Summary: SERMON IN A SENTENCE: We are much more motivated to alleviate suffering when we share in it.
“A leper came to him (and kneeling down) begged him and said, "If you wish, you can make me clean." Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, "I do will it. Be made clean." The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, "See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them." The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”
The Gospel reading this morning is kind of tricky and a little difficult, not in terms of story telling– it seems pretty straight forward. Some guy who suffers from leprosy goes to Jesus and is cured. So what’s so tricky about it, and what’s so difficult? It’s a tricky passage to translate. There is a lot in the original Greek that is difficult to render in English, and as a result, has not been translated in a manner that captures what is really happening in the story. Also, the story’s translatability (if that is a real word) is rather difficult. The culture and presuppositions of first century, Roman occupied Palestine are not those of our own twenty-first century, American, non-occupied setting. So the story is hard to apply to our context, at least seemingly so, other than the superficial aspect that mentions an illness and a cure.
But before I discuss the relevance of the Gospel reading for our own place in history, I want to comment on the passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I won’t get into the historical context and the particular problems, both theological and interpersonal, that Paul had with that particular congregation that he established. I just want to point out one thing that Paul said to them in today’s reading. Paul states something clearly and definitively to the Corinthians that is so universally accepted by Christians that it is often taken for granted and is usually ignored. Paul declared that Christians are to be like Jesus Christ. Let me say that again in case you missed it. It’s an important concept and it came pretty fast. So here it is again. Paul states in this letter to the Corinthians that Christians are to be like Jesus Christ.
Okay, I can hear the collective, “Duh!” from everyone. Of course Christians are to be like Jesus, who doesn’t know that? Well unfortunately, if actions really do speak louder than words, most Christians don’t seem to know that. And it’s a shame because it’s pretty basic stuff. Reminding Christians that they are supposed to be like Jesus Christ seems to be as silly as reminding them to breathe. “Be like Christ,” Paul said to the Corinthians, not just the leadership and the clergy, but the whole congregation.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard members of a congregation complain to their minister, “That’s what we pay you for,” whenever their minister tries to get them involved in some act of ministry or religious service. It seems that most Christians have come to accept some unspoken rule that it is the job of the ordained clergy to be like Jesus on their behalf. They seem to accept that they are somehow excused from Christian ministry because they are just common folk sitting in a pew. “It’s the minister’s job to visit the sick,” “It’s the minister’s job to provide pastoral care,” “It’s the minister’s job to be visible and to be beyond reproach,” No it’s not! It’s the church’s job. That means it’s everyone’s job. I’ve never heard anybody in a church say, “We don’t have to breathe. That’s what we pay the pastor for”; or, “We don’t have to eat, that’s the minister’s job.”Why? Because we all know that nobody can breathe for us; we have to do it ourselves. Nobody can eat for us; we have to do it ourselves. Nobody can do ministry for us; we have to do it ourselves. If you really believe that it’s the job of ordained clergy to perform ministry so that you don’t have to, then what your really saying is, “I don’t have to be Christian; that’s the minister’s job.”
Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” which simply means, “Be imitators of Christ.” Of course it is the job of the ordained clergy to be like Jesus Christ, but not to the exclusion of the rest of the church, and not because the clergy is paid to do so, or because the clergy is in some way closer to Christ, or even because the clergy is educated and trained in these matters, but simply because the clergy are Christians. And it is every Christian’s job to be like Jesus Christ. It is every Christian’s privilege. It is every Christian’s mission. “Be like Christ!” That, says Paul, is what all Christians are supposed to be doing.