This week at St John’s we began a series of four sermons thinking about our mission statement. The first sermon has the title: We are a worshipping community. The preacher is allowed to depart from the set readings for the day but as it happens God was able to use this week’s set gospel reading which is the story of Jesus healing ten lepers – but only one returns, praising God, to thank Jesus.
Popular music is full of unanswered questions! And many of them ask somewhat deep and philosophical questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. And I know many of you think you already know the answer to the life, universe and everything (Chorus of ‘42’ from the congregation!)
Who let the dogs out? Who? Who? sang the Baha Men. Who indeed? We never find out.
Should I stay or should I go? sang the Clash. A question many of us try to answer – especially when we’re at a party we don’t want to be at!
They get even more esoteric and though-provoking. Take the Smiths who ask: How soon is now?
Or Queen, from the classic song Bohemian Rhapsody: Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? I think it’s definitely real life! But there’s always the possibility some of you may be living in a fantasy world!
My own favourite song with unanswered questions comes from the hand of the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature – Bob Dylan of course – which begins by asking, but not answering, the question: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? Dylan never tells us, except to say that the answer is blowing in the wind!
Today we are beginning a series of four sermons looking at, and reflecting on, our Mission Statement and Values:
St John’s is called to be God’s people through faith in Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirt – Worshipping, Growing, Serving.
And today we are thinking about worshipping – more specifically about being a worshipping community.
More about being a worshipping community in a moment – first, a look at our Gospel reading. For our gospel reading this morning presents us with unanswered questions. As well as presenting us with answers to questions we didn’t know it was asking.
We hear how, as Jesus is travelling, ten lepers approach him and ask for mercy. He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests – it was the law that any leper who was healed had to go to the priests so that they could declare them clean again. And as they go they find that they are healed – they have been made clean. And that was pretty significant. The Law declared that they were unclean. And as a result lepers were outcasts from society. Life became, to be blunt, a living hell. And Jesus has rescued the ten from a life of misery and rejection.
And what do they do? Well, as far as nine of them are concerned we don’t know – they disappear from the story. Just one of the ten returns to Jesus – a Samaritan, an outsider. And Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? The other nine, where are they?”
And then he asks the question that tells us what his expectation was, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The response that Jesus was looking for from the ten, in return for healing, was praise to God.
And that brings me to a question for which the answer is clear. What was the response of the Samaritan leper once he realises that Jesus has made him clean? What is his response to what Jesus has done for him? His response is to turn back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice – and note the word “loud” – this means a lot to him and he knows where to direct his overwhelming feelings of joy! And then when he finds Jesus he falls at his feet as he says, “Thank you, Jesus”.
He was the one out of the ten who understood what Jesus had done for him. He knows full well that because of Jesus he now has a new life, one to look forward to. He has been rescued from his life of misery and rejection. The other nine are healed too – Jesus reaches out to all – but only this one responds in praise to God. And his first thought is to worship, to give praise to God.
So what does this gospel story have to say to us this morning?
Well, the Samaritan leper has realised his need for Jesus, and goes to him for healing. And once he discovers that he is healed he knows that there can only be one response – for he knows what Jesus has rescued him from, he understands what Jesus has done for him, he recognises that Jesus has changed his life. And so his response is that of praise and thanksgiving.
And this story from Luke’s gospel poses two questions for us.
First, one I can’t answer. Do you know and understand what Jesus has done for you? That, for me, is an unanswerable question. I know and understand what he has done for me without a doubt, but I can’t answer for you – only you can. Do you know and understand what Jesus has done for you? Do you understand that through the cross Jesus has enabled you to be healed of all that separates you from God?
The Samaritan leper was healed of his leprosy – the disease that separated him from his community. In the same way when we are healed through the lifting up of Jesus on a cross to pay the necessary price for our sin, we can come back to God. Do you understand what Jesus has done for you? Do you know, like the leper did, that Jesus has brought healing to your life?
And the second question is this. How do you respond? Do you respond like the nine lepers who went away, or like the one who turned to the praise of God and who fell on his knees before Jesus? For this is the question that everyone who encounters Jesus, who experiences Jesus, must answer. How do you respond? And while I cannot answer this question for you, for only you can answer it, I can tell you what your answer ought to be – for as Jesus himself makes clear in our gospel reading his expectation is that our response to his work of healing should be to return to him and to praise God. He draws us to worship.. He draws us to praise God and to offer thanksgiving for what God has done for us.
For this is why we were created. This is who we are! We were created by God to be loved and to love God in return. And we show that love through our worship of God. We show that love by our praise. We show that love by telling God what God means to us, and what Jesus means to us. We do it through our praise, through wanting to spend time with Jesus, by thanking him for all he means to us and all he does for us. Just as the leper praised God – loudly we are told – and went back to be with Jesus and to thank him.
Perhaps this is most famously expressed in what is known as the Westminster Catechism, written in 1647, a whole series of questions and answers about the faith of the Church put together by theologians of the time. I learnt this at college and have never forgotten it. It begins with the question: What is the chief end of man? To which it gives the answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.
Of course, we are called as followers of Jesus to engage in a great deal more than worship. We do not simply praise God and leave it at that! It’s not enough to go to Church on Sunday and do nothing during the week, forget about being a Christian until the next time we go to church! We are called to proclaim the good news through words and action. But everything we do as Christians, everything we do as followers of Jesus, flows out from our worship. It is our love for God, and how we express that love, and how we encounter the God who loves us, that informs and drives all that we then go on and do for Jesus. It’s why the word worshipping comes before growing and serving in our mission statement.
So if we are to be truly the people of God, then we must put the worship of God at the heart of everything we do for God. Our first calling is to glorify God and to enjoy God for ever – that’s what we’ll be doing for eternity, after all. And as we worship we come closer to God, and God comes closer to us and helps us to discover our true selves.
And if each of us is to become the person Jesus wants us to be, we need to answer another question – and here I’d like to go back to Bob Dylan.
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? Or to paraphrase a little – and to be a bit more inclusive than Bob Dylan. he was, after all writing in the 60s: How many roads must a person walk down before they become truly the person they are meant to be?
And the answer to that question is – just the one road. Each person just needs to walk down one road. Each person needs to – like the Samaritan leper – turn around, and walk to Jesus, to fall at his feet, with praise on our lips as we do so.
And that leaves us with a final question: But what next? And we’ll be looking at the answers to that question over the next three weeks.