Friday, August 30, 2013

Reflections on Healing in the New Testament:

What is healing?  Why do we do a “healing” liturgy on the 5th Sunday of the month?  Are we offering “cure?”  No, God has given us the gift of medical science to help us find cures. So then what is the “healing” that our liturgy offers us from God through Christ? It is easy to mix up those two words – healing and cure.  Our culture tends to under of “healing” as “cure,” and “cure” as “healing.”  Cure and healing are interchangeable in our society.  We go to the doctor for a cure in hopes that we will be healed of whatever ails us.  We come to church and experience a liturgy of healing in hopes that this will aid in providing a cure.  But are they the same thing?  No, in the Bible they are not the same thing at all.  They may be related, but they are two separate things.  Here then is a statement that sums up the biblical view of healing and cure: First, One can be cured without experiencing healing and 2nd, One can be healed without being cured!
Let’s start with the 2nd part of this statement – One can be healed without being cured!  Our society has a very complicated view of sickness and death.  And certainly we could talk a lot about the things that lead to illness in our society: stress, diet, alcohol, how we push ourselves to go, go, go and so on.  In our western culture in particular we tend to see death and illness as invaders from the outside.  They are, we believe, the opposite of life and so we fight against them with all our strength.  And surely we should do whatever we can to live healthy and productive lives which means adopting a life style that keeps sickness and death at bay as long as possible.  But the fact of the matter is this: for the bible all of life is all oneall of life is a whole.  Death is not an outside invader, death is not the opposite of life – death is a part of life.  The same with illness, illness is a part of life. And in some ways it can be a blessing.  For illness can cause us to rethink our priorities, it can force us to slow our pace of life down, to resolve stress issues to reconsider our priorities and so forth.  Being sick is a part of life.  And being sick may be the result of a variety of things some of which might not even be physical, but may have to do with our lifestyles or spiritual and/or psychological issues.  Surely we should use the gift of medicine to seek after cure for our physical illnesses, but what about these other issues that led to the illness in the first place?  This is where healing comes in – we need not only to be cured, but we need to seek healing and healing involves more that a specific physical illness.
Look at St. Paul, for example:  Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)   Many scholars believe that Paul contracted a form of Malaria in Tarsus when he was a boy.  He then continued to suffer with problems relating to this for the rest of his life.  As we can tell from this passage, he prayed fervently for cure but did not receive it.  But still, Paul experienced a healing that went beyond his physical ailments and which enabled him to continue serving and to rely on and celebrate the grace of God through Christ.
Accepting the gift of grace!  Accepting that, like Paul, the grace of God, through Christ, IS sufficient for us!  This is what we are about in our liturgy of healing.  We celebrate the grace of God, which we experience through Christ the healer and through the bread and wine of Communion with our Lord.  During this liturgy we will turn over to God our myriad issues – our illnesses of all kinds, our stresses and concerns and ask God to grant us grace so that we can experience healing and wholeness.  We may also ask for cure and that is appropriate, but we look beyond cure to the healing and wholeness that is offered to us in Christ. 
And to consider this gift of wholeness let us turn back to the Gospel of Luke – what are some of the characteristics of healing in the New Testament – what is offered to us by Christ the healer? What is God offering to us today?
Let’s look at 4 healing stories in Luke –
1. Luke 5:17ff – Forgiveness - Jesus heals the paralytic – Your sins are forgiven you.
2. Luke 7:1ff – Faith - Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant – Not even in Israel have I found such faith. 
3. Luke 17:11-19 – Thanksgiving and Praise - Jesus heals 10 lepers, only one returns to give praise to God – Were not 10 made clean?  But the other nine, where are they… Your faith has made you well.
4. Luke 14:1-14 – Eucharist - Jesus heals the man with dropsy while at a banquet – When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

What wholeness and healing does Jesus offer to us today?  These passages from Luke are only a small sampling of scripture texts, but there are a couple important patterns that emerge.  Notice that curing occurs, but is almost an afterthought in many of these stories.  In the Luke 5 story Jesus offers the healing of forgiveness.  In Luke 7 Jesus lifts up faith.  Now this is one that is very misunderstood.  This does not mean that curing will not come to you unless you believe hard enough (as if that is something we can actually accomplish anyway!).  In both this story and in the Luke 17 story faith is defined as an activity – an activity to confidence and reliance and trust.  It is like Jesus is simply confirming that the trust and action that is demonstrated is providing healing and this healing is also leading to cure.  And in Luke 17 we have a twist because there are 10 lepers cured but only one was healed!  
Finally, healing comes at table.  Over and over again in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is eating at table and his presence at a banquet is what promotes healing.  We see this in the passage with the man with dropsy, with the woman who anoints his feet, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  In every case Jesus provides healing and wholeness and it comes from joining Christ at the Banquet.  The gift of Communion is a healing meal and a meal that is offered to you today.
So we will invite you to come forward, to receive the oil of anointing, to hear the words of promise, to receive bread and wine.  Christ offers to you healing and wholeness.  Come and receive.
A word about annointing with oil:

The annointing with oil is an old practice.  In the Old Testament kings and priests were annointed with oil (and this meant that they dumped the whole bottle on their heads - running down the beard into the collar this is referenced in Psalm 133 and see also Leviticus 8:12).  Now priests were important in OT rituals because they mediated God's presence.  In the New Testament, because of Christ, we no longer need a priest to mediate God's presence rather we understand that God has called all of us to be priests.  This is why we are annointed with oil at Baptism: it is a sign that God is present with us no matter what and the sign of the cross simply identifies that we now belong to Christ and live under the cross.  We annoint the sick to reinforce that we belong to Christ and through Christ God is present with us no matter what - including during the times when we are most needful, frightened, ill and so forth.  During these times in particular we need to be reminded that the cross means God is with us - the oil means God is with us and nothing can ever separate us!

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