The Kingdom, Healing and Humility – a Sermon Preached by Graham Low on 8 September 2019 at 10 a.m..
The passage we have just heard from Luke’s gospel is one of the most challenging and uncomfortable gospel accounts. The words of this text seem closer to what sadly we have been hearing this week from our leading politicians, than words to describe a faith which places emphasis on unity, trust, truth and loving human relationships. It is a great shock to be told to hate parents, brothers, sisters, wives and children, and even one’s own self, and to be prepared for a harsh death. But Jesus is not denying the importance of close family and friends and the need for living harmoniously and with humility with everyone. He is saying that when an urgent task is to be done then the top priority is the kingdom. In inviting people into his kingdom Jesus is asking for their allegiance to his and God’s saving reign. Broadly speaking, Scripture tells us that this kingdom will come in stages, which including Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and another future consummation.
The qualities of the kingdom of which Jesus is speaking are many but healing is a particular priority. As we are being offered healing today in the form of laying on of hands with prayer after we receive communion, I’d like to offer a story about healing from my past parish ministry.
One of the church wardens involved in my appointment became a close friend. John (not his real name) was an intelligent, trustworthy, and thoughtful man. After some years he developed cancer, and, though treatment extended his life for a year or two, a point came where only palliative care could be offered. He remained completely alert and he movingly confirmed his deep faith. A few days before his death I asked him if there were any matters in his life that needed attention or reflection, or if there was anyone he would like to see. He immediately said yes: above all else he would like to talk with Peter, another member of the congregation and to thank him for all that he had done for him. Nothing else mattered so much, he said. It was his final desire.He asked me to tell Peter about this.
Peter was a man who had left school at the age of fifteen and had made his way as a painter and decorator, but physical disability had prevented him from working for years. Though he received no further formal education he was remarkably well read and had a very critical mind. He lived in an impoverished flat and as far as I knew, he had no friends, and no relations. Sometimes he became drunk. He would write letters of complaint to all sorts of people, including the bishop, the archdeacon, and to John, the church warden I have just mentioned. I was often involved in trying sort out the consequences. Peter often came to Morning Prayer with considerable physical difficulty, and afterwards he often asked me some challenging theological questions. I had a realaffection for Peter. He was direct. He was honest. He had integrity.
When I told Peter about John’s request to see him before his death he was astonished and very deeply moved. He asked why this could be and found it very hard indeed to accept that he had meant so much to John.
In the end John died before Peter could visit him, but I was able to tell John how Peter responded to knowing about the affection in which he was held. John was deeply thankful. In a sense he found this knowledge to be healing. He also found peace through prayer during his own last days and saw them as a time of healing for himself. And he saw his imminent death as his final healing. Meanwhile, Peter could scarcely believe that John had trusted him and indeed liked him. Later I became aware that John had known Peter well and for many years. And I realised that John was one of the very few people who had ever accepted Peter just as he was. After John’s death Peter talked to me about John and repeated his great surprise that anyone could possiblyaccept him as he was. But that knowledge of John’s deep affection and trust eventually led to Peter speaking at length and in depth about his own very painful past life and the eventual realisation that he was loved by God. This slow realisation was painful but utterly transforming for him. Peter was changed. Peter was healed. This process was neither linear nor was it complete, for that is the nature of healing. Nor was its course predictable. It was not a cure, but growth into a fundamentally new way, which is a characteristic of healing.
In a Christian context healing is far more than the reduction or disappearance of medical problems. For Christians it is about reconciliation with God and others for past hurts and wrongs of every kind. This often achieved without any resolution of all the physical or mental problems that may be present for a person. Desire for reconciliation is the focus of healing prayer. As my story reminds us, healing prayer for the dying is not necessarily offered with any expectation of reversing the process, but with the hope that peace and wholeness can be found for the final journey, as it did for John.
I have not mentioned one other striking quality in the two people in my story – humility. Last week Andrew reminded us that humility is the hallmark of Christian life and faith. Part of our calling, and part of what I think is a fundamental requirement for healing, is humility. Being rooted in humility is about being accepted as creatures of frailty and error, but aware, as John and Peter were, that we are infinitely loved by God. The quality of humility keeps us open to forgiveness, to wholeness, and to healing. Let us pray for humility wherever there is discord, and particularly among those who lead our nation at this time, where neither humility nor honesty are very apparent. May our leaders and all of us see that one of our most important calls is to bring about healingat every level of human life. Amen.