St Paul’s, Pekin—Mark 1:29-39, I Corinthians 9:16-23
I enjoy history. I enjoy reading about, and seeing movies about, famous and important events and people. It is sometimes tempting for me, as I suspect it has been for many of you, to fantasize about living in some other time in history. When I get grumpy about the state of the world, or society, or the church, it’s easy to entertain the notion that I would have been more appropriately born in some earlier era.
What brings me out of that fantasy, however, is my knowledge of another side of history, which is concerned not with famous people and events, but with the ordinary details of people’s lives in times past. I’m aware that I would be very quickly unhappy with the basic amenities of life—sanitation, heating and cooling, clothing, communication, transportation, and food. But the one factor that would outweigh all others in my decision to not go back in time, if the opportunity presented itself to me, is the quality of health care. Even going back to the standard of medical practice five or six decades ago, at the time of my own childhood, would be an unacceptable sacrifice. There are too many things that people died of, or were crippled by, throughout most of human history, that are now completely preventable or treatable.
And at no time do I feel more connected to my preference for life in the early twenty-first century than when I read about the earthly ministry of Jesus. That ministry consisted of two activities that almost completely eclipsed all others—teaching and healing. I would venture to speculate that, with his teaching, Jesus had the luxury of being proactive. He could choose where and when he was going to speak, and what he was going to speak about. With his healing, however, as I read between the lines of the gospels, it seems to me that his ministry is more reactive than proactive. Especially in his adopted hometown of Capernaum, Jesus is incessantly confronted with sick people. He can’t escape them. As soon as he heals one, ten more appear. They multiply exponentially. At that time in history, there were a lot more things to make people sick than there are in the developed world today, and a lot fewer resources to make them well.
This is not to say, of course, that sickness isn’t still a major issue with us. It is. In my own pastoral experience, cancer definitely tops the list of life-threatening and anxiety-provoking diseases. Until fairly recently, AIDS wrought such havoc in Africa as can scarcely be imagined, let alone described—along the lines of the bubonic plague in the European middle ages. Of course, now there’s the Ebola virus that has made us all sit up and take notice. But our relative freedom from a long list of lesser medical evils simply enables us to pay more attention to more subtle—but potentially just as deadly, from a spiritual standpoint, at least—more subtle forms of illness. Depression, for example, would hardly have been thought of as a disease even a hundred years ago. Yet, we now know that that an actual chemical imbalance in the brain can lead way beyond a blue mood to a whole range of destructive behaviors that, unfortunately, culminate in suicide, and there are hundreds of thousands of people, just in our own country, who are affected by this condition. We all know some; maybe you are one. Then there’s addiction—addiction to alcohol, drugs, nicotine, gambling, sex, work, power, sugar—the list could go on and on. Again, just a few decades ago, addiction would have been seen as mostly a defect in one’s moral compass, a flaw in one’s character, and therefore most appropriately dealt with through various punitive strategies. We generally have a more complex understanding of addiction nowadays. We know that addicts suffer from bondage to a power that is beyond their control, and we therefore tend to be more compassionate.
Of course, once we open the gate to a broader perception of “sickness,” it’s easier to look at it from an overtly spiritual perspective. Moral categories—like pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, greed, and sloth—come into play. These are, of course, the “seven deadly sins,” and if one or more on that list didn’t pull your chain, then you either aren’t human or you’re already most of the way to perfect sainthood. Most of us—all of us, when we’re completely honest—have some experience of being in bondage to sin in the same way that a cancer patient or an alcoholic is in bondage to those diseases. We would like to be free of it, but we know we’re not. If my neighbor goes out and buys the exact kind of new car I wish I had, and I obsess on that fact and nurture the feelings of resentment toward him that well up inside me, I am in bondage to envy. I have willfully committed a sin, to be sure, but I am at the same time a victim of it; I am sick with envy, and I need to be healed. If I am successful in acquiring something that I need or desire—money comes to mind most readily, of course, but it can be electronic devices or works of art or sports equipment or household knick-knacks or just about anything—if I continue to hoard something long after I have more of it than I could possibly use, then I am sick with greed, and I need to be healed. If I’m constantly anxious about how I look to others, if everything is eventually “all about me,” then I am in bondage to pride, and I need to be healed. If I find it impossible to have a plate of my favorite food put in front of me without grabbing a piece of it, I am sick with gluttony, and need to be healed. If I, as a man, cannot look at an attractive woman without wondering what if would be like to have a sexual encounter with her, then I am sick with lust, and I need to be healed. The same thing applies to anger: Simply feeling the emotion of anger is not in itself sinful, but when we consciously feed that emotion and savor the prospect of revenge on someone who has wronged us, we are sick with anger and need to be healed. And if we consistently pass up opportunities to demonstrate love or compassion or fidelity, then we are guilty of sloth, and need to be delivered from that bondage.
So, even though you and I enjoy a standard of medical care that is vastly superior to that which prevailed in first century Palestine, I think it’s safe to say that, if God had chosen our society in which to become incarnate, if Jesus cruised the highways of central Illinois with his disciples in a thirteen-passenger van, he would not be any less a sought-after celebrity than he actually was. Yes, there would certainly be some conditions that were presented to him two millennia ago that could now be taken care of with an over-the-counter pill, but there would still be plenty of demand for his healing ministry.
It’s a good thing, then, that Jesus is still a healer! We serve a God who wants us to be whole. God does not wish sickness on anyone—not cancer, not alcoholism, not depression, not any of the seven deadly sins, not even so much as dandruff or bad breath! Jesus brings healing. That was an integral part of his ministry when he walked this earth, and it is an integral part of his ministry even today. When we come to Jesus in faith, and in the sacramental community of his Church, we open ourselves to his healing ministry. We open ourselves to deliverance from bondage—bondage to disease, bondage to fear, bondage to evil. The healing ministry of Christ in the gospels is the token and sign of his ongoing healing presence in our midst. In the time of the gospels, not everybody got healed. We hear about the ones who did, but there were plenty who did not. And the ones who did get healed all eventually got sick again and died. Even those whom Jesus raised from the dead all eventually died again, of something. Jesus, in his mercy, chose to heal some—an extremely high number, in fact, though not all—Jesus chose to heal some as a sort of down payment on what will become the universal norm when his kingdom is fully come.
The coming of Jesus into this world two thousand years ago can be compared to D-Day, the Normandy invasion. That event turned the tide of World War II and effectively sealed the fate of the Nazi regime. Yet, it took another ten months of fairly bloody combat in order to turn that fate into an accomplished fact. You and I live, figuratively speaking, within that ten-month period in between D-Day and V-E day. On the cross, and in the empty tomb, Jesus sealed the fate of sickness and pain and fear. On that holy weekend, God pronounced a death sentence on cancer and AIDS and addiction and all seven of the deadly sins and anything else that might keep any person anywhere from fully thriving with abundant life. Indeed, He pronounced a death sentence on death itself. During this interim period, we struggle on, and the fighting can get bloody. We await the final consummation of the Kingdom of Heaven, when God’s perfect rule of justice and love and joy will be the only order of the day. The waiting can feel very long, and it is tempting to feel discouraged. I was still a few years from being born at the time, but I suspect that those ten months between June 1944 and April 1945 felt a lot longer than ten months to those who were doing the fighting and those who were praying for their safe return. God knows about discouragement, so He sends us periodic morale boosters in the form of miraculous healings. Healing cannot be produced on demand, but miracles happen every day, to lots of people. Even if we have not experienced a miraculous healing ourselves, we probably know somebody who has, or have at least heard accounts of such healings. Doctors do a final X-ray or ultrasound before a surgical procedure, and find, to their amazement, that the reason for the surgery has inexplicably disappeared. It happens. A person who has spent years as a slave to addiction, and been in and out of treatment several times, prays in desperation for deliverance, and is suddenly released from bondage—I’m not talking about going into “recovery,” but instantly being fully recovered. It happens. Someone else who has had a long and unsuccessful struggle with anger falls before the Lord in contrition and utter dependence, and suddenly finds that burden of anger lifted and replaced with a completely sweet spirit along the lines of what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge. It happens.
It doesn’t always happen. Many times, the answer to our prayer for healing is, “I will heal you, but not now.” That isn’t the answer we hope for, but we must not let it bring us down. Nor should we let the prospect of that answer keep us from praying for healing in the first place, and repeating that prayer often. It’s important that we ask. Asking is, in fact, the first step in the process of healing—whether that healing takes place suddenly, through a miracle; or gradually, through natural processes; or, shall we say, eschatologically, in the world to come.
Then, even if the Lord does not heal us in the way we want Him to, the act of asking is beneficial to our souls. At the very least, it consecrates our illness, and offers it to the Lord as a tool that is now formally at His disposal for the perfection of our holiness. And it is our lack of holiness, of course, that is the ultimate sickness that should concern us. When we have been made holy, when the image of God is fully restored in us, then the job is done. Nothing can hold us prisoner anymore; we find perfect freedom in the service of the One who is the true lover of our souls. Jesus heals. Thanks be to God. Amen.