With Beggars and Angels

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"Cleansing of the Ten Lepers" by James Tissot

The word of the Lord from Luke 17: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
What would it take to get you to beg?  What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member?  
Recently a friend of mine was on the news.  Perhaps you saw the story.  It was about the man in Rapid City who wanted to get his smile back.  A succession of health problems and limited finances had prevented him from fixing the teeth that troubled him for years.  Finally, he decided to do something about it—he set up an account on the internet to ask people to help.  “The hardest thing I've ever had to do is to do this, you know, to swallow my pride and ask for help," he said on Keloland News.  He told his story on gofundme.com. It didn’t take long for that funding to start, and to date he has raised nearly $3,000.
That’s not to say everyone is happy with his efforts.  About two weeks ago, he wrote, “I was feeling pretty beaten up today after talking to someone I know.  He said, ‘Panhandling seems to be a good way to get a new set of teeth for yourself.”  My friend admitted he was having some doubts about the process.  But then he received an encouraging message on Facebook.  That was enough to keep him going.  He had the procedure completed and his new smile looks great!
I’m happy for my friend.  He got what he wanted, and it has certainly raised his spirits.  But I must confess I have been somewhat conflicted.  Part of my dilemma is ethical.  I wonder, “Is it even right to ask someone for help to pay for a medical procedure that would have be classified as elective rather than emergency?”  And part of it is personal: I’ve thought about my own neglected dental work and the expense that will come when I get around to getting it done.
But I’ve come to realize that most of my hesitancy is a matter of pride: I don’t think that I could do it.  I’m generally too self-reliant, too prideful to ask for help—and often I’m the poorer for it.  And so I decided to help my friend. 
So, what would it take to get you to beg?  What would it take for you to swallow your pride and ask for help from a total stranger, a passing acquaintance, even a close friend or family member?   I submit that it takes at least two things to make such a bold request.  First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least, recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself.  And second, it takes confidence that the one you are asking is able to fulfill that need.   
And so we turn to the beggars in our Gospel.  There are ten of them.  They’re all out of options.  There’s nothing else to do.  They’re lepers.  They’re dying from a terrible contagious disease.  They can’t go to work.  They can’t stay home.  They can’t hug their wives and kids.  The Law is clear: they are unclean.  They are required to stay away from everyone else, except other lepers.  If anyone who doesn’t have leprosy happens to wander their way, these loneliest of men are required to shout out a warning to stay away.
When Jesus comes along, they shout from a distance.  Not “stay away,” but “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  They’ve heard.  Although they’re ostracized and isolated, they’ve still gotten the news of Jesus and his miraculous healing.  And they realize they have no other options.  They are completely at the Lord’s mercy.  So they beg.
Jesus simply tells them to show themselves to the priests.  As they head to the temple, all of them are cleansed.  One of them comes back—a Samaritan.  And while we usually note the ingratitude of the other nine at this point, this one—this foreigner—only highlights the Lord’s mercy more.  He has nothing to give Jesus in return for healing.  Neither can he appeal to him for help as a fellow Jew.  He has to rely solely on begging and trusting that the mercy of the Lord is for all.
The man returns because he has faith.  Jesus says so: “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  That’s what faith does.  It keeps running back to Jesus.  It runs back with thanksgiving, because faith gladly says, “I had nothing to give, but Jesus was merciful to me anyway!” 
Faith always runs back to Jesus for more.  This is, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the other nine: Jesus has more to give them, but they run away.  They’ve got what they most want—they have their lives, health, families, and home again.  They won’t have to beg any more.  But they don’t have what they need most—forgiveness, faith, life, and salvation.  They run to the temple to see the priests, not realizing that there in their very midst is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrificial system—Jesus, the great High Priest, the Temple of God’s presence! 
The nine get what they want, but miss what they really need.  That’s what unbelief does.  Faith, on the other hand, keeps running back to Jesus.  Faith keeps running back with thanks, and faith keeps running back for more.  By faith, this leper knows that it’s not just that he was at the mercy of God.  He remains at the mercy of God.  And by faith, he knows there’s no better place to be. 
I submit to you that the components for faith in Christ for salvation are much the same as begging.  First, it takes a sense of desperation, at the very least, recognition of a great need that you are unable to fulfill yourself.  And second, it takes confidence that the one you are asking is able to fulfill that need for you.  And so today, we will not be focusing so much on thanksgiving, but the lost art of begging—for the natural fruit of fulfilled begging is thanksgiving and praise.
Streets in the ancient world were filled with beggars that accosted those who passed by.  These beggars had no assured livelihood; most of them had no family network of support and could not work due to a disability.  There was no government-funded social safety net.  They depended upon the mercy of the well-to-do for their livelihood.
There was an art to begging.  From bitter experience beggars knew that they were far more likely to receive a handout if they approached people nicely and appealed to their better nature than if they were aggressive and demanding.  So they usually appealed for help by saying, “Kyrie, eleison!”  “Lord, have mercy!”  This cry was heard almost every day in every street. 
It was, of course, considered shameful to beg.  Respectable citizens took pride in earning a living and in having enough money to support their family.  Apart from some unscrupulous con men, no one chose to become a beggar.  Desperation alone drove them to seek charity from others in public—and they begged only if they had no other option.
Therefore, it’s quite surprising how Jesus describes the life of a disciple in the first beatitude of His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Notice how Jesus commends spiritual poverty.  The Greek word for “poor” is also the term for a beggar.  Those who are poor in spirit have no spiritual assets.  They have nothing to offer to God the Father; rather, they receive everything from Him.  They receive the Holy Spirit as beggars who ask for what they do not have.  They receive the Father’s kingdom as a gift for the sake of Jesus Christ.
This contradicts conventional wisdom.  Popular piety presupposes our unrealized spiritual potential; it seeks spiritual enrichment and empowerment through the practice of certain spiritual exercises.  In contrast to this desire for spiritual self-improvement, Jesus teaches that we begin, continue, and end our spiritual journey with Him as beggars.  We do not, as we follow Jesus, become increasingly self-sufficient.  Rather, we learn, bit by bit, the art of begging from God the Father.  Christ teaches us to become beggars together with Him, until at our death we can do nothing but say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!”
Yet that is only half the story.  We may be beggars, but, paradoxically, we also associate with the holy angels.  We confess this wonderful paradox most clearly in the Divine Service.  In the Kyrie, we join our fellow beggars in pleading, “Lord, Have Mercy.”  Immediately after follows the Gloria, where we join with the angels who stand in adoration and joy before God the Father.  Isn’t that amazing?  In worship, we join with beggars and angels.  How is this possible?
You may remember that something remarkable happened on the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  The angels, who until then had performed their doxology before God in heaven, appeared to the shepherds and invited them to join in their great song of praise.  The angels had good reason to issue this invitation.  By His human birth God’s Son bridged the gap between heaven and earth.  From that day on, His human body was the new temple of God, the place where God’s people have access to the Father’s presence in the heavenly sanctuary here on earth.  That is why it was so appropriate for the former leper to return to Jesus and give thanks and worship.  He didn’t need to go to the priests in the temple; He had the fulfillment of both there in the person of Jesus Christ.
So there are now no longer two places of worship, one in heaven and another on earth, with two songs of praise, one performed by a human choir.  Now there is only one place of worship that is both earthly and heavenly, and only one song of praise sung by the faithful together with the angels.  With the incarnation of the Lord, the heavenly service begins, mysteriously and invisibly, here on earth in the Church, the body of Christ (Hebrews 12:22-24).
So we have a dual status, spiritually.  As the fallen children of Adam and Eve, we are beggars before God.  Yet in Christ we are holy beggars with angelic status.  Through Him we stand with the angels in the presence of God the Father and have access to His grace.  We share in the Sonship of Jesus.  We glorify the Father together with the angels.
In the Old Testament the angels were called the “holy ones” because they had open access to the heavenly realm.  In the New Testament, Christians are often called “the saints,” literally, “the holy ones.”  But even this holiness is borrowed.    Jesus became a human being and sanctified the human life cycle from womb to the tomb so that He could share His holiness with us.   
We are therefore holy beggars, people who are on the same footing as the angels.  Yet we have that status only in Christ, for we are holy to Him.  Paradoxically, the more we become beggars before God and live by His grace, the more reason we have to perform the song of praise together with angels, the song that they sing about God’s glory in heaven and His peace on earth.  Our trouble is that we would like to have the glory without the begging.
Paul reflects deeply on the paradoxical character of our spiritual life in 2 Corinthians 4:1-2 as participation in Christ’s suffering as well as His glory.  Paul claims that through the preaching of the Gospel the light of Christ has shone into our hearts so that we not only have bodily access to God’s glory but also have that glory hidden in our bodies as the temples of the living God.  Our bodies are the places for God’s theophany, places where God appears.  But that theophany happens in a strange way as we share in the suffering and death of Christ.
Paul uses a vivid analogy to explain this difficult teaching.  In the ancient world, houses were lit up at night by little clay lamps filled with olive oil.  Each had a small hole for a wick that floated in the oil and fed the flame.  God’s gracious presence, the treasure of His glory and power, is hidden away out of sight inside us, like olive oil in a plain clay lamp.  We do not generate spiritual life and power but receive them from God as we expend them.  Paradoxically, the life we have in Christ is most evident in our suffering, aging, and dying.  Thus “we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). 
Nothing is possessed; everything is borrowed from Him.  At Baptism we were marked with the cross to indicate that we belong to Christ.  Through His death He has redeemed us from death and given us eternal life with Him in the presence of the Father.  Together, with Him, we pass through death to life.  Our whole life, then, is marked by the cross and lived under the cross. 
The self-sacrificial death of Christ shapes our spiritual life and gives our lives their paradoxical character.  So Christ’s sacrifice reverses and revises all common notions of spiritual progress.  In our lives here on earth, growing up involves the gradual shift from dependence to independence.  But the reverse is true for us as we grow spiritually.  We become more and more dependent on Christ.  As we mature in faith we learn to borrow all that we need and all that we are from Christ.  Only as beggars do we have access to the Father’s presence and His grace.  Only as we receive grace upon grace from His fullness can we praise Him with the angels.  Only in recognizing our own spiritual poverty will we truly appreciate the richness of God’s grace and mercy.
Jesus set down the terms for our spiritual life quite clearly at the beginning of His ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.”  Jesus calls us all to repent, to turn to God as beggars. Asking for His mercy and grace.  At the same time, Jesus also calls us to believe the Gospel of salvation and live under Him in His kingdom. 
God deals with us in a strange way as we travel on our course here on earth.  Little by little He strips us down until we are left with nothing except our bare, fragile human soul, a soul that relies on Him utterly for its existence.  Then He strips us of our soul in death.  He takes away everything that we have in order to give us everything that He has in store for us.  His purpose in this gradual demolition of us is to give Himself ever more fully to us to bless us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
We are all beggars before God.  This is true.  But by God’s grace, you are numbered among the holy ones as well, as you gather to worship, to receive His gifts and offer your thankful praise.  You bring nothing to our Lord but your sin and your weakness.  He gives you faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, solely out of His grace and mercy without any merit or worthiness on your part.  Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, and for Jesus’ sake alone, you are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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