6th Sunday after the Epiphany
- Epiphany 6.22 (B) “The Real Superpower” Mark 1:40-45
Epiphany—the season of the church year in which we are now in—is all about epiphanies in the sense of revelations, manifestations of truths that are divine, eternal, hidden from ordinary human sight, yet revealed in the things Jesus did (and still does!) in his earthly ministry. And I will cut to the chase this morning: the epiphany in this Gospel today (one of my special favorites) is this: the love of Jesus is the real superpower in the universe—so, lets see what it is and what it means for us…
When I say “the love of Jesus” I am cognizant of St. John’s word: “in this is love: not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sin.” I think this is an important point because I find most people get it backwards; when they hear “the love of Jesus” they usually think of the love that we have for Jesus and demonstrate by acts of kindness for his creation.
But John says “No”. Love consists not in our feelings, emotions, thoughts, acts, faith, or devotion. Love is not our loving God, but it’s his loving us in Jesus—who loves by giving up his own self into death on the cross to take away the sin of the world (and the death and hell that sin brings). Now, John also says that once this love has got hold of us, it reflects off us (like little mirrors) and is perfected when we love one another as brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus. There is reciprocity in this divine mystery, the love flows back and forth and every which way from Sunday, but the flow is all downhill from Golgotha where the fountain of love is opened for all, a fountain filled with blood. Unless you drink from the fountainhead, the love of Christ eludes you.
We see in our Gospel today a man, an unclean man, a leper, drinking from that life giving stream; his thirst was quenched, his soul revived, and now he lives in Him, although he stumbles and staggers away from his first taste of the stream like a drunkard from a bar, in an ungraceful way that we may wish to avoid. Still, his drinking from the fountainhead shows us what this superpower is exactly, how it works, and what it means for us (even his staggering away like someone who had one too many at the bar also has an epiphany of its own).
Leprosy was a terrible thing. It really wrecked a person’s life. From the description in Leviticus, I don’t think the ancient disease is around in our world exactly, though Hansen’s disease has some surface similarities. Ancient leprosy was a wasting disease producing disfiguring lesions on the skin, eventually destroying the peripheral nerves and mucus membranes (a long, slow, and painful death usually). It made the person “unclean” because it spread by contact with the infected and so lepers were strictly quarantined in ancient societies, literally not allowed to touch anyone or anything but other lepers and their stuff.
This particular leper apparently has heard about Jesus who had just begun his ministry and had taught with authority, healed many dread diseases, and cast out demons. The man comes to Jesus, imploring him, kneeling before him, begs: “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity (one of the rare commentaries on the motivation for Jesus’ miracles of healing), Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him (a great big “no-no” in Leviticus because touching a leper makes you a virtual leper yourself) and said to him, “I will; be clean.” This is just two words, beautiful in Greek: θελω καθαρισθητι literally in English will; cleansed. Case closed. Leprosy gone. Man thrilled.
Seeing the exuberant joy of the leper (can you imagine!?: an incurable deadly disease that has literally wasted you away, killing you slowly, painfully, isolated you from society for years, with two words, vanquished, instant healing, perfect health?!) Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, saying “See that you say nothing to anyone! But go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded as proof to them.” This was necessary to be re-admitted to society.
But, the former leper doesn’t do this. He seems to have skipped the priestly visit, gone straight on the talk show circuit, blabbing about Jesus and how he’d been healed and how great it all was. I know modern people think Jesus didn’t mind this—secretly wanted the word to spread like this, but Mark is clear when he says: Jesus sternly, strictly charged him; no fooling around, dead serious, really: don’t tell anyone! This is why I say that the drink from the fountain of Jesus’ love sent this guy staggering away like a drunk who had one (or six?) too many. It is ungraceful. It does not reflect the love of Jesus—who is circumspect, low key, under cover with his pity. And it gives everyone the wrong idea of Jesus as an attention seeking wonderworker, instead of a Strider, the Real King who comes incognito to mount an insurrection against Sauron, er, Satan the Dark Lord. The element of surprise is useful in this attack and the leper has spoiled that and made the real ministry of the word in the synagogues difficult for Jesus. So don’t be that way. Receive as tersely and incognito as Jesus gives. Make them drag the truth out of you under great duress. This is the way…
But the leper does show how the real, universal superpower—the love of Jesus—actually works. To be the propitiation for our sin, Jesus has to get infected with our disease. He did this ontologically in the Jordan River, dunked in that dirty river like Naaman the Syrian general in our lovely OT reading. The prophets and John the Baptist had dumped the world’s sin in that filthy river; and, at his baptism in the Jordan by John, Jesus took it on himself, ontologically. But his whole ministry is making that hidden taking-on-of-sin tangible, epiphanied by Jesus touching the lepers, the unclean, taking all our dirty, nasty sin on himself, quite literally, as Isaiah said he would do.
To heal a leper, Jesus becomes one himself (an asymptomatic spreader ;-). To forgive sin, Jesus becomes sin personified, dying of it for us all, eternally, damnably, on the cross.
C.S. Lewis said that Jesus brings “a good infection”. By his embrace of lepers (and sin makes us all lepers, truth be told) he suffers the infection of our sin, and by his touch—by his broken body, shed blood—we are infected by his love, the very antibody of life.
These last two years have taught the world to treat our neighbors primarily as sources of contagion to be avoided by masking, vaccinating, and social distancing lest we be infected, ourselves. There is a way in which it is true: we’re all carriers of a deadly disease (that’s quite contagious!). But Jesus has a different approach…
Embrace the leper! Let Christ’s immune system work. The one superpower in the universe is Jesus’ love. And it works by embracing lepers, not social distancing, not by avoiding, but by sucking up all the world’s sin, death, darkness, disease—works by turning it into life and health. How?! By dying of it himself, Jesus’ blood produces the antibodies against sin, death, and hell. By faith in the Word, we’re infected by his love, become (highly contagious 😉 carriers, ourselves.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s light. Look unto Me; thy morn shall rise and all thy day be bright.” I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my star, my sun; and in that light of life I’ll walk till traveling days are done.” That’s superpower: Christ’s. Yours, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.