GRAHAM LOW’S SERMON FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY – 27th July 2014
As I was thinking about this sermon on healing a close friend of mine from university days, and my best man, wrote to tell me that he has just been diagnosed with untreatable cancer. His life expectancy is now brief. This has upset my equilibrium. He and I met when we were reading biochemistry, which is another name for the chemistry of living organisms. We were both taught at an early stage that the many complex reactions going on in every cell have a particular feature. All of these reactions are programmed so as to maintain what is called homeostasis, or to maintain equilibrium, or more simply, to maintain balance, within the inner world of our bodies. But of course features of the outside world such as temperature, food, comfort, or conflict, are constantly changing and challenging these equilibria. Our bodies are incredibly well organised to respond to outside changes, and new equilibria or balances are constantly being set up. In fact we never remain exactly as we were before. For example, when we are injured or infected we normally repair the damage caused very well, but a specialist would normally be able to see that permanent changes will have taken place, even though they may be very slight. The same principles apply to damage, physical or psychological, to our nervous systems, though repairs may be much slower, and the result may be permanent and difficult change. We are constantly challenged by and adapting to new situations, and are being changed by them. And this is going on throughout our lives. From a Christian perspective, these complex balancing processes, of new equilibria are a fundamental part of God’s creation.
So, why, you may ask, am I giving you a second talk about biochemistry within recent months? It is because these continuous processes of repair, of renewal, of new equilibria, and of change are at the heart of what healing is about. Today we are being offered the healing ministry after we receive communion, and so these points may be helpful in looking again at what healing means in a Christian setting.
The leading Anglican writer on the ministry of healing in the late 20th century was Bishop Morris Maddocks. He wrote that what is special about Christian healing is that first and foremost it is about Christ. It follows the pattern he set in his own ministry, and the commission he gave to his disciples, and the fact that it happens at all is the fruit of his work, both in the creation, and in the salvation of mankind. In both these mighty works, humankind has been created and recreated in the image of God – he has made them whole. This is what distinguishes Christian healing from other types of healing. It is the whole work of Christ, in a person’s body, mind and spirit, designed to bring that person to that wholeness which is God’s will for us all.
Healing thus embraces all of the very complex social, environmental and ethical factors influencing our lives. But today let us think a little more at healing of our own body, mind or spirit. This will be offered today, as before, by the laying on of hands and prayer.
People often ask what level of dis-order is needed to justify receiving the ministry of healing. I don’t think we can be prescriptive at all about this. Every one of us has many weaknesses in body mind or spirit. We may not be aware of most of them most of the time, but it would be extremely arrogant to say that we have no problems in need of healing: indeed we acknowledge our weaknesses every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. In making our confession we do the same in rather more detail. If confession is done on a one-to-one level with a priest we should have prepared beforehand with some care, a process which should reveal in depth how much we need healing and wholeness.
I would say that all of us have a constant need of healing, of being brought back to wholeness with God. There is an interesting and in some ways subtle link here with the process of conversion. When we look at the lives of Biblical characters like Peter, to take an example from last week’s gospel, we see that they actually receive repeated conversion experiences – sometimes brief moments, sometimes big realizations of the presence of God. Each adds to previous experiences, and each elicits a change, a re-orientation, a turning again towards God. We too are changed in this way, step by step, throughout our lives. In just the same way, we can be healed repeatedly of sicknesses of body, mind or spirit and each time we are healed, we can, and should, be thankful for God’s loving action in our lives.
It seems very important to recognise that the ministry of healing does not assure us of restoring what was in the past. There is frequently a danger of raising false hopes, and even of miracles occurring. Such promises have been made and continue to be made in some Christian circles, and much harm has been done when the expectations have not been realised.
So healing ministry is about prayerfully asking God to help people adapt to new situations and to develop the capacity to live within them, to come to a new equilibrium. It is a sacramental ministry, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Jesus employed created things, bread, wine, water, touch, laying on of hands, and the preaching of the gospel. These were the agents that Jesus used to become signs of God’s grace. And Jesus has asked us to continue to use them in our lives. Each of these created things is being offered in this service. They effect what they signify. They are doors to the sacred, through which the saving and healing grace of God is offered to us. We might notice here that, as far as we know, Jesus did not use oil, as a sign of healing. In a sense he was the oil, God’s anointed one. But the twelve he sent out used oil, and from then on oil and medicaments were used in both medical practice and healing ministry. Anointing with oil is widespread in Christian ministry today, not only with those who are very ill, but in many situations where a new equilibrium is called for, such as in baptism or ordination.
In my own experience I have repeatedly seen that medical practice and Christian healing ministry in its various forms can go hand in hand with great benefit to those who are unwell. They are complimentary. What is offered to all of us today is a way of opening a door to God’s grace to help us towards new balances, new equilibria, as we seek to follow the ways of Christ. Amen.