A sermon preached by David Barton at St Mary’s, Iffley on 14th May 2023
Today is the final Sunday of the Easter season. Almost Andrew’s last Sunday – alas.
And its a Healing Service, but also an occasion to think about what it is we mean – as a
Church – when we speak of Healing. The idea began in a Team meeting a number of
months ago, as we briefly pondered the troubled world in which we live. You will
recognise the kind of conversation: new and unsafe tensions between East and West,
Ukraine then, and still, and now Sudan, and here at home a sense of living in a society
that is out of joint. We will all have a list of concerns to add to that. To me the most
worrying of all is the fact that children in our schools and young people at University are
showing signs of stress in ways that should not belong to that period of their lives. There
are more children in care now with mental health problems than there have ever been
before. All that I’m sure is part of our prayers.
But also we need to remind ourselves that the Gospel is about the healing of an
anguished world. The work of the church, and therefore you and I, is to be part of the
work of the Holy Spirit bringing God’s new order to birth. We easily limit our idea of
healing – not wrongly – to something linked to our personal health and wholeness. But a
troubled world and a troubled society and our individual health are inextricably linked.
Sickness and vulnerability are often the result of injustice and a poorly ordered society.
When the Christian gospel speaks of healing, it is speaking of all of that.
And that’s in the background context of today’s readings. You have to admire Paul in
Athens. He stands in the Areopagus, with a wonderful view of the Parthenon and the
many other fine temples around – this beautiful city, the proud centre of the culture and
religion of the ancient world – and he tells the assembled Athenians that they have got it
wrong. God does not live in a Temple made with hands, however beautiful. There is only
one God, who is not to be bribed or cajoled with gifts and sacrifices. Its the opposite.
The true God is a gift giver and is bringing to the world the justice for which it longs,
through the message of one man. That was of course Jesus. But Paul does not name
him. This speech was not exactly successful. Paul must have known well in advance
that it never would be. But it is a clear statement of the Christian message in a world of
And Paul would have been content. He had put down a marker, he’d made the matter
clear. True life and Justice proceed from self giving love, the self giving love of the one
God revealed in the love of Christ on the cross. And the witness to that comes from the
Spirit, (as the Gospel tells us). God’s wind blowing fresh spring air through whatever
windows in whatever culture happen to be open. Paul was such a window. Others would
continue the work. And you and I, in a troubled world, are also such windows. And we
continue the work. And we are equipped to do it. “The spirit will abide in you and be in
you,” Jesus says. “I in you and you in me.” That is the absolute promise of Jesus to each
one of us.
And that is our inner life, yours and mine. The place where we hold firm in a society out
of joint. The place where our values lie. Where we find the resources for the day.
Where we find patience, and joy, and hope; where we find the ability to forgive. Its where
we dig into the gifts of grace that God gives us. “The spirit will abide in you… I in you
and you in me.” That is who we are. People for whom that is true. As we grow in the
Christian life that truth shows in hidden ways and shapes all our seeing and our
responding. Its through that window that the spirit blows.
This sacrament reaches deeply into that part of ourselves. People I have known, living
with chronic pain, have found in this sacrament the resources not just to endure, but to
live hopefully. For people bruised and wounded by our society this sacrament is healing.
People ask if there have been miracles and my answer is yes, I think so. Probably always.
But for the most part they are the hidden miracles, that perhaps don’t always notice
because we look for something dramatic. But it is the simple things that matter: the
ability to continue, and to continue hopefully, for someone at the end of their strength.
The possibility of living with, and being patient with, a continuing problem. During the
course of the year people ask to be anointed, perhaps before an operation, or a long
course of treatment. And I think there is a gift of the ability to accept something, to come
to terms, say, with a worrying diagnosis. And perhaps coming to understand how wide
the horizon of life is: that life, true life, really is life in God that is not bound by death. Like
all sacraments this draws us into the reality of God.
Its not of course for everyone. Nobody must. But all are welcome. We will do it in the
usual way, at the side of the chancel. One of us will give the Laying on of Hands. The
other the sign of the cross on your forehead with the oil. Just that. God only needs a little
space, a little time.
And one last thing. As we do this today we here in Iffley bind ourselves into the life and
healing mission of the whole church. Every Maundy Thursday the Bishop in each
Diocese, in a tradition that dates right back to the earliest days of the church, gathers with
the clergy and lay people in the Cathedral, and together they bless the oil for anointing.
That is the oil we use today. It carries that healing purpose in it. It is above all a gift. A
gift to every one of us, of love and grace, and the energy and life that can only come from