(This is an edited version of the sermon on Luke 17v11-19 at the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge on Sunday October 9th)
What is the mark of a real, committed Christian? We might say, a person who knows their Bible and is keen to study the Bible on their own and with others; a person who supports prayer meetings and is willing to pray out loud; a person who is active in evangelism. And those certainly are among the marks of a committed Christian person. They are important evidences of real and growing Christian faith.
But there is a more fundamental answer to the question: what is the mark of a real, committed Christian? And it is an answer that goes to the heart of a person. It’s about the state of a person’s heart. It’s possible to go through the motions of those other things, Bible study, prayer meetings, evangelism, but the more fundamental indicator of our Christian commitment is about how at the core of our being, in our hearts, we are responding to God.
This morning in our story from Luke’s Gospel we meet a man whose heart was by God’s grace in the right place, and so he’s a spiritual role model for you and me, a very unlikely role model as we shall see but a role model nonetheless. He’s someone you and I should want to be like spiritually in our hearts.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is on his way from Galilee in the north of Israel to Jerusalem in the south of the country. And the fact that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem is highly significant in understanding this story because it was in Jerusalem that Jesus, the true God-appointed King of Israel, was going to die for the sins of sinful mankind, to suffer the just divine punishment all mankind deserves for our sin and rebellion against the God who made us, and so to bring us the possibility of spiritual and moral cleansing.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus is met by ten lepers. Now leprosy in the Jewish society of Jesus’ time was not just a terrible disease – it was that and it is today – in Jesus’ society leprosy was a powerful visual aid, a powerful symbol of the spiritual and moral uncleanness caused by sin.
It was a visual aid of sin – it’s not that today but it was then. So these men were not merely outcasts for reasons of hygiene because they had a then incurable and infectious disease. They were also outcasts because their disease represented spiritual and moral uncleanness. They were not able to take part in the public worship of God’s chosen people, the Jews. That’s why they stood at a distance when they called out to Jesus for mercy: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us’ (NIV).
Clearly they were aware that Jesus had the power to heal them. Jesus responds to their plea for healing with a command: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ Why did Jesus respond to their plea for mercy with that particular command? Because it was the priests of the Jewish religion who were authorised to declare a leper spiritually and morally clean and thus able to rejoin society, to re-engage with the worshipping community of God’s chosen people.
As they go off to the priests these lepers are cleansed suddenly and miraculously. They notice as they are walking along that all their terrible symptoms have quite simply disappeared. I won’t go into graphic detail but if any of you have seen the Ridley Scott film, The Kingdom of Heaven, the crusader King of Jerusalem has leprosy and you get a brief look at his horribly disfigured face when the mask is taken off. These men are not merely healed but ‘cleansed’. That’s the word Luke uses. They are now able to rejoin the people of God and to worship him publicly, which they couldn’t do before.
But only one of them shows that he really and truly belongs to the people of God. Only one of them responds rightly in his heart to God – the one who when he sees he is cleansed turns back and praises God with a loud voice and falls at the feet of the chosen, God-anointed King of God’s people to say thank you. He comes back to thank the Lord Jesus, and so he is the only one who responds in the right way in his heart to God.
And shockingly in the context of the society Jesus lived in this man was a Samaritan. Now because we’ve been brought up on the story of the Good Samaritan, and his famous good deed, we can’t quite get on the end of the shock value of Samaritans being the good guys instead of the Jews. Jews despised Samaritans both for their ethnic origins, originally Assyrian and for their religion which was a bit of hotch-potch, including some Jewish elements. So these people were different but also similar – a bit close for comfort.
‘Were not ten cleansed?’ Jesus said. ‘Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And then Jesus said to him: ‘Rise and go your way. Your faith has made you well.’ (Literally your faith has saved you.)
The other nine were able to rejoin the synagogue and sing the hymns and listen to the sermons and have their children circumcised but they were not saved. They were not saved from their sins. They were cleansed from their leprosy but they were not saved from their sins. The Samaritan was because he had a real living thankful faith in the Lord Jesus, the Saviour of the world.
And that is basically the mark of the real, committed Christian. A real, committed Christian is at the core of their being, in their heart, thankful to Jesus because they know that without Jesus they haven’t a hope of being forgiven by such a gloriously pure and perfect God. They know that sin is simply too hard to cure without the deep spiritual cleansing that only God’s Son Jesus Christ is able to bring because of his sin-bearing death in our place on the Cross in Jerusalem.