A Sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Today is Healing Sunday. I’d like to offer you some of the training that we give to the healing team here who pray each Sunday.
Healing is a constant refrain throughout the accounts of Jesus’ life here on earth. But healing in Jesus’ day wasn’t just about fixing bodies so they were a bit closer to perfection.
The healing miracles show us what the kingdom is like then Jesus’ teaching explain what the kingdom is like so we can carry it with us where ever we go.
To put it another way “Jesus was not a teacher who also healed; he was a prophet of the kingdom, first enacting and then explaining that kingdom.”
What does that mean?
In Biblical times sickness was not simply personal experiences of suffering.
- They were experiences of physical isolation – if you didn’t have money and servants, experiencing a longterm illness or disability meant that you were severely limited in your ability to participate in society.
- Sickness was often also things that isolated individuals from their community. People who experienced bleeding or incontinence or even skin diseases were forced to live away from their families and community. If someone touched them they were considered ritually unclean they had to avoid the temple until they had performed rituals to wash that connection off before they were permitted to touch anyone else or enter crowded religious spaces. They were forced to leave their homes and jobs and live outside the city with others who were sick. They were stripped of their social identity and with that much of their personhood.
- It was experienced as religious isolation – It wasn’t uncommon to assume that God had cursed an individual who was that afflicted. God must have turned his back on you.
It’s easy to look back on Biblical times and the treatment of people who experience sickness and disability and think we’re better than them. But if you think about it, this isn’t that far from the way people who experience longterm sickness are treated today in London.
People who are not rich but experience long term sickness are often not given the technological and person support to mean that they can fully participate in their communities.
People who are sick are often not just held back by physical factors. There’s also a challenge for those who experience serious pain and physical dependance on others for daily tasks. The absorbing nature of pain and the mess of incontinence or bleeding, the loss of autonomy or needing others to facilitate your most private moments, the experience of physical decay and even physiological factors in the brain that can result in the character of the person changing. It’s harder to think of others. It’s harder to be kind.
At it’s most cruel, people who are sick for long periods of time are sometimes even seen as being spiritually deficient. Perhaps not cursed but perhaps unlucky… and there’s a fear of people who are unlucky. There is a fear of staying with individuals who are experiencing suffering – perhaps we imagine that it’s catching…
I heard of a CEO who would drop the first 10% of job applications he received in the bin as he didn’t want to hire individuals who are unlucky.
We place value on physical perfection and those who experience severe pain or limitation are seen as less fortunate… In the face of our twisted society it’s easy to understand why some feel that God has abandoned them.
Jesus comes bringing in the kingdom of God, we heard it prophesied in our Old Testament reading that Jesus makes his own at the start of his ministry in Luke’s gospel. Jesus is about the Kingdom of God, he tells us what that will be like but more than that he SHOWS us, and that showing primarily takes the form of healing.
What does that healing look like? Well Jesus’ healing are not about fixing broken individuals so they are physically perfect. Jesus has a different paradigm.
The healing we read about Jesus doing are all about connection.
Every healing Jesus does seems different – he tailors each healing to each individual. More than that, what we see in our Gospel reading, and in lots of other examples, that Jesus asks the individual “What do you want me to do for you?” Even when it seems obvious to everyone around him that this man is blind so must want healing for that, Jesus asks him what exactly he wants.
Healing is not something that is done to us, healing is about connection and the engagement is as important as the result. We heard last week Ann Memmott sharing the distinction she has noticed in herself. If you asked her if she wanted healing from her autism that wouldn’t make sense. Autism, with it’s strengths and weaknesses, is a fundamental part of who she is. However if you asked her if she would like healing from her arthritis she would leap at the chance.
I heard a story of a little girl with total absence of hearing from birth who had a near death experience and dreamt that she met Christ in heaven. “What was he like?” her family asked “Oh he was really kind” she replied “And his signing was amazing.”
For some people they would like their deafness healed, but she didn’t. The point is that even God the Son didn’t assume he knew what the person needed healing and what was just part of them. Healing is about authentic connection.
Then at the end of the healing here, as seems to be his custom elsewhere, Jesus tells the healed person “Your faith has made you well”. This doesn’t mean that the measure of faith is the make or break of whether we are healed. Merely that in this situation where healing was given, it was something Jesus and the person did together. The method of Jesus’ healing is about connection with God.
Secondly Jesus’ healing – the display of what the Kingdom of God is like seems to be about character as much as physical limitations.
The sad truth about living, long term with pain and humiliation, is that it can corrode character. Anger and bitterness can rise in even the most kind people. We snap at those who love us. In the face of the pain and we struggle to have the strength of character we experienced beforehand.
A few years ago an older lady in a church I was serving asked me to visit her husband who was dying of cancer. I went in expecting there to be conversations about God, maybe a conversation about death but as the door closed and she left us alone with the cups of tea. He looked me in the eye intently and said “I want to talk about sin”. “Ok” I said, “tell me what you want to say” He told me that he had been taking his frustration at his situation out on his wife, his children, the care givers who came in. He had experienced so much anger he didn’t recognise himself. He used to be thoughtful, kind. He had become someone who was routinely cruel and demanding. He hated himself for it which added to the frustration which added to the outbursts. I listened. We prayed. I invited him to talk to God about how he was feeling. And then I told him that his sins were forgiven and we prayed that Jesus would lend him his kindness for a bit. He died a few weeks later. His wife told me that in those last days he had found moments of deep kindness and thoughtfulness, telling them how grateful he was for them, how much he loved them. The man had died but healing had come to that household.
“Your sins are forgiven” Jesus often says to people who are brought to him for healing. There is release not just from the physical pain but from the guilt and shame of twisted character decay of the individual that people experience in the face of extreme suffering. Jesus doesn’t go into how much of it was their fault and how much of it was an understandable result of suffering… ALL of it is forgiven. The old is gone, all things are made new.
But Christ’s healing shows the Kingdom of God will not just be about connection with God and about transformation of our character. The Kingdom of God will also be physical.
When I was four years old my youngest sister was born. The medical staff quickly realised something was wrong. After further tests they discovered that the left side of her heart had barely formed. My mother was a nurse and midwife and glanced at her notes, she discovered that the doctors had written “TLC” as her only treatment plan. Tender Loving Care was the only thing they could think of offering. My mother called colleagues to see if that was really true. My father called the leaders of our church to ask them to pray. It turned out they were about to go in to an annual evening of prayer for the world. They devoted most of the time to praying for my sister. My mother discovered that there was a treatment possibility but it hadn’t been tested outside of American before. She convinced the doctors to try it. They patched my sister’s heart casing with some of the casing of a pig’s heart and then pumped her tiny body full of adult doses of steroids and held their breath. It worked. The first year was a bit scary, any time she cried the whole house went into panic to stop her rupturing the patch… they only thing that would routinely calm her down was my father holding her in front of a mirror and gently singing the hokey-cokey. She’s fine now. You can meet her. She occasionally pops in to see me here. When she started school the Liverpool Echo ran a story “Mum’s little miracle”. She had to go back for tests every 6 months of her childhood as the doctors couldn’t quite believe that it had really worked. The longed for child was not removed from us. The Kingdom of God was tasted. The Church prays for healing and sometimes we see that God’s healing can be physical.
God connects with us in healing. But that’s not all…
What we see in Christ is that God has personally plumed the depths of the experiences we have spoken about.
Christ experienced physical limitation, pain and humiliation in being stripped in front of strangers and nailed to the cross in agony.
Christ experienced social isolation as he carried the corrosive weight of the sin or the world, his friends one by one left him, unable to stay with someone in deep suffering.
In Christ God, experienced even isolation from God…“My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” he cried.
Christ has experienced COSMIC sickness to pave the way back for us ALL to experience healing. Healing that is not about perfection of body but connection with God and our fellow humanity.
We have been talking about the three experiences of healing from physical pain and limitation, healing from social isolation and healing from disconnection from God but ultimately these are all about reconnection with God and our fellow humanity.
The resurrected Christ found a body that was not held back by physical limitation. Sometimes we imagine healing to be about some sort of platonic Hollywood perfection, as my friend Zoe Henning who is a priest who uses a wheelchair user pointed out, the resurrected Christ had two huge holes in his ankles, do you think he walked without a wobble? What we do see is that the body of the resurrected Christ wasn’t even held back by walls. I don’t know about you but I’m fairly physically limited compared to that. All of us are held back by our physical body from connection with people. We all need healing, healing to know that God is with us, healing in our characters to be the person we long to be for others AND healing in our bodies. We are all held back by our physicality from others. But this is not healing for perfection, this is healing for connection.
The resurrected Christ found healing restoration in his relationships with Peter and the disciples who had abandoned him.
The resurrected Christ knew God was with him. Now nothing can separate the Son from the Father.
Sooner or later this is coming to all of us… those who receive healing in it’s different forms now are receiving signs for all of us that there is a great healing coming.
So don’t give up praying for healing, asking the individuals “What do you want God to do for you?” In a sense whether we are the ones in our church praying for healing or those asking for healing we are all on the healing team… seeing the Kingdom of God, foretastes of the great banquet that WILL come to all humanity.
Our God is a God who draws near, and heals.