Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Forgotten Part of Jesus' Ministry

Matthew 9.35-10.8

During his earthy life there were three aspects to the ministry of Jesus. He went around teaching, proclaiming good news and healing the sick. His teaching was not written down until long after his death, but much of it survives because it was treasured and carefully remembered by his followers until - eventually - it was committed to paper. The good news which he proclaimed was not just spoken, it was enacted. Jesus was not a First Century spin doctor dreaming up headline grabbing stories about God, or trying to put a positive spin on events. He lived the good news, proclaiming it in action as well as in words. Indeed, he would not have imagined that it was good news at all if people had not been able to see it unfolding before their very eyes.

Ultimately, of course, his proclamation of good news was to culminate in the tragic events of Good Friday, when he was put to death as a sign of God's self-giving love, and in the mysterious but powerful resurrection life which he continues to enjoy, for death could not hold hm in its power. But, before that, his proclamation of God's mercy and love was also declared in the healings which he performed and in his compassion for all who were harassed or helpless. It's remarkable how, while the teaching and proclamation of Jesus still receive much attention, even the Church - at least in secular countries like Britain - is strangely silent about this healing ministry.

Why are we so reticent about it? No doubt it's partly because Jesus not only healed others but also called upon his followers to do the same. He asked God to send out labourers into the fields to bring in the harvest and, in case we might think this is just a reference to persuading people to believe in him, Jesus is very explicit about what else is involved. He tells us that it includes casting out unclean spirits and curing every type of disease and sickness, cleansing people from leprosy and raising the dead. That's all right, then!

And, needless to say perhaps, there is no mention of taking pills and potions or medical textbooks along with us on the journey. His followers are commanded by Jesus to travel light, with no cash or bag for the journey, no change of clothes and no stick to fend of wild animals or thieves. They must expect the people they meet to feed and shelter them, and do their laundry. Jesus' instructions about participating in his ministry of healing are so uncompromising that it's no wonder we sometimes hesitate to follow in his footsteps.

But, of course, there are some other reasons, too. Until quite recently people in Europe had turned their backs on the value of spiritual healing, preferring to rely exclusively on medical science. However, as doctors get better and better at treating people for some of the more common causes of disease, so it becomes steadily clearer that there are still huge limitations to their knowledge. Doctors are not so easily baffled as they were in Jesus' time, but they are still baffled, nonetheless, by many of their modern patients. In addition, it has become clear that some therapies once scorned by modern medicine are actually strangely effective. In particular, people who believe in something - in the power of prayer, for example - get more out of life, and live for longer, on average, than those who don't. And that's just one of the reasons why the NHS continues to invest in hospital chaplains. They save money by helping people feel more well, more quickly.

We mustn't forget, mind you that I am talking about averages. Just because, on average, people feel better thanks to the power of prayer, that doesn't mean everyone who receives prayers for healing is going to make a miraculous recovery.

We are told that everyone who came to Jesus got well again, but he was someone very special. And he lived in a society - as some still do - where, in any case, no one ever got critically ill. If they got ill, and then got a bit worse, they simply died. He would have been amazed that we can keep people going, when they are very sick, by feeding them through tubes, taking over their heart and lung functions for them, giving them cocktails of drugs and operating on almost every part of their bodies.

Even when Jesus and his followers raised the dead, these were usually people who hadn't been dead - or didn't appear to have been dead - for very long, because in Palestinian culture it is normal to bury the dead within twenty-four hours. It is probable, therefore, that some of the people who were raised were deeply comatose rather than properly dead. Incidents where people are pronounced dead by mistake do still occur from time to time.

And finally, there is the issue of possession. There is little doubt that people are sometimes taken over by evil forces which impel them to act in wicked and wholly negative ways, harming themselves and others. But much so-called possession by evil has often been a misdiagnosis of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, or of purely physical illnesses like epilepsy.

I guess these are the reasons why Christians have sometimes been hesitant about taking up the commission from Jesus to get involved in his healing ministry. The task has seemed too big and has overwhelmed us, as it sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. His achievements seem so much more emphatic even than the wonderful work done by hospital chaplains. And we wonder just how far the Bible's understanding of illness and death differs from our own, anyway.

But the challenge remains. It will not go away. Proclaiming the Gospel is not just about telling people nice things. It is about healing the sick. And we must begin - as Jesus' first followers did - with prayer, with the laying on of hands and by anointing people with oil. Then we must trust in God to work his healing in people's lives - perhaps not in the ways that we anticipate but in ways that continue to proclaim the good news of a God who has compassion on all who are sick and suffering, and who goes with us - hand-in-hand - even through the valley of the shadow of death.

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