The Power to Heal
Welcome to leprosy Sunday here at the Princeton University Chapel, the day once every three years in which the appointed biblical texts give us the opportunity to reflect on Hansen’s disease and be grateful that we don’t have it. Actually, our texts have so much more in common than skin disease—they do prompt us to consider where healing lies, and what true healing is. They are stories about outsiders who find healing and faith; they show us how simple it really is to be healed if we will only accept and follow that simplicity. They are stories about beginning a new life of faith.
Indeed, Jesus tells the leper who thanks him that his faith has made him well. This is confusing, because the text tells us that this man is a Samaritan. His community of Jews is considered heretical by Jesus’s. They worship on a different mountain, and not at the Jerusalem temple. And he only begins to praise God and prostrate himself before Christ after his healing—that’s why he praises. Jesus summoned the power of God to heal this faithless man as an act of mercy, so how can he say that his faith has made him well?
My understanding is that Jesus must be talking about something beyond physical restoration when he tells this man that his faith has made him well. Christ facilitated his triumphing over leprosy. Now the man has faith and so he begins to praise—it’s the praise that truly makes him well. Wellness is about so much more than physical health. Christ made the man healthy. The man’s new faith made him well. Wellness, it seems, is a state of understanding that you have been blessed. Wellness comes from acknowledging the grace in which all of our lives are bathed. Health is a physical state. Wellness is a spiritual state. We can be in perfect health and be very unwell. We can be at death’s door, racked with disease, and be very, very well. How many times have I paid a pastoral visit to someone in the hospital and left them despondent, myself, because they were dying, yet rejoicing that it was well with their soul. We are well when, like the Samaritan ex-leper, we know to be grateful to God for every mercy, every gift. We are well when, in the midst of pain or crisis, we still know to say “alleluia.” We are not thankful for calamity, for deepest loss; we are thankful that in spite of every calamity and loss Jesus is, Jesus is Lord, and we are being redeemed. C.S. Lewis once wrote, in his description of being new to the Christian faith, “I noticed how the humblest and at the same time most balanced minds praised most; while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.” Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible! Lewis is talking about wellness. The Samaritan ex-leper praised because he now had faith and that praise was the audible confirmation that he indeed had been made well.
The question for Christians in every age is not, “Why isn’t my life perfect?” Or, “Why am I not whole?” It is, “How, every day, am I being made well?” Wellness isn’t about an easy life, but about wholeness. We are always being redeemed, being saved, by the gracious work of God and Christ in our lives. The question for us is, “Where is this happening?” Where is it happening today, on a regular fall Sunday? Students will leave this chapel, eat something, then maybe study or hang out with friends or do something on their laptop. Others of us will eat something, maybe read the paper, or get ready for our week at work or elsewhere. It is all infused with grace. Do we see it? Where and what is it? Is it the people God has placed in our lives? Our sense of mission and purpose underlying whatever it is we do do, from our passions for our majors to our joy in making music to the education of prisoners (or other service) to being a loving parent or grandparent? Grace upon grace. Do we acknowledge it? Do we stop going forward, like the Samaritan ex-leper, who had everything to race toward and embrace, and stop, and say thanks? We are always being redeemed; we are always being saved by the gracious work of Christ in our everyday lives.
It’s not hard to identify why many of us don’t make stop-and-praise a daily part of our lives. An acting teacher of mine long ago used to say continually, “Into each life, some rain must fall.” Every life has significant difficulties, challenges, pain. Sometimes we feel like our lives aren’t getting rain, they’re enduring Hurricane Matthew, over and over again. Life can be really awful, crappy, and that becomes a disincentive to praising. We are always being redeemed; we are always being saved, even while we yet have leprosy, even while we yet are sinners. Praise doesn’t spring to our lips, but it is still appropriate, always in order.
I think that another reason why praise doesn’t come easily at times (or at all) has to do with the human propensity to believe that all the good we enjoy is of our own doing. Similarly, we think that the bad that we endure is of someone else’s doing, and therefore is entirely unfair. We all work hard to make good things happen in our lives, as we should. But we shouldn’t forget the source of all goodness, and the strength behind our every effort to make goodness possible. It is always time to praise God, from whom all blessings flow.
Our gospel text from Luke tells us that the Samaritan, “when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.” The phrase “turned back” is significant—it is not a random translation of a random wording. In earliest Christianity, the idea of “turning” was very powerful, and was used to express the indescribable change of spirit, mind, heart, and life that accompanied conversion to following Christ’s way. It’s as if life was progressing swiftly in one direction and then became entirely rerouted. This is what Luke wants us to know happened to the Samaritan ex-leper. In some of our churches’ baptismal liturgies, the candidate is asked (or the grown-up sponsors are asked) if they will “turn away” from all that is evil; then they are asked if they will “turn towards” Christ as Savior. The Samaritan, we are told, turns—he turns back. We are meant to know that he did not blurt out praise to God for several virtuous minutes only. He changed. He changed his life completely. He changed directions and became an entirely new person. His faith made him grateful, and his gratitude turns him around. The question that Luke poses to each of us is how a life that takes on true, deep, continual gratitude might turn our lives around. How would we live differently? How would our values and commitment change? Who would we become? From what should we turn away in order to embrace a life of deeper faith, gratitude, awareness of blessing? How do we, in the most practical of ways, turn toward these things? The Shaker song says, “to turn, turn, ‘twill be our delight till by turning, turning, we come round right.”
It’s important for us to remember, too, that both Naaman and the Samaritan are heretics, according to the communities that recorded the Book of Kings and Gospel of Luke. Naaman was a great army commander in what is now Syria, and the Samaritan worshipped on Mt. Gerizim rather than Mt. Zion. It is these foreigners who are offered grace, these heretics who understand the blessing that comes to them from the God of Israel, and who then come in to faith even more profoundly than those born into it. Perhaps we could be more like them if we, too, became heretical! Perhaps we would then be more aware of and susceptible to God’s grace! We could be heretical by abandoning the external trappings and markers of Christian righteousness and by embracing instead a stripped-down life of gratitude, praise, and mercifulness. We could defy accepted “Christian” conventions about what it means to be a faithful person (like attending the “right” worship group or church) and instead extend radical love, radical hospitality, radical mercy to people we are not supposed to like. Heresy is about defying convention, and viewing the situation as an outsider. Let’s each be thinking about the so-called “Christian” conventions that keep us unimaginative, that make our love smaller or more predictable, that fit God’s infinite love and mercy into our own small boxes, and that convince us that we are indeed showing love and mercy when in fact we are showing mere tolerance. Anyone can do that.
The power to heal belongs to God and Christ. The choice to be well belongs to us: do we see the grace, mercy, love, and blessings that surround us, and do we respond to their presence by shouting out our grateful praise? We have much to learn from a Syrian army commander and a Samaritan ex-leper.
Feasting on the Word, eds. D.L Bartlett and BB Taylor. (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 164-169.