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Third Sunday before Lent (Epiphany 6), Year B,16.2.03, St Mark’s
2 Kings 5.1-14: Naaman and Elisha (Baptism - Luke 4)
Ps 30: O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health
1 Cor 9.24-27: All runners run in race; I punish my body so that not be lost.
Mark 1.40-45: Leper: you can, Jesus angry, leper blabs all over neighbourhood.
Collect: what you command, desire what you promise, so our hearts may be
fixed where true joys are to be found
Post Com: draw us near to the Lord in faith and love that we may eat with him in his kingdom (106) (1296 words)

Summary: Faith that centres on Jesus as a problem-solver rather than on the Father as our enabler through Jesus is the wrong sort of faith.

What kind of faith are we to have, and what are we to aim for?

What St Paul reminds us in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians is that discipleship is always ongoing, it lasts for the whole of one’s life, with Paul even envisaging the possibility that having brought others to faith, he himself could fall away if he simply tried to rest on his laurels.

In the 1960s when we came to England, John Heenan was the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. I remember him being interviewed on Television, and how misguided I thought he was when he said that his overriding priority was to save his immortal soul.

I suppose that if he were asked to justify his statement, he might have tried to appeal to this same passage in 1 Corinthians, but he would have been wrong on two counts.

In the first place, if we are to be saved, it is God who will do the saving, not we ourselves.

And in the second place, it is our calling and our joy in Christ to lose concern for ourselves as such, and, empowered by God’s love, to be directed outward to the neighbour, for, in the words of Jesus as found in Mark, Matthew and Luke, he who seeks to save his life will lose it.

This morning we have two stories about cleansing from leprosy, the one concerning Naaman the Syrian and the other concerning a single leper who approaches Jesus. These two stories can help us to see, even if in a negative way, the kind of trusting faith to which we are called and which by God’s love in Christ we are enabled to have.

There is something wrong about the attitude with which both Naaman and the leper in Mark’s gospel approach the situation. Naaman expects something striking and magical to be done to him by Elisha, so he objects initially to the simple instruction to go wash in the Jordan seven times.

He wants Elisha to do something for him; instead Elisha tells him what he himself is to do. Similarly, if our faith is that God will make everything all right for us, then we are bound to be disappointed, as in the case of the person who says, for example, if there is a God then he would not have let my child die, so I’m not going to believe in God anymore. This is not the God in whom I believe, for God is not a Mr Fixit whose job is to make everything hunky-dory. He does not so much do things for us as enable us to endure and to work things through by his sustaining love made known in Christ and given to us by his Spirit.

It may not be immediately apparent to us what is wrong about the approach of the leper in Mark’s gospel, but the fact is that he is very far from the kind of trusting faith that we are to have.

I expect that you noticed that I did not read the gospel exactly as you have it in the New Revised Standard Version as given in today’s pew sheets. Instead of saying that Jesus was “moved with pity”, you heard me say that he was “moved with anger”, which is the alternative reading in the Greek manuscripts. The New Revised Standard Version does indeed give this as a footnote, but the New English Bible, in the considered judgement of the best textual critics, rightly adopted it as the main reading. It is the only time in any of our four gospels that Jesus is said to be angry. Now why would Mark speak of Jesus as being angry when the leper asks for healing?

The answer lies in how the leper asks. In the first century AD there were a lot of self-professed wonder-workers

to whom one might go hoping for a miracle, and then simply go away again. And this is how the leper approaches Jesus. He says, “If you will, you have the power to cleanse me, and the Greek word behind “have the power” is the word from which we get “dynamite”. That is, the leper takes Jesus to be a self-powered wonder-worker. And in this he is very much mistaken. For Jesus has no power of his own; rather, he has been sent by God, sent with authority delegated by God, but the power is God’s. Jesus has not come to point to himself but to point others to the Father, and it is this utter failure to see this on the part of the leper that elicits Jesus’ anger. Faith in Jesus as a self-sufficient wonder-worker is the wrong kind of faith.

And Mark drives this home in the rest of the story. The leper, having been cleansed, is very sternly charged by Jesus to tell no one. Now, if you are a faithful follower of Jesus, you obey him, but instead the leper disobeys and tells everyone he can find.

So be forewarned: we are not to have this kind of faith.

Matthew and Luke bear witness to the right kind of faith when they tell the story of the centurion who asks for healing for his servant. The centurion says that Jesus’ word alone would suffice, for he himself is a man under authority with soldiers under him who obey his commands (Mt. 8.5-13; Luke 7.1-10). That is, he recognises Jesus as a man under authority, as one to whom authority has been given. And Jesus’ reply is that not even in Israel has he found such faith.

Faith in Jesus that stops with Jesus is the wrong kind of faith. Faith in Jesus that believes he will solve all our problems is the wrong kind of faith. We believe in Jesus as the one who witnesses to the Father and his love. As St John’s Gospel expresses it, Jesus’ food is to do the will of the one who sent him. This is why Jesus shows us the Father, for it is in fulfilling his Father’s loving will for us that he makes the Father known.

As St Paul expresses it in the very centre of 1 Corinthians, “For us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things and we unto him, and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things and we through him”(8.6). That is, God the Father is our total source of all things and our final goal, and the Lord Jesus Christ is the Father’s total agent through whom are all things and we through him, for it is he who leads us to the Father.

You and I are called to follow Jesus to the Father by a strength not our own, with the Holy Spirit guiding and directing us in all the paths of love that go by way of the neighbour. We are called to live truly Trinitarian lives, lives that are lived to the glory of the Father, in the Son, by the guidance and power of the Spirit.