Monday, 22 August 2016

Does God Still Heal? Thoughts from a Disabled Preacher

This sermon was preached on the 18th October, when we celebrated the Feast of St Luke. We held our regular Wholeness & Healing service on the same day.

The readings were Isaiah 35:3-6, Psalm 147:1-7, 2 Timothy 4:5-17 & Luke 10:1-9.

Once, there was a man. Let’s call him Noah. He was a very firm believer in God – zealous for the Lord, you might say.

Now, in the place where he lived, there was a storm. The local officials in the area sent out a warning that the riverbanks would soon burst and cause flooding. They warned the occupants of the town to evacuate immediately.

Noah heard the warning, and he said to himself, “I will trust in the Lord. God will keep me safe.”

His neighbour came by, and said to him, “We’re leaving now – come get in our car and we’ll get out to safety!”

Noah politely refused. “Thank you,” he said, “but I believe the Lord will save me.” And he prayed to God for the waters for subside.

The water rose until it was the level of his porch. A man in a canoe came passed, and saw Noah looking out over the waters.

“Quick! Get in my canoe – there’s room. The waters are rising!”

Again, Noah refused. “Thank you,” he said, “but I believe the Lord will save me.” And he prayed to God for the waters to subside.

Soon enough, the waters rose further, and covered the ground floor of his house. Noah retreated to his bedroom, and looking out of his window at the rising tide, saw a police motor-boat.

“Stay there!” shouted the police, “We’ll come up to the window to get you!”

“No thank you!” Noah replied. “The Lord will save me – go and rescue someone else!” so the police boat left him there, praying to God for the waters to subside.

The waters kept rising until Noah had to climb up onto his roof. A rescue helicopter saw him standing there and dropped down a ladder. The rescue officer climbed down and shouted above the noise of the rotas – “Hurry! Grab my hand and I’ll pull you up!”

Noah was resolute. “The Lord will save me!” he cried. “I have faith!” And the helicopter left as Noah stood there, waist deep in water praying harder than he had ever done before.

The waters grew fiercer and deeper, and, eventually, Noah could hold on no longer. He was swept away in the rush of the flood, and he drowned.

Upon reaching Heaven, Noah demanded an audience with God. He was led into the throne room and he stood before the Lord.

“Lord!” he said, “I had faith! I prayed hard! Why did you not save me?”

God looked at him, and the reply came. “Noah – I sent you a warning, a car, two boats and a flipping helicopter! What more did you want?!”

You’ve probably heard that joke before – I’ll come back to it later…

Today, we celebrate the feast of St Luke. I sometimes think of him as the original Renaissance Man – the Leonardo Da Vinci, if you like, of the early church. Luke was, according to tradition, an artist – (legend says he created the first icon of Christ), a historian (the books of the New Testament ascribed to him – the books of Luke and Acts – contain much historical detail, and are recognised by many Christians and non-Christians as good historical texts), and a doctor (being named as a physician in the book of Colossians, written by his mentor, St. Paul). It seems there was nothing this man could not do.

On top of that, he seems to have been a man before his time. His Gospel, and its ‘sequel’, Acts, have a particular concern unseen in contemporary texts for the marginalised in society; for the poor, the disabled and for women. Of the four Gospel-writers, Luke is the one who emphasises Christ’s global agenda the most. Where Mark has Christ talking in Aramaic, Luke only ever writes in Greek – the global language of the time. When Luke refers to the same stories and miracles that are seen in the Gospel of Mark, the villages that Mark writes of become cities, the copper coins referred to, are now silver. In Luke’s Gospel, everything is bigger, and focussed on the world, rather than on Jerusalem. Mark traces Jesus’ genealogy back to David, the greatest king of Israel. Luke traces it back to Adam – the first ever human, the father of us all. Even Mark’s famous Sermon on the Mount – the mountain of Moses, is transported in Luke’s Gospel, not to a holy mountain for the Jewish people, but to a wide-open plan, accessible to all. Luke, himself believed to have been Greek, stresses the importance that this Jewish sect of Christianity becomes a global religion, for the world and not just for the Jewish people. Christ is the Jewish Messiah, yes, but he is more than that – he is the saviour of the world.

Luke’s Gospel is also the one that contains the most stories of healings. There are (at my last count) nineteen individual healings in Luke. Matthew and Mark both have fifteen, and John only has five. Perhaps, given Luke’s occupation as a physician, and his obvious concern for the marginalised, this focus on healing is no surprise.  It’s particularly good that today, as we commemorate this man, that we ourselves have a wholeness and healing service. It’s almost as though these things are planned, isn’t it?!

St Luke, after he lost his hand. (Hang on... that might not be right.)

I have to be honest. I’ve always found the concept of healing to be a difficult one. I do not doubt for a second that Christ healed the sick. I also do not have a problem believing that we can do the same – at least the same. Christ says in John that those who believe in him will “do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these”. Some of those people that Christ healed, he raised from the dead. I’m not quite sure how we can do greater than that, but that is what Christ said...

No; my problem lies in the area of what we actually do. Sure, we can, theoretically, heal the sick. As we heard in our Gospel reading today, Jesus’ followers are even commanded to do so. How often do we actually do so, however? If we’re honest, we might pray for someone with a headache, and perhaps they feel better. Or maybe we ourselves have had pain that has lessened, or even gone away – even chronic pain – after prayer.

How often do we, however, cure skin diseases? Paralysis? Haemorrhaging? Limb impairments? All of these are examples of healing in Luke’s Gospel, as well as Christ curing fever, curing the blind and, as I mentioned before, raising the dead. I think it would be fair to say that, in the Western church at least, these things are particularly rare.

I say 'rare', not 'non-existent'. If you search the internet, you can find webpages dedicated to documenting healings that people have seen or had happen to them. It is true, many do tend to be healing of pain, and not something that can physically be attested to or verified by a medical practitioner (it should be noted that this does not, however, automatically invalidate them), but the odd testimony slips through of physical healing that has happened, that could only be put down to lies, trickery or a miracle having taken place. I have, in a previous church, known a woman who attended each week in a wheelchair, until one week when she turned up walking, having attended a large healing event. I dearly hope she was cured – she certainly believed she was. I did not know her well enough to know how capable of walking she was beforehand, or, indeed, whether in doing away with her wheelchair, she was doing more harm than good to her legs. I do know, however, that I believe in a God who is capable of curing those who cannot walk, who cannot see, who are terminally ill, who are disabled in any way.

And there’s the rub – I am preaching this sermon as a disabled preacher. Admittedly, my disabilities are slight, and do not cause me many day-to-day problems, but they do exist. I believe in a God who can miraculously heal me, who has not yet done so. Who – if I am honest with myself, and with you – I do not believe will do so here on earth.

A God who can, and yet, mostly does not. 

I wonder if that is, in fact, the case? 

I said I’d come back to the joke I told at the start – of Noah, holding out for a miracle in the face of the rising tide. The point is, of course, that he got the miracle. He simply did not recognise it, or respond.

God acted; through the neighbour, and the pilots of the boats and the helicopter. Noah wanted something supernatural, but failed to see God naturally at work through the people around him.
We often ask, “Do healings occur today?”, looking for the supernatural – for the magic of spit and mud, but fail to look in our hospitals, our research laboratories and our medicine cabinets. If my headache is cured through a word of command, or by taking paracetamol, do I not still feel better afterwards anyway? If a broken leg is cured by the laying on of hands, or by surgery, is the end result not the same?

We live increasingly in an age of – and I use this phrase purposefully – medical miracles. The invention of 3D printing now allows limbs to be mass-produced, cheaply, with personalised bionic hands able to be created and fitted in less than a week, at a fraction of existing costs. Only earlier this week, it was reported in The Independent that a potential new step forward in curing cancer may have been taken.

God is at work in all of these healings. In my sermon for Evensong a few weeks ago, I quoted Teresa of Avila, and, whilst I will not repeat the whole poem, I will quote from it:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours…
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world…
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Do healings still occur? Yes, they certainly do. Wrought by surgeons and pharmacists, GPs and nurses – those that follow in the footsteps of St Luke the physician. And yes, they can also occur “miraculously”, however rare that may be.
We pray for healing because we are commanded to do so. We pray for healing because God answers prayer. We pray for healing because (though miracles that occur in this way are rare) we believe that supernatural healing can happen and God can use us as ordinary as we are – to bring it about. And, as St Luke in his Gospel shows us in his own concern for the marginalised, we pray for healing because God cares deeply for the whole world, for all of us who require healing, and so then, should we.

May God use us in whatever way he sees fit to bring healing to others. May we, unlike Noah in the joke, recognise the miracle of healing at work in the natural as well as the supernatural.  And, may we – in whatever way we can, through prayer and practical means – follow Christ’s simple command that we heard in our Gospel reading this morning – a command given in such a matter-of-fact way: “Go on your way… cure the sick and say to them ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’”.


No comments:

Post a Comment