Epiphany 3 – Healing all nations

Repay no one evil for evil…but overcome evil with good.

In Epiphany season God’s glory is being manifested forth in Jesus Christ.

We have come to know Jesus as King of kings, when as an infant he was visited by the magi; as the Wisdom of God, listening and asking questions daily in the Temple, to make plain what is the will of God; and as the Bridegroom at the marriage of Cana, come to usher in a new age – making possible the mystical marriage of our souls with God.  We are being transformed through our baptism and faith and through the gift of Holy Communion into the best wine.  God is adorning our natural gifts with supernatural purposes and supernatural power.

Today Jesus reveals to us something further of the nature of God.  We come to see more clearly the mercy of God and the fruit of that union of our souls with God in Christ – the healing of our souls and the healing of the nations.

The healing of a man with leprosy, illustrated manuscript, Unknown French Master

In the Gospel [St Matthew 8:1-13] there are two healing miracles:

And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.”

And further, in the same Gospel…

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 

There is a Jew and a Gentile who come to Jesus for healing.  Just as the Gospel was to be preached first to Jews and then Gentiles, so do the order of these healing miracles figure that divine plan.  And it is not just a Jew and any Gentile, but one of the very Gentiles who ruled over Israel – a Roman soldier – the “enemy” of Israel.  Jesus responds to both, showing the universal character of God’s love, of His mercy.  That mercy removes the ancient distinctions, between Jew and Gentile.

The kind of healings too, are ordered to signify importance and priority.  The first healing miracle, the healing of the man of leprosy.  Leprosy in the Bible is identified with the pollution of sin, so the healing is a figure of forgiveness and cleansing of sin.  The second miracle is about paralysis of the body.  Jesus showed us in a healing miracle elsewhere in the Gospels what is of first importance [e.g. St Matthew 9:1-8 Trinity 19].  Remember, it was only after declaring that a paralyzed man’s sins were forgiven that he then healed the paralyzed man to show that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.

The healings perhaps also show stages in the perfecting of our love – the first man comes for healing of himself, while the second comes seeking the healing of another.

A centurion pleads with Jesus for his paralyzed servant, Tissot

Here Jew and Gentile are shown mercy.  Here by the gift of faith they are both shown mercy.  Here friend and enemy of Israel are shown mercy.  Here those sick of soul and sick of body are shown mercy.  Here is the reconciliation of heaven and earth through the forgiveness of sins and between nations on earth through the removal of preference under the Old Covenant by birth.

Here in fact a Gentile is exalted above a Jew, but not on the basis of his race, but on his openness to the gift of faith shown in his great humility and his trusting that Jesus can heal by only speaking the word.  Jesus responded, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.  In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The last part of this response is very harsh, but doesn’t it describe well, the state of those in this life who nurse bitterness and who dwell on the hatred of enemies?  But the first part of this response proclaims the universal character of the mercy of God as set forth before us by Jesus, a mercy based on our faith in Him alone.

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St. Paul calls on us, in the Epistle [Romans 12:16-21], to exemplify that mercy in our dealings with all people: 

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all people.  If it be possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. … ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink: for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

We are to be reconciled with all people, even our enemies.

The blind leading the blind, Pieter Bruegel

What could be a more powerful example of what Jesus was calling them to than the Old Testament lesson of Elisha and the Syrians.   The Syrians had surrounded the city Elisha was staying in so they could capture him, but Elisha prayed that God would strike them with blindness and they were.  In this completely vulnerable state, Elisha then led them into Samaria into greater vulnerability, as Israel’s army surrounded them [2 Kings 6:14b-23].

As soon as the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” He answered, “You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow?  Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.”  So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master.  And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel.

We are praying from time to time in our daily prayers here for reconciliation in America between the great divisions after the last election.  Republican must be reconciled with Democrat and Democrat with Republican.  And there are similar divisions in this society and in our churches.  How can the reconciliation  come about?  We know it won’t come about by characterizing our “enemy” in the basest light, as only evil, and ourselves, by contrast, as all light.  There are real grievances between parties, but we cannot forget our shared humanity.

This morning, think about someone who is your enemy.  Perhaps the Spirit has brought a person before your mind right away.  [Blessed are you if you have no enemies!]  Now, supposing that person was made completely vulnerable before you, would you exact punishment on the person?  Wouldn’t we realize that’s actually not what we want, that the person is a fellow human being.  There may be some righteous judgement that is motivating me to be angry, but is there also some ill will in me that is foul and in need of purifying?  “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” He answered, “You shall not strike them down…Set bread and water before them”….So he prepared for them a great feast.”

Perhaps it is also easier to do this, if we recall God’s action towards us.  St. Paul says earlier in Romans while we were enemies – that is, enemies of God, – we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. [Rom 5:10]  Jesus died on the Cross while we were still enemies of God – that is, in active rebellion against him, and in some ways we remain in active rebellion to the extent that we continue to sin.  But we are coming to know more perfectly God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy, His kindness, as Jesus continues to feed us with his Word and Sacrament despite our rebellion.  That divine charity, that continual mercy, like glowing hot coals, is burning away our remaining dross.

With whoever is our enemy, being reconciled will no doubt begin by not wanting harm towards that person, whether by our words or even by our ill will towards them, and it will hopefully include in time forgiving them their sins against us.  That will change our hearts towards them.  But it may not change their hearts towards you.  Ask God to show you some simple kindness you could do to them as a next step.  Maybe it could begin with lifting up a prayer for that person this morning.

Christ has manifested his love towards us, so that his love might also be extended to those around us, even to our enemies.  He has come to heal us individually and the relations between all people.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil…but overcome evil with good.

Amen.