Sunday, February 5, 2012

Faith healing, then and now

Text: Mark1:29-39 (many are healed)

This week's Gospel reading is the second of three in a row in which we hear of healings and exorcisms by Jesus. So today and next week, I want to talk about miraculous healings and their role in the Bible and in our ministry today.

In today's reading, Jesus has just left the synagogue where he has amazed his new disciples with the authority of his teaching and his ability to cast out an evil spirit. Jesus then enters the home of two of his disciples, Simon and Andrew, where they discover that Simon's mother-in-law is in bed with a fever.

Immediately, Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and heals her of the fever. Later, the day ends with a crowd gathered around Peter's house -- the entire population of the city, Mark says. Jesus cures many more of these people of their illnesses and casts out more demons.

The next day, after a time of prayer in the desert, Jesus tells his disciples that they will now travel to other towns of Galilee to proclaim the coming of God's kingdom in synagogues and to cast out more demons.

What are we to make of the healing power of Jesus in these stories and of his later commission to his disciples for them to heal the sick and cast out demons? Jesus' commission to the disciples in Matthew's account, includes the following statement: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons" (Matt 10).

But although I am now a minister, nowhere in my training was I taught how to cleanse lepers, cast out demons, or raise the dead. As modern people, we might have difficulty with the miraculous healing stories of Jesus and with his commission to us to continue this work of healing

In an era dominated by science, the healings and exorcisms in the Bible might strike us as irrelevant or embarrassing. Many of us don't perceive the supernatural or paranormal in our everyday lives. Instead, we relegate supernatural ideas to children's stories, horror movies and TV shows.

In my first year as a theological student, some of us went for a drink one evening after class, and our conversation turned to the films of M. Night Shyamalan, You may remember his first big success in 1999 called "The Sixth Sense" in which a young boy complains to a psychiatrist that he can see dead people. The movie is a ghost story with a nifty twist ending, and a lot of us liked it.

The general line of our discussion was that we enjoyed each subsequent film by Shyamalan -- all with supernatural elements such as superheroes, aliens, werewolves, or devils -- less than the previous ones. I then suggested that perhaps we should ignore his movies altogether since we were theology students, and as such, we didn't believe in the supernatural, did we? Everyone laughed. But I was serious. Despite our call to ministry in Christ's church, many of us didn't believe in the supernatural.

I think the same thing could be said of the writers of the gospels. When the Gospels were written almost 2,000 years ago, people did not distinguish between forces like gravity, which today we call natural, and forces like demons or angels, which today we call supernatural. Back then people perceived only one seamless reality, and it was all pretty much a mystery and demon-haunted.

Mental and physical illness, which today we know to be caused by natural forces, were believed to be caused by demons. Cures were perceived as the gracious intervention of angels or of God.

During the last few centuries, great strides have been made in medicine based on the scientific method. And one of the bedrock assumptions of this method is that all phenomena result from natural laws.

The amazing successes of science has created skepticism about ancient stories of possession and miraculous healings. Today when trying to cure injury and illness, we focus on the human immune system and on treatments involving drugs, surgery, diet and lifestyle.

The rise of science has caused us to split our conception of reality into two spheres: the natural and the supernatural. In biblical times, most or all events were assumed to be the action of gods or devils. Today most or all events are assumed to be the result of the blind workings of natural laws. Since the Bible often seems to dwell on what we now call the supernatural, some of us may wonder if these stories are still relevant.

The United Church has a modernist bent. But an article in the January issue of the United Church magazine "The Observer" focused on current TV shows that have paranormal or supernatural themes. The article suggested that the success of these shows points to a longing among many of us to believe that there is more power available to us through God than science and medicine might indicate.

Personally, I don't believe that God intervenes to either cause illness and injury or to miraculously cure them. But this belief does not mean that I don't believe in faith healing. The faith that we grow into with God's help is about trust: trust in our bodies, despite their fragility and mortality; trust in the universe despite its unpredictability; trust in our fellow human beings despite social problems; and trust in love despite our essential aloneness as individuals.

Faith as trust often flares up strongest in our lives when we hit bottom. Fortunately or unfortunately, it is often when we are most hurt and humiliated by relationships, by sickness, or by social problems that we awaken to the truth that God's love exists in the world, in human culture, and in our friends and families, and that it supports us regardless of our circumstances.

Now, this side of the grave, we are never completely grasped by such a trusting faith. But we experience enough of it to soldier on as faithful individuals and as a faithful church despite life's problems.

This faith that we often stumble into helps us to see Gospel stories of the miraculous healings of Jesus and his disciples as true pointers to the power of God in Christ, even if the stories reflect an ancient worldview.

Faith as trust does not mean we won't be injured, won't succumb to viruses and bacteria, won't develop cancer, or won't get heart disease. Instead, such faith heals our anxious spirits to the point where we can suffer through injury or illness without losing our connection to our source and our destiny, which is the God who is Love.

Personally, I am not skeptical of stories where healing touch, prayer, and trust in God lead to seemingly miraculous cures. Even though scientific medicine marches on, there is much that doctors do not yet know about the healing powers of the immune system and the deep connections between body, mind and spirit. Such healings, however, do not lead me to then make a distinction between a natural and a supernatural realm. Like the biblical writers, I perceive one natural reality, and it is one that is lit up and supported by God's love as its very core.

In a few minutes, we will we celebrate again the sacrament of Holy Communion. In that mysterious ritual, I don't imagine that we will experience anything other than an everyday miracle. Communion is a ritual of prayer and action that reminds us that we can trust in God and be made whole by God no matter how healthy or sick we are in body and mind.

I said earlier that theological training did not teach us how to cure leprosy, cast out demons or raise people from the dead. But perhaps this statement was short-sighted. Ministry often involves deep spiritual healing that in its effects welcomes people that have been treated like lepers back into the embrace of the community; or that casts out our demons of addiction in favour of the God who is Love; or that reveals the truth that we have been graciously raised from a dead-end of despair into a new and joyous life beyond ego.

Perhaps, then, all of us who work in the church here in Borderlands are healers and exorcists. With God's love, we help each other move from death-in-life to resurrected lives in Christ.

I am confident that this is the truth. So when I hear our next hymn, with its echoes of today's Gospel reading -- in which Jesus as our Precious Lord, takes a woman's hand, leads her on, and lets her stand -- I see all of us in that story.

As we sing the hymn again today, we do so confident that this same hand of healing is extended to any of us in a moment of need or crisis. The hand of Jesus offers deep healing, and it is a healing that never, ever fails.

Thanks be to God.

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