The Fourteenth Sunday after Holy Trinity – Luke 17:11-19
What we see in today’s Gospel reading is an intersection between the Old and New Testaments. To understand this, we need to understand some Old Testament concepts. It’s harder for us to understand this because we don’t grow up Jewish. We can read the Old Testament, but we really never live it. It’s not shocking for us to eat pork or shellfish which were forbidden in the Old Testament. The Old Testament believers thought of time differently as well. Their time was defined by the Old Testament festivals like Passover and the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths. Our time should be defined by Christmas and Easter which are our festivals, but they really aren’t.
The first Old Testament concept we need to understand is holiness. Holiness is solely associated with God. God is holy. He alone is holy. For someone or some thing to have holiness, it must be given that holiness from God. People are given holiness by being chosen by God. God speaks to His people in Leviticus: “You shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.” (Leviticus 20:26) You see an echo of this in Ephesians, “He chose us in Him, [that is, Christ,] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy.” (Ephesians 1:4) Things are given holiness by the presence of God. You’ll remember when Moses encountered the angel of YahWeh, the pre-incarnate Christ, that God told Moses, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) And you know that only the high priest could go into the holy of holies and then only once a year.
But there’s an important distinction to be made about holy places. The holy places we read about are the ones that have the presence of God for His people’s good. Since God is holy and cannot be otherwise, it is dangerous to be in His presence. Moses was probably closer to God than anyone else in the Old Testament besides Adam and Eve before the fall. He desired to see God face to face. God told Moses, “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) It is dangerous to be near God’s presence. God must make a way to share His presence safely.
God’s presence was muted in the burning bush as He selected Moses to save His people. God’s presence is muted in the holy of holies, but only the high priest could go in there and he could only go in once a year. But what happened in the holy of holies? The high priest would sprinkle the blood sacrifice for sins on the mercy seat. This forgave sin. This forgave sin because it looked forward to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. God was present in mercy for His people. In the holy place, the assigned priests would perform their duties interceding for the people. Then in the courtyard, the people of God could gather to hear God’s Word and pray. The holiness of the people was determined by the proximity to God. The holiest was the High Priest. The priests on duty would be the next holiest. And then would be the holy people of God. This system was hierarchical, but it wasn’t meant so that the high priest or priests would have power over the people. It was a way that God passed on His holiness to His people through the intermediary He had set up.
This is where the second Old Testament concept is important; clean versus unclean. We’re talking about a theological cleanness verses uncleanness. I think all of us know what it’s like to be unclean and need a shower! But that’s a physical kind of uncleanness. In the Old Testament, you could become unclean for a variety of reasons. A woman on her menstrual cycle was considered unclean for seven days. This, after all, is a sign of the curse. If you touched a dead body, you were considered unclean. And if you had leprosy, you were considered unclean.
Leprosy in the Old Testament was not just what we know as Hansen’s Disease. It covered a variety of skin ailments. If you had “a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body,” then they had to be brought to the priests. (Leviticus 13:2) Even if it turned out not to be leprosy, you had to do a lot of ritual things to be determined clean. If it was, in fact, leprosy, you would be banished. If the leprosy cleared up, you had to go through even more rituals before you could rejoin the community. Leprosy does not spread that quickly, but we still don’t know exactly how it spreads. If you had it in the Old or New testament times, you had to be excluded from the community so it wouldn’t spread.
But this shows the danger of being unclean… you’re access to God was taken away. We cannot generate our own holiness. It must be shared with us from the source of holiness, God Himself. If your access was taken away, you no longer shared in God’s holiness. It was bad enough to be excluded from other people, but to be excluded from God’s presence is horrendous. But if your leprosy cleared up, there was much joy in being back in the presence of God and finally sharing again in His holiness.
The lepers in our Gospel reading today are outside of the village that Jesus is entering. They raise up their voices because they’re prohibited from getting too close to people. In Luke 5, we hear of Jesus cleansing a lone leper and the report of that cleansing going out. Even these ten lepers probably heard about it. They go to Jesus for the same healing. Jesus commands them to go show themselves to the priests. The fact that they arise and go to do that is testament to their faith. They believed Jesus’ word. And they were healed on the way. But only one leper appears to notice. And he doesn’t go to the priests but directly back to Jesus. Jesus marvels, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vv. 17-18)
The Samaritan leper understood what they nine Jewish lepers did not… the presence of God for His people had shifted from the temple to the person of Jesus. The nine lepers weren’t necessarily being wicked; they just didn’t see that the presence of God had shifted from the temple to Jesus. They were working with an Old Testament understanding. The Samaritan saw the new reality that Jesus is the presence of God for He is God Himself. This is really what Jesus means when He tells the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) His own apostles didn’t understand what Jesus was saying until He rose from the dead! But now the presence of God, or I should say, the safe presence of God, is found in Jesus.
If you’ve read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” you’ll know who Aslan the lion represents. Mr. Beaver describes him to the two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve: “’I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.’ ‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’” This describes Jesus perfectly. “’Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King.” Sometimes we’re a little too casual about Jesus and many times we’re too flippant about our sin. All of us could use a little more awe of Jesus in the original sense of that word. Awe means “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder” and originally was reserved for God. We could use more awe in our lives but, at the same time, we also understand that the presence of Jesus is the presence of God for us and not against us. And the New Testament concept of the presence of God is different than the Old Testament concept.
The first New Testament concept is the priesthood of all believers. We get this primarily from First Peter: “As you come to Him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5) This means two things for you. First, you offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God your Father in heaven and they are pleasing and acceptable to Him. Second, your prayers are heard and answered. Many people pray to God, but He only listens to His dear children. In prayer and praise, you have direct access to the throne room of heaven even if you cannot see it with your eyes.
The second New Testament concept is the Lord’s Supper. Certainly, the Holy Spirit brings the presence of Jesus in Holy Baptism, in the reading and preaching of His Word, and in the Holy Absolution, but Jesus is present in a way unlike any other in His Supper. I don’t know if we appreciate that enough. The early New Testament church certainly appreciated Jesus’ personal, bodily presence in the Lord’s Supper. Back then, confession & absolution was only done privately. The Divine Service was split up into the Service of the Word, which culminated in the preaching of God’s Word, and into the Service of the Sacrament, which culminated in the distribution of the Lord’s Body and Blood. In between the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament, they kicked out everyone who wasn’t able to receive the Lord’s Supper and literally locked the door! Yes, the had closed communion. Closed communion is the historic, Biblical practice of the church. Anyway, those kicked out were those who weren’t baptized yet or those serving penance for grave sin. They understood that the Lord’s Supper was the physical, bodily presence of Jesus and that He’s not safe. He’s Good, but not safe. In the Eastern Orthodox church, they make this announcement with communion: “The Holy Gifts for the holy people of God.” They are confessing that God is holy and that the Lord’s Supper has the presence of God which imparts His holiness to you. When I hold up the consecrated elements and say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” I am saying something very similar. I am confessing that here… here is the presence of God for your good. Here is where you find peace with God. Here is where you share in the holiness of God.
We don’t really talk in the Old Testament terms of hoy versus common or clean versus unclean and I don’t know that we need to. We do need to understand how the New Testament talks about these very same concepts with the priesthood of all believers and the Lord’s Supper.
You are brought into the priesthood of all believers in your baptism. It is how you know you are holy, that is, set apart by God for God. I love how Luther talks about it in the Large Catechism: “Our Baptism abides forever. Even though some one should fall from Baptism and sin, still we always have access to it. So we may subdue the old man again. But we do not need to be sprinkled with water again. Even if we were put under the water a hundred times, it would still only be one Baptism, even the work and sign continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing other than a return and approach to Baptism. We repeat and do what we began before, but abandoned.” (LC Part IV.77-79) In other words, our baptism makes us holy and is always accessible to us.
You are offered the Lord’s Supper where He gives you His very own Body and Blood. This is truly the presence of God for your good! What more can be said about such an amazing gift?
So, continue to remember your baptism and receive the Lord’s Supper regularly. Here is the presence of God for you in a safe and beneficial way. Here you see the love of Christ given to you personally. Here you can say with Paul, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Amen.
 The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, pgs. 79-80, 1950, (HarperCollins edition)