Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Community of Healing

Our sermon text for this week is James 5:13-20 in which James encourages the church to be a community where healing of all kinds takes place. James urges the church to pray and anoint one another for physical healing while also seeking healing through confessing sins to one another and holding each other accountable. As a result, this Sunday we will have a time of healing and communion in which we will anoint and pray over those who are seeking healing and then join together at the Lord's table.

Sadly, just this morning I read this article which reminded me of how badly passages like this one have been abused. This kind of stuff irritates me and even produces some hesitancy in me to engage in any kind of healing practice at all simply because I don't want my faith to be associated with this kind of misguided thinking.

Nevertheless, it is pretty clear in scripture that God heals. God especially did so in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. In fact, perhaps the first and most important thing we should recognize about the healings that Jesus performed is that they were a part of his kingdom proclamation. Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God was near and that as a result Israel's exile was over; Israel's wounds as a nation would be healed. Jesus' healings were a kind of prophetic and symbolic act to match his words about the kingdom. Healing in the ministry of Jesus functioned as a sign that God was really bringing the kind of renewal that Jesus proclaimed. While different authors in the New Testament may not agree on precisely how, they do seem to agree that healing would be a part of the Church's continuing kingdom proclamation. The Gospels and Acts attribute many acts of healing to the apostles. Paul regards healing as a spiritual gift of some within his congregations. James puts healing in the hands of the elders of the local congregation.

Of course, if God healed through Jesus and continues to heal through the Church, then one of the first questions that is often asked is why God doesn't heal everyone who is sick or hurting. If God can heal one person, why does he let another die? Often questions like this are born out of deep personal pain and grief. Why didn't God heal my loved one? I think it is precisely when we try to give a blanket answer to every individual instance of suffering that we stray from the witness of scripture. There are instances of people being healed by Jesus because of their faith (like the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years in Mark 5) but there are also instances of people being healed because someone else interceded with faithfulness on their behalf while the person themselves made no confession of faith to be healed (Jairus for his daughter in Mark 5, the friends of the paralytic in Mark 2). There are instances of people suffering because of sin but there is also Job who suffers in spite of his righteousness and even Jesus who suffers, at least in part, because of his righteousness. There are those like Joseph whose suffering at the hands of his brothers is used by God for a greater good but there are also the prophets who cry out on behalf of those who suffer meaninglessly at the hands of those who oppress them. The reality is that when the Bible talks about suffering and healing the issues of sin, faith, and God's will all come into play but not always in the same way. When we try to fit these things into some neat formula where we say that sin = sickness or faith = healing or that God has some great plan that required our particular instance of pain, we give very poor witness to the God who is working to heal all of us.

After all, if there is a singular answer to our suffering within the New Testament, that is it; that God is working to heal all of us from creation's sin sickness. This isn't just some theological cop out that values the spiritual over and apart from the physical. The reality is that if God healed everyone then we would all go on perpetually existing in this sin-soaked reality of death and decay. The promise of the gospel is the promise of resurrection and new creation. The individual instances of healing within our world, however we wish to categorize them: miraculous or medical; physical, spiritual, or relational; they are all forerunners and anticipations of what God will one day do with all of creation.

Until that day, the Church must be a community which witnesses faithfully to God's healing power. This means that we will continue to trust that God can and does heal in all kinds of ways in our world today (including by means of modern sciences) and we will not resort to simplistic answers when God does not intervene in a way that we would consider miraculous. It means that we will be a people of healing through love, service to others, prayer, accountability, and intentional reconciliation. But perhaps above all, it means we will be a people who live with the radical trust of Jesus that can pray "not my will but thine" even as we face our own death; a faith that God's grace can be seen most powerfully in our weakness, a hope that God's ultimate healing is yet to come.

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