(Note: Pastor Grover Pinson of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, my home congregation, invited me to preach in his absence on Sunday, January 22, continuing his series through the Gospel of Luke, in which we have reached chapter five. This is a slightly expanded version of that sermon.)
I have a doctoral colleague named Layne Wallace. He is the pastor of the Rosemary Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina and he and his wife Stephanie have a six-year-old daughter named Maddie. Recently, Maddie and her mother had a conversation that went like this:
Steph: Maddie, God said to honor your dad and mom.
Maddie: I pretty sure He didn’t mean anything by that.
Now, the problem with correcting Maddie’s theology is that she is employing a strategy of biblical interpretation that most of use far too often – what Geoff Smith calls the Jesus-was-only-kidding hermeneutic. In contrast to that, our pastor started the new year off with a study of the Gospel of Luke through the lens of Romans 8.29, which tells us that we are “predestined to become conformed to the image” of Jesus. This means that whatever we observe Jesus doing or saying, however we observe Jesus living in the Gospel of Luke, we should consider that goal and the standard for our own everyday life.
But most of us are pretty sure God didn’t mean anything by that.
Dallas Willard, by contrast, invites us to imagine receiving a flyer from our church announcing a six-week seminar on how to bless someone who spits on you and to really mean it. Or live without indulging lust or covetousness. Or quit condemning people, or be free from anger. He envisions a church mission statement which reads: “We teach all who seriously commit themselves to Jesus how to do everything he said to do.”
In our text, Jesus heals a leper. The Bible says that God has predestined me to be just like Jesus, meaning I can do anything Jesus can do. Do I believe that God really means anything by that? To wrestle with that question, I want to look at two features of this story: One thing Jesus does that I can’t do yet, and one thing Jesus does that I can do but usually don’t.
I can’t heal lepers . . . yet.
Calvin Miller tells the story of his first sermon, preached at the age of seventeen in an old folks’ home in his little hometown Enid, Oklahoma. He preached for three minutes on this same passage, most of which centered on a graphic, Steven King-esque description of leprosy and its effects on the body. Dr. Miller pronounces the sermon a success because, he claims, there has not been a single case of leprosy in Garfield County, Oklahoma, in the past six decades.
Well, I won’t go into that kind of vivid sensationalism. Suffice it to say that leprosy was a communicable disease with no known treatment and which was almost always fatal. Add to this that the Old Testament often associates it with punishment for sin and you have a pretty miserable situation. And Jesus heals him. With a single touch.
Of course, we don’t see a lot of leprosy these days, perhaps thanks to Calvin Miller’s powerful preaching. But can you think of another rampant, incurable disease that leads to loathsome physical decay and is often associated with the sufferer’s own sin? The modern equivalent would be the ability to heal AIDS with a single touch.
Now, I can’t do that – and neither can you, I’m betting. If you can, let me sit down and you come up and preach the sermon. Though I’m betting, again, that if you can, you are also conformed to Jesus’ pattern in the rest of the story, and are doing the whole thing as black ops. But I should be able to do that – and so should you, if you are a Christian, predestined by God Almighty to be just like Jesus.
Moreover, we need to be able to do this – not so we can all have ice cream white suits and coifed hair and our own cable shows and custom prayer cloths. No, we need to be able to do this for at least two reasons: first of all because there is a huge amount of suffering in this world among people Jesus loves, and secondly because it would be a powerful way to show people how much Jesus loves them and what kind of God we ask them to embrace. Problem is, most of us aren’t up to the job. Dallas Willard warns that for most of us – and I’d include myself – even a grande-sized answer to prayer would be enough to vault us into weeks of spiritual smugness. A venti or a trenta would ruin us for good!
So what do we do? How do we get to the place where we not only can do what Jesus did, but can survive it? Well, look at a couple of hints in the text – maybe three: a context discipleship and the practice of two disciplines.
A Context of Discipleship
Never forget that the writers of the gospels were not just evangelists; they were theologians who arranged their stories to emphasize a particular aspect of Jesus. In addition to this, Luke was a gifted writer; one scholar has said that Luke could have taken his place in a room filled with the greatest writers of his day. If Woody Allen had made the movie “Midnight in Paris” in the first century, Luke would have been a character.
Now, here’s the point: Luke, as an intentional theologian and a gifted writer and (I probably should add) under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has messed with the chronological order of his material. Matthew 8.2 locates this story clearly just after Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Luke just says “while he was in one of the cities,” which is a sort of first century formula for, “Once upon a time.” (You get the same thing with the next miracle in v. 17, “on one of those days.”) So instead of arranging these stories chronologically, Luke arranges them logically, and we need to try to figure out what that logic is.
Notice the pattern of the chapter: Jesus does a miracle (v.1-7), then calls a disciple (v.8-11). And the miracle (a miraculous catch of fish) defines what discipleship means (you will be catching men). Next, Jesus does two miracles which both involve healing a sick body (v.12-16, 17-26), then calls a disciple (v.27-39). The first miracle relates to healing someone whose disease is associated with sin. In the second miracle, Jesus outright claims to forgive sin. And those miracles define the call to discipleship because Jesus calls Matthew, a notorious sinner, in the context of being a spiritual physician, as the parable he uses shows. And in both cases, the new disciple becomes a part of the existing group of disciples with no natural affinity: Peter, the Tea Party tax payer and Matthew the Big Government IRS agent must now be fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven!
My point is that being fully conformed to Christ always happens in the context of discipleship, and it is a discipleship that relates to how we currently live our lives and it is a discipleship that includes other disciples. So you can’t use Jesus like an app. on your iPhone. If you want to act like Jesus, you must walk with Jesus in the context of a gathered body of fellow-disciples. I can’t heal AIDs with a touch – yet – but I can declare myself a serous, if novice, disciple of Christ in the context of my daily life and I can associate with other disciples even if they are unlike me.
A Practice of Secrecy
Jesus’ language here is really a little harsh. “He ordered him to tell no one.” It’s the word for a commanding officer sending an order down the line. “Go and show yourself to the priest.” Another stern term; it’s the same word Luke just used to describe how the leprosy “left him.” Jesus effectively tells him, “Shut up and get out of here!” Why would he do that? Well, it is a basic teaching of Jesus that we practice such good works as giving, fasting, and prayer in secret (Mt 6.4, 6, 18). So we see Jesus practicing the spiritual discipline of serving in secret.
I can’t heal AIDs at a touch, but I can, say, pay a bill for a friend – or even an enemy – in such a way that nobody finds out. But that’s a tough one! Richard Foster accurately observes that, “the flesh whines against service, but screams against hidden service.” But evidently if I want to be able to heal like Jesus, I will have to practice it. And if I get good enough at it, maybe the Holy Spirit can trust me with at least a grande-sized miracle and I will have the ability to keep it secret and thus not destroy my witness through pride.
A Practice of Solitude
Well, this guy breaks radio silence, outs Jesus as a miracle worker, Facebook and Twitter blow up, and Jesus is suddenly a famous healer. And what does Jesus do? But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness to pray. The King James reads, “He withdrew himself,” as if it was something he did just this one time to get away from everybody. But the New American Standard gets it right, because the grammar of the phrase indicates an unusual action (himself) and a habitual action (would often).
Now, I can’t heal AIDs at a touch, but I can decide to reject the normal behavior of my culture by regularly going for long walks all by myself. We call this the discipline of solitude. Evidently if I want to be fully conformed to Jesus, I am going to have to spend some time all alone, with no companions, no books, no iPod, no TV or radio – just me and God, which most of the time will feel like just me because, in my experience, God tends to be a silent partner in these little get-togethers. “It was an important day in my life,” admits Dallas Willard, “when I at last understood that if he needed forty days in the wilderness at one point, I very well likely could use three or four.”
Who knows? If I develop the ability to spend an hour alone, then the Holy Spirit can trust me with at least a grande-sized miracle, knowing that if word gets out I will instinctively run away where I can’t hear all the praise and get all full of myself.
So that’s the plan: View myself as a disciple of Jesus – an actual trainee in being just like Him – in the setting of other such disciples, and practice the same spiritual disciplines I see in Jesus’ life and elsewhere in Scripture. And my goal in all of this is to be able to show the world what God is like by healing AIDs victims of a deadly disease that most people think is their own fault.
That’s the thing I can’t do yet. But there is something I can do already, and if I don’t do it, I don’t see why the Holy Spirit should let me move on to the stuff I can’t do.
I can touch lepers . . . already.
“And he stretched out his hand and touched him.” Jesus didn’t have to do that. In Luke 17 he heals ten times this many lepers at a safe distance. Not only that, but Luke says this guy was “covered with leprosy.” Luke was a physician, so he knew what that meant – understood the disgusting physical deformity, the smell, and the fear associated with a communicable disease. Some rabbis said you had to give a leper a six-foot berth, unless he was upwind, in which case it was one hundred. But Jesus touched first and healed second.
“And he stretched out his hand and touched him.” The verb is one of three that Luke could have used, and it is the most emphatic. It is the word used in John 1.1 which, in the superior old King James, describes Jesus as the one whom, “we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” Jesus didn’t just tap this guy with the tip of his finger, then holler for a wipe like Adrian Monk the OCD detective. No, he gripped, grasped, hugged and handled! He gave the guy a shiatsu deep-tissue massage! He rubbed, brushed, buffed, burnished, furbished, kneaded and nuzzled.
Now why would he do that? Well, look at the leper’s only line in the story: Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean. This poor guy had been so rejected, so segregated, so isolated that he couldn’t believe that Jesus would want to heal him, even if Jesus could! I think that’s why Jesus told the man only after he touched the man. I think that’s why Jesus showed him he cared before he told him he cared.
Now I can’t heal AIDs with a single touch . . . yet. But I can already touch. And it seems to me that if I won’t do what I can already, there’s no real reason Jesus should enable me to do what I can’t. It seems that touching comes before healing, that doing what I already can comes before doing what I can’t yet.
I can touch. I can sign up for the church nursery and touch dirty diapers. I can go down to The Station and shake hands with and even hug people who don’t smell good, people nobody ever touches except perhaps to cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em and haul them off to jail. I can socialize with people who, it turns out, are lonely for a reason: C. S. Lewis said it is always so much easier to pray for a bore than to go visit him! I can even volunteer at the hospital or the AIDs clinic.
There is a lot of power in a touch. A lot of healing power.
Beach Conger was a big city doctor in a teaching hospital in San Francisco who developed a longing to practice a more personal brand of medicine. So he bought a country practice in Dumster, Vermont, switched coasts and became a small town physician. He purchased the practice from Old Doc Franklin, a true throwback who became a doctor when requirements were less stringent, and who had not kept up with the latest developments, but whom everybody loved, and whose patients all seemed to get better.
One day Muriel Blackington came to see Dr. Conger about her arthritis. He took her hands, glanced them over, then asked to see her knees. She refused, and he explained, with some irritation, that he had to perform a full examination in order to help her. He snapped that he’d already looked at her hands. She thrust them forward again.
“Looking don’t do ‘em any good,” she drawled. “Holding is what they want.”
“We sat there for a few minutes, our hands clasped awkwardly. Then she withdrew and stood up. ‘If you want to doctor in Dumster, you gotta learn to hold. That was Doc Franklin’s way.’ Without another word, she left.”
And that’s what the miracle of the incarnation is all about. If you wanna be a healer like the Great Physician, you gotta learn to hold. That is Jesus’ way.