A sermon on Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56 by Nathan Nettleton, 23 July 2006
When we recognise Christ's presence in the Eucharistic liturgy, we will bring the sick in search of healing.
One of the things we Christians do a lot of is pray for the sick, and particularly pray for their healing. And yet, when we stop and think about what we are doing, or discuss what we are doing, we find that among us and often even within any one of us, there is a great deal of confusion about why we are doing it and what we think God might be able to do in response to our prayers. We listen to stories like the one we heard from Mark's gospel before, where sick people flock to Jesus and he heals them all, and we wonder whether we should be seeing lots of miraculous healings today. Some Christians claim that they are seeing such miracles all the time in their churches, and that those of us who aren't are guilty of insufficient faith. But whatever they say, there is very little support for their claims. Most of the people I have known who have claimed to be healed in such contexts have, within a week or two, despairingly concluded that they weren't healed after all. There are healings which the doctors can't explain but, in reality, they are rare exceptions rather than normal reality. And they are rare enough that, whether we like to admit to such thoughts or not, we are left wondering whether they are really miracles or just things that further advances in medical science will one day be able to explain.
Tonight we will be praying for healing for a couple of people who are a part of our congregational life. We will be spotlighting this action a bit more than our usual inclusion of prayers for healing in our weekly and daily prayers of intercession. In a few minutes time we will bring them to the centre of our circle and pray for them with laying on of hands and anointing with oil. And our prayers will not just be about Samara and Alex, but about all of us and all who are in need of healing. The current health crises faced by these two remind us all of how precious and fragile health is, and we recognise ourselves in them to varying extents. Special rites like the one we are about to celebrate are never really just about the individuals involved. They are community rituals, and they are extremely important in helping the whole community to deal with the various dimensions of our engagement with and our feelings about health and sickness and healing and wholeness.
We don't come to pray for healing for these two because we have got our understandings of prayer and healing all sorted out. We come because we trust that God cares and is faithful. Nor do we come to pray for healing as a substitute for medical care. Samara, is currently on a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for Hodgkins Disease, a form of lymphatic cancer. Alex will undergo neuro-surgery this week to remove a tumour from his spinal cord. This is not a case of having a bet each way. At the time when St James told the early Christians to call for the elders when they were sick so that they might be anointed with oil and prayed for, anointing with oil was what the doctors frequently did. It was understood as medicinal rather than as symbolic or miraculous. In effect St James is saying, "take your medicine and pray." We don't pray because we distrust medicine, and nor do we get medical treatment because we don't trust God. We trust that God is involved with us in a holistic way, working in all things for our welfare and healing. And so we pray not only for healing, but for the wisdom and skill of the medical staff, and for the compassion and adequacy of the health care systems and institutions.
Our prayer seeks to mirror something of the holistic nature of God's care. We do not pray simply for an end to disease. We pray for health, for wholeness, for the abundant life that Jesus came to bring. In many of the stories of people coming to Jesus seeking healing, we see that he did not only address their diseases. He spoke to them of forgiveness of sins and of social restoration to the community. Clearly Jesus recognised that we are whole people and that bodily health cannot be neatly disconnected from our spiritual, emotional, and social states. Many of you have found over and over that you are more likely to get physically sick when you are feeling stressed or guilty or anxious or isolated. Jesus sees us in our wholeness and has compassion. Note that his first response to the crowds in our reading was teaching. He healed too, but the two are not entirely separate. His teaching brought healing, and his healing taught.
Another thing that needs to be said — and this is not news to most of you — is that there is a healing dimension to our worship every Sunday, not just when we have a special rite like the one we are about to participate in. And I don't just mean that we always include prayer for the sick in our intercessions, or that we always have an opportunity at the close of the liturgy for people to seek individual prayer for healing. What I am referring to is the fact that our whole Eucharistic celebration is a force for healing in our lives. This is something that was highlighted in our church review. Many of you attested to the significant extent to which you found participation in the worship here healing and renewing. We've discussed this a number of times, and there are many observations that could be made about what that means which I won't go into here. But let me point out just one aspect of it which connects with the story we heard from the gospel.
One reason that there is such a strong healing dimension to our worship is that Jesus the Christ is here. Jesus promised that whenever his followers gather in his name, he will be there amongst them. Since the first resurrection appearances, Christians have found his risen presence to be especially powerfully apparent when they gather for worship each week around his Word and table. Indeed, a number of the bishops and theologians of the first few centuries of the church described the Eucharistic bread and wine as the "medicine of life" . They recognised that Christ was not only present to nourish and edify us, but to heal us and set us free and bring us to fullness of life.
And so, just as we read about people bringing the sick and broken to Jesus wherever they heard he had been sighted, we too come bringing the sick and broken to Jesus, here where we have found him to be. We bring them in person, as we are doing tonight with Samara and Alex. We proclaim the good news of Christ's healing presence among us to those outside, and if we can persuade them to come, we bring them with us to the Word and Table where healing and life are found. And if we can't persuade them to come, we bring them in prayer anyway, mirroring the compassion that Jesus showed to those who didn't even know what it was they needed. This is no little added extra to our lives as followers of Jesus. The healing of our brokenness and the healing of the wounds of creation is integral to the work of salvation that Jesus gave himself and still gives himself so freely to bring about. And so while we are drawing a little more attention to this aspect of our discipleship tonight, we do so in the context of a broader vision. We are ambassadors of Christ and of his ministry of healing and reconciliation. And we trust that his will is always for life in all its fullness and wellness.