November 3, 2019
Becoming whole – J. Barry Vaughn – Nov. 3, 2019
The healing team asked me to preach a sermon about healing for this special healing service, so this will not be a conventional sermon. Instead, it will be my own reflections about the idea of healing.
The first thing I want to say is that healing is a persistent, maybe central idea in the gospels, but it is much less in evidence in other parts of the Bible. Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law, followed by other healings in the village of Capernaum is the very first story of Jesus’ healing, but there are many, many other stories of the healing power of Jesus. The theme of healing is also prominent in the Acts of the Apostles where the apostles carry on Jesus’ ministry of healing. However, the theme of healing is almost completely absent in Paul’s letters. And while there are many stories of healing in the Old Testament, it is not a central theme of the Hebrew Bible.
The gospels identify Jesus as the Savior. “Savior” is the Greek word soter which is derived from the verb sozo, which could be translated as “to heal,” so when we call Jesus the Savior, we could just as easily call him Jesus the Healer.
I think the reason for the centrality of healing in Jesus’ ministry is that one of the main purposes for God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth was to affirm the goodness of the human body and the world in which we live.
The body matters. God created us from the dust of the earth, and God declared all things he created to be good. The world is good; your bodies are good. But there is also a persistent heresy that wants to deny the goodness of the world and the goodness of our bodies.
The ministry of healing is a reaffirmation of “original goodness.”
But I want to make a very important distinction between HEALING and CURING. They are connected, but they are also very different. The Christian ministry of healing is not necessarily a ministry of curing.
What I mean is this: The purpose of the work of doctors and nurses is to cure diseases, but the Christian ministry of healing is to make human beings whole.
Anyone who engages in the ministry of healing or who talks about the idea of healing has to deal with the tremendously difficult topic of why some are cured and others are not.
Now, notice that I said some are CURED; I did not say that some are HEALED, but I will come back to that.
Let’s just admit frankly that this happens, and it is a real problem.
Many, maybe most, Christians believe that the purpose of the Christian ministry of healing is to be an adjunct to the work of doctors and nurses, and sometimes it may work that way, but I do not believe that that is its primary purpose. But the confusion between CURING and HEALING leads us to question God’s justice: Why is John’s cancer cured but Mary’s is not? Why does Jane recover from pneumonia but Sam dies? Those are questions that no one can answer. But I believe that it is perfectly acceptable to be angry at God.
The strongest argument against Christianity, and indeed, the strongest argument against the idea that God is both really good and really powerful is the problem of suffering. If God is both all good and all powerful, then why is there suffering in the world?
War and violence bother me, but they do not make me question God’s goodness. War and violence are the result of human behavior. They are a result of bad decisions that we make, but we cannot blame God for them. If you want to be angry at God, then be angry because God made a world in which there is cancer and AIDS, earthquakes and hurricanes, but do not be angry at God because we are greedy and violent.
I want to say a word about the problem of suffering before I go back to the Christian ministry of healing.
Suffering creates real problems for those of us who believe that God is both omnipotent and good, but I have come to believe that God could not have created a world without suffering. Suffering exists because the world is both good and broken. You and I are both good and broken. A broken clock is not bad in the moral sense; it just doesn’t tell the time perfectly. You and I are not innately bad in the moral sense; indeed, the Bible affirms that God declared us to be good. So I believe that our brokenness and our goodness are perfectly compatible.
But our brokenness and the brokenness of the world lead to suffering, and I believe that suffering has to exist for us to learn love and compassion. In a world without suffering, how could we learn how to love?
Mother Teresa said that one of the purposes of suffering humanity was to give us the opportunity to show love to Jesus in the guise of his suffering brothers and sisters. The homeless people all around us give this church an opportunity to serve Jesus. As Jesus says in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
I know that it seems like I’m going around the world just to get to the other side of the street, but I think I can connect what I’m saying to the Christian ministry of healing.
We get ourselves in trouble when we confuse HEALING and CURING. As I said earlier, the Christian ministry of healing is not the same thing as a ministry of curing. God works through doctors and nurses to cure diseases, and at their best they may also heal. The ministry of healing, however, is a ministry of making whole.
Our bodies are good, but they are also broken. We will become ill, and eventually we will all die. Our deaths may be delayed when our diseases are cured, but death is still inevitable. Disease and death are terrible things, but keep in mind that they are also opportunities to learn how to love and show compassion.
I would even say that it is our weaknesses that draw us to God and to each other. If we were perfectly strong, we would not be able to see how much we need God and other human beings.
In today’s New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni writes about a terrible disease he has that may make him go blind. Because of his disease he is part of a clinical trial of a drug that may cure him but requires him to give himself daily injections.
Bruni writes, “You can rage pointlessly at the lot you’ve drawn and the hardships you’re confronting or you can take note of, and pride in, the way you’re taking them in stride and moving forward, forward, forward. At one point during the second trial, I sent a text message to a colleague to explain that I was running five minutes late for our scheduled phone call “because I have to impale myself with a big needle.” … When God gives you lemons, take a bow.”
He even came to “came to look forward to [his] injections.” He said, “They set me apart, giving my life its own signature rhythm, its own particular grit. … It turns out that I’m tougher — more durable — than I knew.”
A friend he met during the clinical trial said to him, “Starfish can regrow limbs… But that’s nothing compared to what human beings can do…. We’re an unfathomably adaptive species. But you learn that only when you’re forced to adapt.”
Bruni concluded, “You come to a fork in the road, and you choose between wallowing in self-pity and taking a good, hard look around you. I took the look and… saw how many of the people in my orbit were struggling, how many were bumping up against limits more daunting than mine, how many summoned a grace that gave me something to aspire to, something to emulate. This wasn’t as clear to me before, and I found myself thinking less about blindness in my future and more about the blindness in my past.” (Frank Bruni, “What I learned when I stabbed myself 52 times,” New York Times, Nov. 3, 2019)
Even in the midst of death and disease we can become whole, and I think that is the purpose of the ministry of healing. I would even say that it is difficult for us to become whole without the presence of death and disease.
This world is a place of soul-making. Every challenge we face is an opportunity to become stronger, wiser, more mature. Christian healers can help us in that process.
The man or woman who faces grave illness and death with courage is someone who has become whole. They still need the help of those who treat and sometimes cure diseases, but they have achieved healing even in the face of illness.
So my challenge to those who engage in the ministry of healing is to keep in mind the difference between HEALING and CURING and to know which it is that you are engaged in. The treatment and cure of disease is important, but it is more important to achieve wholeness in ourselves and encourage and support it in others.