The following is adapted from my book To the End of the Age: Christ’s Presence in the World. My thoughts are preceded by two “guiding passages” from 2 Kings 5 and Mark 1; my commentary follows these Biblical texts.
LIFE IN THE CHURCH
2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.
Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”
So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
And a leper came to [Jesus], imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”
And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
Life in the Church
This text from 2 Kings is one of my favorites in the Bible. Naaman is the commander of the army of the king of Syria. Syria often warred with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. For review, after King Solomon’s death, about 900 BC, the nation of Israel split into two separate kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom was based in Samaria and was called simply Israel, while the Southern Kingdom was based in Jerusalem and was called Judah. Syria, based in Damascus, bordered on the Northern Kingdom and at this time, in the mid 800’s BC, has an army led by Naaman, who is a leper.
When nations in the ancient world were at war with each other, they would often conduct raids on each other’s territory, destroying crops, taking livestock, and carrying off captives. It was a low-order sort of conflict, causing damage to the other side, but without pitched battles. On one such raid into Israel’s territory, the Syrians had captured a little girl from Israel who happened to know about the prophet Elisha. Elisha had succeeded Elijah in the office of prophet to Israel, and he lived in Samaria.
So, this little girl became a servant in Naaman’s house after she was captured by the Syrians. One day she said to Naaman’s wife, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So, Naaman, upon hearing that there is someone in Samaria who can cure him of his leprosy, goes to his king – the king of Syria – to seek permission to go to Israel to be cured.
So, the king of Syria gives Naaman a letter to take with him to the king of Israel. This letter implored the king of Israel to heal Naaman and offered up gold, silver, and clothing to the king to do this. Notice how the little girl’s message that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure Naaman is interpreted by the king of Syria and Naaman. They assume that the little girl must be referring to the king of Israel, since he is surely the most important man there. They assume that it’s the king of Israel who can cure Naaman. That is why they send him all sorts of treasures; they want to buy this healing from this important man over Israel.
Notice also that the king of Israel thinks that the king of Syria means him as well. The king of Israel just assumes that he’s the one that the king of Syria is asking to heal Naaman. That is why he supposes that Syria is trying to provoke a quarrel with him. He believes that the king of Syria is asking him to heal Naaman, and since he can not do this, then it will serve as a pretext for more conflict between Syria and Israel.
Thus, the king of Israel doesn’t even seek out a prophet; he just assumes that since he’s the most important man in Israel that only he of all people would have the power to do what the king of Syria asks, if only he could. But since he can’t do it, then it must be impossible. If the king of Israel can’t do a thing, surely no one else could do it either. So, he was distraught and tore his clothes in despair and anger.
But, then the prophet Elisha hears about this and sends a message to the king of Israel telling him to have Naaman come to him, so “that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” A prophet is one who speaks the Word of the Lord, and people had begun to think that this Word had died out. They thought that the faithless king of Israel held all power over the land. But, Elisha says to them that there is still a prophet in the land; God’s Word is still spoken by some.
So, Naaman came to Elisha and stood at his door. Imagine a mighty general, with his horses, chariots, and servants, standing and knocking at the simple door of a humble man. Here all the world’s glory meets up with the hidden glory of God, veiled in flesh and blood. And Elisha doesn’t even come out to meet Naaman. He sends a messenger to tell Naaman, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
This simple, humble message angers Naaman. Here he’s come all this way, with his great retinue and great riches, and the prophet doesn’t even come out to meet him. So, he went away angry, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”
So, Naaman is angry. He does not like the word that the prophet has spoken to him. He expected the prophet to come out and perform some sort of incantation and magic trick to make him clean. He also doesn’t like the fact that he’s told to wash in the dirty, Jordan river. It seems too simple and so preposterous. The rivers back home in Damascus are better than this simple river. Surely, he thinks, there’s some better way than what this prophet has told me.
Then, Naaman’s servants try to speak some sense into him. They tell him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”
The servants get it. They understand that although the word may be humble and simple, it is a great word. The prophet did not give Naaman a great task to perform or ask for all his riches, he simply said, “Wash, and be clean.” He was offering free healing, without cost, simply through the means of grace of the waters of the Jordan.
So, after taking the counsel of his servants, Naaman went down into the river, “dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
“Wash, and be clean.” It is so simple, and is without cost. Thus, to those who are used to glory and honor and riches, it seems too simple and too free. After all, anything that’s free can’t be worth anything, right? How often do we seek another way, a way that seems better, than the way in which the Lord has told us? How often do we get angry at the Word of the Lord and seek a different way? How often do we hear people say that they don’t like the fact that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and they would rather find what seems to them a “better way?” Like Naaman, many reject the Word of the Lord because it doesn’t fit with their expectations; salvation appears too simple, too free, because it comes freely through Christ.
We see the act of Baptism in this reading from 2 Kings. In Baptism, the Lord tells us that He is bestowing His Holy Spirit upon us, calling us as His own, and clothing us with Christ’s righteousness. It seems too easy, too simple, too “free.” We want to do something instead. People buy great hordes of books with instructions on how to be holy, how to achieve salvation, how to be happy, and how to live an abundant life. People buy crystals and candles and other “magical” items in order to be “spiritual.” These things appeal to our natural desire for what is flashy and glorious and what is our own work. And yet, the Word of the Lord points us to the humble, simple waters of Baptism, His work: “Wash, and be clean.” And yet, many often say, “Is there not a better way? This is too simple, I expected something that really looks magical and profound, not the simple waters of Baptism.”
However, the great riches of God are veiled in the humble, simple, free means of grace. In Baptism, the Lord really does kill our old nature – just as the old flesh of Naaman was stripped away in the waters of the Jordan. And in Baptism, the Lord really does raise us up as new creations in Christ – just as Naaman rose up out of the Jordan, clothed with new skin, “like the flesh of a little child.” We are born again in Baptism – birthed as new creations in Christ, just as Naaman was restored in the waters of the Jordan.
And it wasn’t Naaman’s work or the work of the Jordan that made him clean. It was the work of the Word of God attached to the promised means of grace that made Naaman clean. In Baptism, God attaches His Word to the water as His means of grace. If we look to another means, a means that seems better in our eyes, then we are the same as Naaman, rejecting the Word of the Lord because it doesn’t fit our expectations or our desires.
In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, we also have a leper. This leper comes not to a prophet, though, but to Jesus Christ – God himself. And God incarnate heals this leper with a touch of his hand and His Word. Again, we have the Word of God attached to a means of grace. Jesus touches the leper, and says “be clean.” In Baptism, we have this touch of God in the waters and we have His Word which also says to us, “be clean.” “Wash, and be clean.” The Lord says to us, “Wash in the waters of Baptism and be cleansed of all your sins – past, present, and future – for I have clothed you with the white gowns of Christ’s righteousness. You will still err and sin as long as you live, but you are mine and I will save you.”
This is why we baptize infants as well as adults, because the power of Baptism doesn’t depend upon us; it depends on the Word of the Lord, the promise He attaches to His means of grace. In Namaan’s case, the prophet Elisha spoke a Word of the Lord that had a promise attached to the waters of the Jordan. In our cases, with Baptism, the pastor speaks a Word of the Lord that has a promise attached to the waters of Baptism. So, the Lord is the one doing it, not us.
We see this in the Lord’s Supper as well. The Word of the Lord has a promise attached to the bread and wine of the Supper. This Word of promise says that the humble bread and wine veils the body and blood of Christ. There is something more than meets the eye; God’s Word points us beyond what we see to what He says is there. And this body and blood of Christ in the Supper nourishes the body and blood of Christ gathered around the altar. So, the body of Christ – the Church – is nourished and fed by the body of Christ – the Lord’s Supper. The Lord gathers His people around His body that was given up for us and his blood that was poured out for our salvation. This is how the Lord unites His people around Himself, thereby making them His body.
And this is also often rejected by people, even as Baptism is rejected. We don’t understand it, it’s too “free,” it’s too humble, it’s too simple. We want a magic trick, we want a hocus pocus act, we want something that appears more glorious than stale crackers and wine. We say: “Surely, I have better crackers and better wine back home! Why don’t I just commune at home, that way I don’t have to come to the altar with other people; it can just be about me and God.” That’s what we often want to make it about: “me and God.” We think, “I don’t need to come to Church, I don’t need to be with God’s people, because it’s all just a question about me. It’s about my needs, my desires, my thoughts about what is ‘spiritual’ and religious.”
But, the Lord’s Word of promise is not attached to the bread and wine I have at home. Within His Church, He has attached His Word to this bread and this wine at this altar, in the midst of this His people, because this is where He has promised to be: dwelling with His people, veiled in humble Word and Sacrament. So, it’s not just about me; it’s about the Lord and His people. And He uses his very own body and blood to feed his body, the Church who is united with each other in him.
Likewise, the Lord promises to be in the midst of His people, the Church. The Church often looks weak, humble, and “dirty,” just like the Jordan river appeared to Naaman. And yet, the Lord has promised to be with His people: real people, people struggling with sin and illness and conflicts, broken people, people who have troubles.
For this reason, the Church may not look like God’s holy people to the eyes of the Naamans of the world. They look to what is clean, bright, majestic, but God points to the lowly flesh and blood of His Church instead, because He formed the Church through the flesh and blood of Christ, just as Eve was formed from the flesh and blood of Adam. The Church is God’s people; we are God’s people, we are the Church, despite appearances at times to the contrary to the eyes of the world, because Christ has formed us as His own. The restoration of the world that will come with Christ’s return is veiled in the humble flesh and blood of the Church on earth.
People often try to find salvation outside of the Church, but the Church is where God promises to be. The Word of the Lord is given and received in the Church, and through this seemingly humble Word, the Lord acts and the Lord heals. So, in all things, the ways of the Lord are not the ways of the world. Naaman sought the mighty king of Israel with wealth and riches to be healed; but, he received healing, freely and without cost, at the Word of the humble prophet by washing in the humble waters. Likewise, many in the world today seek healing and salvation from mighty works or mighty people, but the only way to receive healing and salvation is at the Word of the Lord in His humble means of grace given freely in the midst of His Church. This, then, is how God acts: through the spoken and sacramental Word of grace, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, it’s not always the case that what is free and humble is worthless. The love that we have for our spouses, children, family, and friends is free and humble and yet it is priceless, a treasure too great on which to put a price. Likewise, the love that God has for us through Christ is also priceless, a treasure too great on which to put a price, except the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who paid for our healing and salvation. Amen.
(Image: “Plaque; bronze gilt and champlevé enamel: Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan; Latin inscription; three servants; hand of God emerging from clouds; beaded edge pierced with six holes. From an altar-retable. Meuse Valley, c. 1150. Given by Sir A. W. Franks.” By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enamel_plaque_Naaman_BM.jpg)