What do Aimee Semple McPherson, Katherine Kuhlman, Benny Hinn and Jesus have in common? The answer: They all connected healing with faith. I realize that putting Jesus in the company of these other faith healers may seem inappropriate to many, but I think it will help us think about how Jesus’ healing ministry should be understood. There have always been those who claim to heal in the name of God. Some have been shysters and frauds, but others have brought gifts of grace and healing to the lives of many. Some have used the tools of modern medicine, while others have turned to alternative forms of healing, including prayer and anointing with oil. Jesus is among those who have brought God’s healing presence into our lives in ways that are beyond a scientifically-based medicine. The healing stories involving Jesus are often dramatic, but they also raise questions. If Jesus can heal this demoniac or Blind Bartimaeus, why not me?
People of faith often wrestle with the relationship of faith and healing. While pray for the healing of our loved ones, perhaps hoping that God will do something “miraculous,” most of us also go to the doctor and take our medicine. That is, even while we pray we look to human wisdom for healing. And yet, we also sense that prayer could and should play a role in this process.
In recent years, the scientific community has sensed that spirituality or prayer might play a role in healing, and they’ve done studies to figure out the relationship. Some of these studies seem rather silly, and none of these studies have truly explained how all of this works, which isn’t surprising since people of faith understand that God usually works at deeper levels than can be perceived by science. Still, even if these studies are inconclusive, they suggest that we’re more than the sum of our body parts and that people of faith tend to recover better and faster.
This cautious embrace of spirituality by the medical community is controversial, and a degree of skepticism is always healthy, for we don’t want to fall prey to the quacks and frauds and other purveyors of false hopes. At the same time it’s appropriate to recognize that we are -- to use a medical term -- a psychosomatic whole. Because we seem to be more than simply a mass of carbon-based atoms magnetically linked together, there may be room for God to act in the healing process. Bruce Epperly, who has been writing a series of blog posts for me on the topic of healing makes this point quite directly:
Progressive Christians are challenged to consider the possibility that Jesus was able to achieve what many contemporary holistic and spiritual healers as well as faithful Christians at liturgical healing services regularly experience - the transformation of the whole person through healing touch, anointing with oil, reiki, prayer, or laying on of hands.1
1. Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac
If we look closely at the gospels we’ll discover that healing forms a major part of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, healing stories, whether physical or spiritual, make up nearly 20% of the Gospel texts. There’s the man with an unclean spirit and Peter's mother-in-law, a leper and a man with a withered hand, there’s Jairus' daughter and the woman with the hemorrhages. Morton Kelsey says that "wherever Jesus went he was simply besieged by the people who wanted to be healed." Even his enemies didn't "contest the fact that Jesus healed; they only tried to cast doubts upon the agency through which he did it."2
This morning we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac after crossing the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. As soon as he lands, he’s accosted by a naked man who runs out of the cemetery shouting incoherently at him. Obviously this guy’s out of his mind! Tormented and seemingly beyond help, his neighbors have tried to keep him under control by chaining him up, but each time they do this, he breaks loose and hides out in the cemetery – homeless, naked, and forgotten. The man Jesus encounters is of two minds – part of him wants help, but the other resists. He shouts at Jesus: "What do you want of me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" While Jesus could have turned away from the man, he doesn’t. Instead, he reaches out to the man in compassion and confronts the demons that bind him, releasing him from the hold of “Legion,” which interestingly enough leads to the death of a herd of pigs.
You might be wondering how this text speaks to the question of healing. Well, Luke like many of his contemporaries, made no distinction between healing and exorcisms. To heal was to engage evil in spiritual battle, and therefore Luke understands Jesus’ healings to be signs that the kingdom of God is spreading its influence. These healings are also expressions of Jesus’ own calling to “seek out and save the lost” (Lk 19:10). Healing and saving are really the same thing. They bring wholeness where there is brokenness. Whatever our modern diagnosis might be, this tormented man was experiencing brokenness, and Jesus brought wholeness to his life. The man’s neighbors came and found him to be “clothed and in his right mind.” Interestingly, their response was one of fear, a fear that led them to encourage Jesus’ departure.
2. God’s Healing Presence
It’s clear from the Scriptures that God is the source of healing, but if this is true, then why doesn't God heal everybody? We all know people, people who are close to us, for whom we pray, perhaps daily, hoping for a cure, and yet we don’t see them healed. There are those who say that maybe God healed back in the bible days God doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore. I’m afraid that explanation doesn’t work for me, because it suggests that rather than being present in our lives today, God is absent. Others say that God will heal you, if you have enough faith, but that sounds kind of cruel. Besides this guy doesn’t seem to have all that much faith, and yet Jesus heals him. And, I’ve known people with plenty of faith who never experience physical healing.
Consider the story of my high school youth minister. Steve died a number of years ago from stomach cancer. He was probably in his early 40s then. He had a wife and children, and pastored a church. He believed in healing and his church practiced it and prayed for it. In fact, they prayed intensely and continually that Steve would be healed. They claimed his healing, and as I’ve heard the story told, the church kept everyone away who had doubts about whether God was going to heal him. If all it took was faith, then surely Steve would be alive today.
So what do we do with these biblical texts that suggest that Jesus was involved in healing the bodies and the minds of people? I’m tempted to leave them be, and just rest in the mystery that is God. But to do so, means turning my back on stories that can have a transformative effect on our lives. I may be more of a rationalist than a mystic, but even I believe that God is at work in our lives, bringing wholeness and even healing to them. It doesn’t always happen immediately or in the way we might expect or desire. Sometimes it’s a rather slow and gradual process. Bruce Epperly writes:
I believe that God moves toward wholeness within all things, but most of the time, the divine quest for abundant life is revealed in gradual, almost imperceptible ways. Our health and illness, and the healing process occur in the context of factors such as DNA, physical condition, economics, health care accessibility and treatment, faith, and community support, along with our prayers and the prayers of others and movements of God in our lives. When a cure occurs, God is always the ultimate source, even though God works relationally and persuasively through the many factors of life, from meditation to medication, and contemplation to chemotherapy.
There are times when people are cured, but healing isn’t always about curing. Healing can take place in a number of ways, but as Bruce notes, God is always involved, even if the context of this healing is found in modern medicine, psychotherapy, or other therapies. While not everyone is cured, if healing is understood to mean wholeness, then this wholeness can be experienced in ways that do not always involve physical wholeness. Sometimes it involves finding peace in the midst of an illness or a disability.
In my reading of Scripture, it seems appropriate that we come before God and ask God’s blessing for people who are hurting. It’s appropriate to anoint the sick, the injured, and the dying with oil, as a sign of God’s grace. We do this while praying that the one we love will experience wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, always acknowledging that healing comes in different forms. It could be physical, but it might also be spiritual.
In the early church, when a person was sick, they called for the elders to come and anoint with oil and pray for the one in need. Oil was used in part because it was believed to have medicinal value, but it was also believed that when accompanied by prayer, God would be present in the healing process. Faith and medicine need not be seen as two ships passing in the night. We can embrace both in the pursuit of wholeness of body and spirit. And when we find that we’re whole again – whether or not we’re cured -- it’s appropriate to give thanks and share the good news. After Jesus brought healing to the Gerasene man, he told him to share the good news with his neighbors, who, to tell the truth were a bit disturbed to see this man, whom they had thought was under the control of demons, once again in his right mind. And the same is true for us – when God has touched our lives, we’re called to make that known to the world.
Bruce Epperly, “Did Jesus Cure Anybody?” Ponderings on a Faith Journey, http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/2010/06/did-jesus-cure-anybody-bruce-epperly.html
Morton Kelsey, Healing and Christianity, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995), 45.
Bruce Epperly, “The Gift of Gradual Healing,” Ponderings on a Faith Journey,
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 20, 2010
4th Sunday after Pentecost