Gracious openness: the key characteristic of following Jesus
This year, we have been following the story of Jesus as it is offered to us by the author of the “orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us”— the document which we know as the Gospel according to Luke.
This account of the ministry of Jesus gives a prominent place to the journey that Jesus undertook, along with his disciples, from his home region in Galilee, to the capital city of Jerusalem. The journey, in Mark’s Gospel, is all over in just a few verses. You can read about it in Mark 10—and look carefully, it is over pretty quickly!
In Luke’s account, this journey, from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, starts on chapter 9 and continues right through until chapter 19: that’s 40% of the whole story! The journey gets underway when Luke notes that, at a crucial point during his ministry in Galilee, Jesus “sets his face” to go to Jerusalem (9:51). This turn of phrase is prophetic term (found often in Ezekiel; see 4:3,7, 6:2, 14:8, 15:7, 21:2, 25:2, 28:21) which indicates his firm commitment to this pathway, but also indicates the judgement that will take place through this visit.
But significantly, the first thing that Jesus does on this journey is gather a larger group of his followers, seventy such disciples (or in some versions, seventy–two), to begin in the role that will later consume their lives. He sends them out to proclaim the central message that the kingdom of God has come near (10:1–12; cf. 9:2).
Quite significantly, when the seventy are sent out, they are in the region of Samaria (9:51-62). The Samaritans were difficult customers; James and John actually wanted Jesus to invoke the wrath of God and consume them (9:54). (Have you ever seen a picture of these two,disciples quite like this?)
Jesus, by contrast, refuses to do this (9:55) and charges the seventy to preach a message peace to the Samaritans (10:5) and to declare the good news, that God’s kingdom is right there, in midst of them (10:9,11; cf. 9:2).
It is noteworthy, then, that after chapter 10, the next time that Luke reports an actual location for Jesus and his disciples, is in the passage set for our reading this week, in chapter 17. And that location, strangely enough, is no different from the starting point of the journey. Yes, after seven long chapters of travelling, Jesus and his disciples are still up north: “On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee”, Luke reports (17:11).
In this story, Jesus heals a group of ten lepers. They, of course, are jubilant at being healed, no longer outcasts, but restored to health and reconnected with family and friends. However, as Luke reports, only one of these ten lepers had the grace, and the gratitude, to return to Jesus and thank him for what he had done to them all.
According to Luke, ‘one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”’ (17:15-18).
Only one; and that one, a Samaritan—a member of the despised northern tribe, the people who had long been at loggerheads with their southern neighbours in Judea, as well as with the people in Galilee, from where Jesus and a number of his first followers came.
These two stories, both set in and around Samaria, the enemy territory (as it were), set out some significant aspects of the ministry of Jesus.
On the way, Luke reports on the teachings and healings of Jesus and his encounters and debates with various people. Many of these reports are drawn from a special source that only Luke seemed to know, as well as another source known as ‘Q’, which provides material for both Luke and Matthew. So the journey, over ten chapters in Luke, provides the context for a rich selection of teaching and instruction at depth.
When Jesus sets his face towards the city to bring God’s judgement upon it (Luke 9:51), he knows what the cost will be for himself, personally. He is clear that he must travel with that end in view (13:33). When he enters the city, he comes as the messenger of divine judgement (19:44); the “visitation of God” is a biblical phrase for executing diving judgement. Along the way, he encounters opposition and criticism.
That started with the Samaritans, at the end of chapter 9, reflected in the antagonistic words of James and John, who wanted Jesus to pronounce judgement on them. At the start of the journey, the relationship is one of opponents. Jews and Samaritans do not get on.
But here, in chapter 17, as the journey has been underway for quite some time, the relationship between Jesus and his followers, and the Samaritans, has been transformed. Indeed, from amongst all ten of those lepers who were healed, only one returned to give thanks—and that one was a Samaritan! And perhaps this one solitary Samaritan might well signal the turnaround in understanding about Jesus.
No longer an opponent. No longer an enemy. Now, a friend. Now, a companion along the way. The turnaround is remarkable.
And yet—let us also remember that, back there are the start of the journey, in the early days, Jesus was already signalling this message. Immediately after the seventy had returned from their mission of proclaiming the kingdom, Jesus engaged in a debate with a scribe, a teacher of the Law. “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Was the scribe’s question. “Love God, and love Neighbour”, was the reply from Jesus, drawing directly from the very Law that the scribe knew and taught.
“Who is my neighbour?”, the scribe then asked. And Jesus, typically, replied by telling a story. It’s a story reported only in Luke’s Gospel. Thank goodness for Luke, and for his special sources! It is the story that reveals who the neighbour actually is—yes, the neighbour is a Samaritan. The story is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
So, for Jesus, it is clear, from early in the journey, through until towards the ends of the journey. He reaches out, offering a hand of friendship, inviting a relationship of acceptance, to the traditional enemies—the Samaritans.
And even more strikingly, if we attend to the geography that Luke provides us, all of the journey thus far has been in or around or near to Samaria. Not in Galilee, the home territory of Jesus. Not in Judea, in the area around Jerusalem, the religious centre and economic capital of that region, he has been teaching and healing, preaching and telling parables, amongst the Samaritans—those very outsiders, in the traditional way of viewing things.
Some weeks back, I spoke about an understanding of membership that I derive from reading Uniting Church documents about membership and confirmation—an understanding of membership as being marked by gracious openness. Today, in the story of the ten lepers, healed by Jesus, I see that same characteristic. The ministry of Jesus, travelling throughout Galilee, then Samaria, and on into Jerusalem, is marked by gracious openness.
This returning, healed leper, was a Samaritan—an outsider, a foreigner, in the traditional understanding of the time. And yet, Jesus not only heals him, but commends him: “your faith has made you well”, he says to the Samaritan—as he had earlier said to the sinful woman who anointed his feet (7:50), and the haemmhoraging woman who touched the fringe of his clothes (8:48), and as he will subsequently say to the persistent widow (18:8) and the blind beggar outside Jericho (18:48), just before he finally enters Jerusalem.
And these figures, all outcasts because of their circumstances, were welcomed and affirmed by Jesus. They are the great examples of faith, in this Gospel! They are the ones whom he praises! Jesus demonstrates a gracious openness to those whom society regarded as unclean, despised, outcast.
Indeed, as Luke tells the story of Jesus, and then stretches it out to tell the story of the early church, in the book of Acts, we encounter, not only this foreigner, the healed Samaritan leper, but a number of other foreigners, whom Jesus accepts, and affirms. For instance, early in his ministry, he tells the old story of Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner, another leper, who was healed, and served as an example of faith (Luke 4; and at a key point in the second volume, Acts, we encounter the story of yet another foreigner, the centurion Cornelius, who becomes the first Gentile to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10).
So Naaman and Cornelius stand, with the anonymous Samaritan leper, as key signals for this central truth in the message and the practice of Jesus: Grace is offered openly, abundantly, to those who would be regarded by tradition as being beyond the pale. The Gospel, the good news, the message of the kingdom of God, is a message that opens out, that stretches out to reach beyond the traditional limitations of understanding, with an invitation shaped by gracious openness.
Over the last week, I have been involved in two extensive conversations with different groups of people, where we talked about our attitude towards outsiders, people who are different. I should add that neither group of people have any connection with this congregation. Our conversations canvassed a range of pressing contemporary issues: the state of the environment and climate activism, the national policy of our country with regard to refugees and asylum seekers, the impoverished and trapped situation of people with a long term reliance on Newstart, and the continuing unresolved situation of many of our First Peoples, caught in cycles of poverty, alienation, and discrimination.
What was of interest to me, was that with one group of people, there was a respect for those considered to be different from, or other than, the group who was canvassing the issues. These people were aware of their differences, and alert to the complexities of the situations that the outsiders were experiencing. And there was a sense of the need for compassion, and justice, in the ways that we dealt with these issues.
In the other group, there was a clear sense of alienation, fear of the other, judgement cast upon the outsiders, and a consequent advocacy of some very hardline policies, with the suggestion that such policies would solve the situation for us all. It was a very different conversation.
What I found striking—and concerning—was that the hardline judgement was being expressed by people with at least a historical association with the Uniting Church (even if they were not actively involved at the present time), whilst those demonstrating a sense of compassionate justice, were people who affirmed that they were, of not confirmed atheists, then at least strongly agnostic in their faith perspective.
And surely that it counter to all that we would expect when we investigate the faith stance of people and how that translates into politics and policy?
In formal decisions and public pronouncements, the Uniting Church has been very clear about how we relate to others, how we regard those different from us, and what policies we believe should be adopted in each situation. We have made statements for years, now, about refugees and asylum seekers, about climate change and environmental responsibility.
We have worked hard to overcome historic injustices in the way that the church, as indeed the wider society, has related to Indigenous Peoples, and we have worked hard, as a denomination, to give voice to First Peoples and to work in collaboration with them. And we have always spoken out about economic policy in our nation, in a way that prioritises a constructive approach to poverty.
At the time that the Uniting Church was formed, we spoke clearly, in a Statement to the Nation, about the importance of confronting injustices, about affirming our “concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere”, about our commitment to “the basic human rights of future generations”. We affirmed our intention to “challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed” and committed to speaking and acting about “the daily widening gap between the rich and poor”.
That 1977 Statement noted a commitment to “the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment”, and a decade later, during the 1988 Bicentenary, we issued a full Statement about indigenous peoples and our commitments in that regard.
So there can be no doubt as to where the Uniting Church stands in relation to these pressing contemporary issues. Our commitments are clear. We are called, each one of us, to know these commitments, and to live them in our daily lives. The grand visions of these statements cry out to be lived in the walk of faith that each one of us is undertaking.
God is a being who loves all, welcomes all, and searches for all with the offer of good news, gathering everyone who responds into that kingdom. God is the one who establishes the standard of justice for all, who calls prophets to remind us of that standard, who challenges us to live in ways that are consistent with that standard, affirming the dignity of all human beings, as well as the whole of creation.
And that universalistic vision is fostered by the Gospel we have been reading this year. It is Luke’s Gospel which, quite distinctively, affirms at the very start, that with the coming of Jesus, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). For God is a God of gracious openness, of living concern, for all of the creation.
So, Jesus lives his message of gracious openness, welcoming the healed outsider, acting in a way that signals the justice of God, restoring the once-hated foreigner, the returning Samaritan leper, as a sign and foretaste of what the Gospel means for us all. All are invited, all are welcome. The Gospel is entirely about gracious openness.
How do we live this in our community of faith, here in Queanbeyan? During the course of this year, we have had opportunities to consider who we are, who we want to be, who we are called to be, as a community of faith, in this place, at this time. We have affirmed that our core values orient us in the direction of seeking to be Good Neighbours to others in our community, offering help and hope to the people of Queanbeyan; and that as we follow this calling, we seek to bear witness to the Good News of our faith, testifying to others about the graciousness of God, and seeking together to grow in discipleship as we follow Jesus.
In the time that I still have with you, into the early weeks of 2020, I will be encouraging you to consider what this means for you, personally, as a disciple of Jesus; and what this means for us, collectively, as a community of faith, gathered around the Risen Lord. May we each be warm in our relating to others; strong in our commitment to walk the way of Jesus; unstinting in our commitment to the justice that God desires; and fervent in our willingness to be Good Neighbours, living out the Good News.