SJF • Epiphany 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Naaman the Syrian asked, Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?
There are two things about the Christian faith that often provoke controversy, sometimes even within the church. The first is the claim that Christ is unique, the sole assured way to salvation. This doctrine is embodied in Jesus’ statement that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. The second is the observation that what God demands of us through Christ is neither complicated nor difficult, but simple. And this is embodied in Jesus’ statement that his yoke is easy and his burden light.
We can find a foreshadowing of both of these doctrines in the story of Naaman the Syrian warrior — and leper. Naaman hears of a cure of his illness from a young slave who was kidnaped from her home in Israel. He sets off loaded with treasure, expecting some kind of grand royal reception. What he gets, however, is a message from the prophet Elisha to go and wash in the Jordan seven times. And the Scripture describes his anger at what he perceives to be off-handed treatment.
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Naaman’s anger has two aspects, which reflect the two Christian doctrines I mentioned a moment ago. First, he finds it is absurd that there should be anything special or unique about the River Jordan. Aren’t there rivers back in Syria that are bigger and better? What’s so special about the River Jordan? Second, the Syrian general expects an elaborate healing ceremony, some kind of a ritual where the prophet will come forth and call on God by name and wave his hands over the diseased spot.
But the general’s servants know better, and they give him very good advice: if the prophet had asked for something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? How much easier simply to do as he says, to wash and be made clean? And so he does, and is healed, and comes to realize that the power of God is at work both in its particularity and in its simplicity. Only God can save and heal; and what God asks is simple, as simple as the faith to do as you are told.
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Let’s look more closely at these two attributes of God’s power and working. First, God’s power and working are particular. God could have chosen to settle his people Israel by some other river than the Jordan; he could have taken them up to Syria to settle by the Abana or the Pharpar. For that matter, when they were in captivity in Egypt, he could, instead of bringing them to the Promised Land, simply have wiped out Pharaoh and kept them comfortably settled by the Nile — a far more impressive and significant river than the Abana, the Pharpar or the Jordan. Or, choosing instead when he led them forth from Egypt, in forty years of wandering he could have led them to the Tigris or Euphrates or even the other way on up north and into Europe. God could have led his people to the Rhine or the Seine or the Thames. Or, he even could’ve inspired them to build boats, and bring them to the Hudson or the Mississippi! Why, God could even have settled his people by the shores of the Bronx River running through the Botanical Garden just a few blocks away!
But he didn’t. God settled his people in Israel by the Jordan, and that was where the slave-girl came from who told Naaman about the prophet, and that was where the prophet lived, and that was where Naaman went, and that is where he was healed. There; and no where else.
In the same way, God could have chosen to become incarnate in fifth century BC India, or in twelfth century Japan or fifteenth century Mexico. But he didn’t. God chose to be incarnate, “God in Man made manifest,” in the person of Jesus Christ, born in a suburb of Jerusalem in the reign of Caesar Augustus of Rome and Herod the Great of Palestine. This Jesus would be a man of a particular height, speaking a particular language, of a particular complexion and build, and most importantly, and particularly and uniquely and most importantly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.
The uniqueness and particularity of Christianity after all doesn’t lie in its content but in Christ himself — personally. Other religions have creeds and scriptures, liturgies and teachings and moral advice, many of them similar to Christianity in many respects. But only Christianity has Christ, the Son of God. It is in him that the Christian faith finds its uniqueness and particularity.
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So it is that Christians believe God’s power and working to be particular. And God’s power and working are also simple and direct. God could have commanded the prophet Elisha to put on a big show for Naaman the Syrian, something to impress him with thunder and lightning and spells and incantations, wavings of the arms and high drama. Instead he simply told him to take a bath, seven dips in the river.
In the same way, Jesus could have healed that leper that approached him, in the Gospel we heard this morning, with an elaborate ritual. He could have placed upon him some complicated act to perform after he was healed. Instead he simply touched him and spoke the word, and told him to do no more than what the Law of Moses already asked, a simple offering to the priest to certify the cure.
The simplicity of Jesus’ teaching is given in his own summary of the ancient law of Moses: to love God and one’s neighbor. That is the simplicity of Christian duty, simplicity so simple that sometimes it is hard! How many Christians down through history have afflicted themselves with terrible penances instead of simply doing what Jesus asked, to love God and their neighbors! And even that love takes a simple form — to do to others as we would be done by.
This is so simple and so fair that even a child can understand it — perhaps better than many an adult. Perhaps that is why Jesus said we had to become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. For children know what fairness is — believe you me. If you don’t think so, just try a little experiment with two children: sit them side by side and give one of them a dish of ice cream and the other a bowl of oatmeal, and you see if they can’t tell the difference! Of course, it takes a bit longer for the child to learn that fairness also means giving up something. I’ll be if you tried that experiment you might find a child ready to share the ice cream. It takes a while to learn that sometimes, but children do often grasp it, and you can see them, especially if they don’t know you’re watching, sharing, giving up his or her own toy, or learning to share it with another — that takes a while, sometimes; and sometimes we forget, too soon.
And yet children often seem to grasp that spirit of generosity to others that can put many an adult to shame. And perhaps that is why Jesus said “come to me as a child does” — with a clear sense of what is fair, but also a willingness to be generous, a willingness to share with others.
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After all is said and done, Jesus does not ask heroic feats of us. He has done the heavy lifting for us. He bore the cross for our salvation, and he asks us each to take up — each of us — our own cross, not his. He carried his cross, and he only asks us to take up our own, and follow him. This yoke of our own cross is easy and the burden light. For even given his unique and particular power, he asks of us only a simple task. He does not expect us to do anything more than to accept his love: to love him and to love each other just as he has loved us.
And to help us on our way he touches us in the sacraments and he speaks a word to us in the Scriptures, and he says to us, Be made clean. Be made clean from the false self that seeks only itself, and turn to the true self that gives itself for others. Be made clean from the burden of guilt so that you may accept the yoke of service. Be made clean of the elaborate show of religion so that you can experience the simplicity of faith. Be made clean of running about in confusion and aimlessness after this or that way to salvation, so that you can run the true race with your eyes fixed on the finish line, where an imperishable crown awaits you.
The way lies before us, as particular and clear as a lane marked out on the 400-meter track; the task lies before us, as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. All we are asked to do is follow: to run with perseverance the race that is before us, led by the one who goes before us to prepare a place for us: the one who has touched us in Baptism; the one who has spoken to us in the living word of his Scriptures; the one who has washed us clean in his blood; and the one who has fed us with his own body at this holy table: even Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate, to whom we offer our praise and thanksgiving, now and for evermore.+