Sermon for Evensong
On the question of healing . . .
Today the church remembers the third evangelist – St Luke
Luke’s words occupy more space in the NT than anyone except Paul and of course our own, St John. It is widely thought that his gospel and the sequel, the Acts of the Apostles were originally one, but papyrus technology being what it was, they couldn’t be put together (There is by the way an intriguing scrap of papyrus which suggests that all of St John’s writings were once bound together as one . . .)
So we have Luke start The Acts addressed to ‘most excellent Theophilus – Lover of God, ‘in my previous book . . .’
Yet due to a single phrase in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which you may well have missed, Luke is associated with healing. The phrase? ‘Luke, the beloved physician’, or as some preachers style him, Doctor Luke.
So the Society of St Luke is a society given to the promotion of Christian healing . . . which of course is not something straightforward. It raises so many questions for us, not least when we or those we love are not healed . . .
I remember sharing with a friend accounts of spontaneous healings in a Christian community with which I have good links, and there was a veiled skepticism as she wondered why they did not allow in a team of scientists or doctors to validate these healings. ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound . . . if a person is healed and no one validates it, did it happen . . .??’
This whole area is clouded if not with controversy, at least endless questions. Why doesn’t God heal everyone? Indeed, why didn’t Jesus?? Or did he???
I want this evening to offer a different perspective on the whole question and put it into a larger frame wherein if at least we don’t get hard and fast answers, we might at least begin to understand that the questions we bring come from a very narrow perspective on the matter.
I’ll begin with a question ‘of the moment’. If we allow that everything the president of the United States is true about his recovery from COVID, is he a well man?? In other words, what does it mean anyway to be healed? We often only understand this in terms of the equivalent to the doctor prescribing a pill which cured an illness . . . but is that what Healing fundamentally is? Or is it perhaps something too large for us, something which perhaps we cannot begin to comprehend and indeed even want to seek . . .
A couple of brief comments, a very brief historical note, and then we’ll return to the theme directly.
First, in our faith, we talk of Salvation. Fundamentally this words means ‘healing’, a most profound healing. We might say perhaps that in the narrow terms we set someone was not ‘healed’, but were they in the far deeper sense, ‘saved’? The US President seems by some accounts to be healed, but is he ‘saved’? (And I DON”T mean that in the narrow somewhat fundamentalist terms by which some of his followers might suggest)
Second, there is something close to the heart of the church which gives us this same broader perspective. When a priest is inducted into his parish, the bishop in handing him his license says ‘receive this cure of souls . . . which is both yours and mine’ The old view of the church is that of a hospital – indeed hospitals as we know them owe their existence to the medieval church . . . These communities of faith are meant to be places of profound healing, or salvation, and those charged with episcope (oversight) are to manifest that, to be people of healing, relational healing etc. etc.
Yet, the heart of our problem with respect to healing can I think be traced to those same middle ages in which hospitals came about. About that time there arose a theological controversy, one the impact of which has pretty much formed the Modern world without most of us realizing.
Up to that period, the world was understood as a place of profound connection. You couldn’t alter any one part without altering another . . . somewhat ironically, modern science has just come to this same conclusion, about a thousand years to late . . . BUT there was a problem . . .
The word ‘couldn’t’. This seemed to therefore limit the agency of God! How could one say, God cannot . . . Now there are many threads we could pursue at this point, but time constrains somewhat, so lets just leave it at that. ‘Surely if God is God, then God can do whatever he wishes, and so God CAN change just one element in the Creation without everything else being affected’ and in a sense if the argument had stopped there, then the world would be a very different place . . .
Because, IF God can do whatever he likes without everything else being affected . . . why can’t a human being?? So arose an understanding of the world which was foundational to Science until the late years of the C19, a world where we might as it were see things in isolation and treat them as if we didn’t have to consider a multiplicity of relationships . . . except we do.
The Environmental collapse we are living through can be traced precisely to this sense. Put another way, seeing things in separation from one another we did not understand the consequences of our actions. The World is a remarkably woven together place. Just this week I read the words of an Amazonian Chief. A people who had lived for unknown years in harmony within their surroundings. She said
In all these years of taking, taking, taking from our lands, you have not had the courage, or the curiosity, or the respect to get to know us. To understand how we see, and think, and feel, and what we know about life on this Earth.
I won’t be able to teach you in this letter, either. But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning.
Which brings me back to the question of healing. And a question. When we think of healing, do we do so in a sort of unreal isolation . . . In other words ‘the only thing that matters is this healing’ . . . You see perhaps that is part of our problem. Certainly I think it is increasingly clear that much of our illness in so many forms has been brought about precisely because we have not realised how one thing interacts with and changes another. Or how everything affects everything . . .
And this I suggest points us towards the centre of the truest healing and indeed Salvation as manifested in Jesus
People often ponder – why did such a good man have to die? In a sense Jesus death makes no sense – after all as Scripture amply testifies ‘he went about doing good and healing many’ . . . but perhaps that is precisely the point. The world is woven together. You can’t expect such significant change and transformation just in one place, without it affecting everything. Indeed Jesus most dramatic healing, the raising of Lazarus is the event that leads directly to his death. The world moves around this event, nothing is ever the same again.
So often when we seek healing, we want things to be ‘just as they were before’ How often and in how many different ways do we want such things. How much do we want to live in a universe where nothing affects anything else, when we can simply change ‘this’ and a myriad of ‘thats’ remain in place. But the world is not like that. If the outcome of Jesus’ healings was to bring Salvation to the World at the cost of his own life, I guess the question which faces those who seek healing is that which Jesus posed to the man at the pool of Siloam, ‘do yo want to be well?’ or, put another way ‘are you prepared for nothing to be as it was before? To die to the world you think you know, in order to truly live?
Perhaps this is the faith we need if we are to be healed