’s epistle lesson between those who live and walk by the Spirit, and those who fulfill the lusts of the Flesh. When we hear those words we tend to think they mean “soul” and “body” but this is rarely the case. Here ‘the Spirit’ refers to the Spirit of God, and those who are reborn of him, the “new man” of righteousness who by God’s gifts seek to live for God’s glory, in accord with his will and word. It is, above all, a life of active gratitude for the grace that has been given by Christ and received by faith. Gratitude takes varying forms, “not only with our lips, but in our lives”– on the one hand, in the worship and witness of the Samaritan, on the other as in the works which Paul describes as “the fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”.
In contrast ‘the Flesh’ refers to fallen and unregenerate human nature, man apart from God, the “old man” who lives to please himself, who is a slave to his appetites and ambitions, and thus a slave to the world and the devil. In their self-preoccupation those who live by the flesh are, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Importunate to receive, restless till they receive, ungrateful when they have received”. Their ingratitude, manifests itself in “the works of the flesh’: “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like”. “They that do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. These works are dysfunctions not just sensual and bodily but also social. What unites them all is the assumption that self-gratification is what matters most of all, and it justifies the indulgence of the most destructive appetites, the envious coveting of other’s success, because it is not yours, and even hatred and murder.
For those who live in the Flesh, there is no conflict: they are simply slaves and that is all there is to it. For those who are regenerate, however, there is a conflict within the soul, between the two warring principles. This is the spiritual warfare to which Paul refers: “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would”. If you want to follow the flesh, you are contradicted by the urgings of the Spirit; and if you want to follow the promptings of the Spirit, you must struggle against the resistance of the flesh. In the end, one side or other must prevail: Paul’s point is that the will of man must be engaged to act resolutely in accord with the Spirit. If you do so, if you conduct yourselves and walk by the spirit, you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh, but will in fact crucify it and gradually put it to death. This spiritual warfare, against sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil, is the vocation of the Christian from his baptism. “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts”, the worldly ambitions, the carnal passions of the fallen nature.
Thus guilt drives us to seek grace, and grace in turn leads us – if we do not refuse – to gratitude, not only for the gifts, but to the giver, and thus we are united to God, we live no longer for ourselves but for God, and his glory, in accord with his Word and will. If we are alive in the Spirit, living indeed by faith in God’s grace and mercy in Christ, then let us walk in the Spirit, in the way of gratitude that leads to glory.
 “Importunate to receive, restless till they receive, ungrateful when they have received” (Bernard).