The backdrop to our reading and today’s message is the current pandemic. I am not going to talk about the passage particularly today but reflect on the question of healing, which will continue next week. Healing can be a stumbling block for so many people who are faithful Christians, because they don’t see it happen. Healing, or lack of it, can be the reason people stop following Jesus or don’t even start. Part of the problem is misunderstanding the meaning of healing, our misunderstanding as 21st Century people of the human condition of ‘sin-sickness’ and the fact that we live in a medically technologically advanced society, for which we are all grateful, but fail to see this as a gift of God. It also lulls us into a false sense of security and the belief that ‘there must be something you can do doctor’.
I want to state a couple of things right at the start which I would like you to keep in mind as we consider healing over the next couple of weeks.
1. I believe God can heal, that miracles of healing take place and medicine cannot provide an explanation for it. However, miracles by definition are not everyday occurrences.
2. I will always pray for people’s healing and anoint them for healing. I have done this ever since starting out as a minister and when I was a church elder.
3. I think we also need to accept the stark fact that we are mortal and stop pretending right up to the point of death that God is going to heal the physical ailment. It stops people preparing properly for death and helping their family and friends let go.
4. This is not defeatism or denial of God’s power. It is placing our faith and trust firmly in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. If we accept our mortality, then the prayer and anointing of the elders under these circumstances becomes a preparation for death.
5. The sad thing about our current situation is that the opportunity to prepare people in this way has been removed and at best can only be done remotely.
Now this all may sound a bit stark and not even agree with your theology of healing, but I will explore why the points I have made are important over the next two weeks. For a large part of this message I want to share three stories and reflect on them.
1. Mark is a friend from my college days at Spurgeons. He started training to be a minister at the same time as I did. During the first term of our training Mark had a serious car accident in which he broke his back and ended up in a brace. He was unable to attend college and it looked as though at best he would have to postpone his training. One day he was listening to a programme and the person prayed for people’s healing and in that moment he knew that God had healed him. When he went to the doctor he confirmed that his back was better and could not understand why. Mark was not a dramatist or someone who overstated his situation. He was down to earth and when he told people about his healing he didn’t jazz it up for effect – he just bore witness to God’s grace in healing his back and enabling him to be mobile. This was a miracle of God. Yes, Mark believed God could heal, but there are examples of people in the Bible who perhaps didn’t have that faith for healing – maybe the man at the pool of Bethesda was in this position. There is also the example of the man whose unbelief seemed greater than his belief – take a look at Mark 9. Here was an undeserved act of God.
2. The second story comes from the church to which Wendy and I belonged for about 24 years. Andy was a keen follower of Jesus and a willing evangelist. He wasn’t in your face, but was not ashamed to let people know he was a follower of Jesus and was regularly involved with running Alpha. Sadly he developed liver cancer, which spread. As a church we prayed and fasted. I prayed regularly with Andy at various stages for his healing and anointed him with oil. The cancer progressed and Andy died. The church prayed in faith, elders prayed in faith and so did Andy. God did not heal him.
3. My third story comes from Horley. One of the elders there retired at the age of 63 and a few months later was diagnosed with kidney cancer. This the doctors thought they had dealt with only to discover that there was an incurable cancer behind his sternum. Again, I and the other elders came together to anoint him and pray for healing, as did the church. He was involved in a cancer trial. Before embarking on the trial, he discussed the possible effects, weighed up the positives and negatives, and came to the conclusion that it would be irresponsible not to proceed. At any stage he could have stopped the treatment and felt able to do so. He expressed the belief that quality of life was not always found in prolonging life and he had confidence in the resurrection and his place in heaven. Initially the cancer trial was going well, although as with any treatment like this, there were side effects. However, there also came a point when the treatment was ceasing to have any benefit and he stopped having it. He has not doubted God and a few years after stopping the treatment is still alive and doing well. He has not been cured of the cancer which is still present and is managed.
Three different stories and three different outcomes. All three were firm followers of Jesus Christ who believed in the healing God could bring. So why the different outcomes? The standard responses I have experienced in other situations are these:
1. The person did not have enough faith; they didn’t really believe God would heal them. They were like the double minded person of James 1:6-8
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
It’s not God’s responsibility it is the responsibility of the person who was sick. The coin they put in the prayer machine slot was lacking in weight. The wife of someone who died was told they did not have enough faith for healing. The back drop to the message this morning is Covid. Do we really think that for some of those who have died that none of the prayers offered for their healing were prayers of genuine faith?
2. Another response is that there must have been some unconfessed sin in the person’s life that meant God did not heal them. Again this puts the responsibility on the person concerned and not God.As Christian believers we recognise that sin is the root cause of the human condition and has to be dealt with through the sacrifice of Jesus. Part of praying and anointing involves the confession of sin as well as prayer for healing. The reason why communion is central to our monthly healing services is the recognition that we suffer from sin-sickness which needs the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. My guess is that most of us hold back on something or have forgotten something when we come in confession. The lepers who came to Jesus for healing did not confess their sin before he willingly healed them. Only one of them came back and knelt in worship. The woman who reached out and touched Jesus’ cloak did not confess her sin, but was healed.
If people are unrepentant before God, then that makes sense, because they are in defiance of the one from whom they are asking healing.
3. Another response is to blame the fellowship of the church. Either they were
lacking in faith, they didn’t pray enough or there were not enough people praying.
Two questions to ponder:
If Jesus said we only need faith as small as a mustard seed to cause a
mountain to be thrown into the sea, does that mean there wasn’t even a grain of faith in fellowships blamed in this way?
Does God only answer prayers if enough people ask for the same thing?
Abraham was alone when he asked God to save his nephew and family. Many people praying alone have experienced God answering their prayer. It is great to know that people are standing with you in prayer; that the family of the church is interceding on your behalf – I experienced that when I had a heart attack. But we come out of love and compassion for each other and to a heavenly Father who knows our condition and need, and doesn’t need his arm twisted by numbers or even ratcheting up our faith.
From the pandemic we should have learned that we are vulnerable and mortal and that actually we do die. Previous generations were far more aware of their mortality than we are – until we face serious illness. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer expresses this in its prayer for the sick:
HEAR us, Almighty and most merciful God and Saviour; extend thy accustomed
goodness to this thy servant who is grieved with sickness. Sanctify, we beseech
thee, this thy fatherly correction to him; that the sense of his weakness may add
strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance: that, if it shall be thy
good pleasure to restore him to his former health, he may lead the residue of his
life in thy fear, and to thy glory: or else give him grace so to take thy visitation,
that, after this painful life ended, he may dwell with thee in life everlasting;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is not a prayer lacking in faith, but is certainly not name it and claim it. It is a prayer that expresses the confidence of what we claim and proclaim as Christians. Paul in Romans 6 writing in the context of being dead to sin says,
don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised
into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death
in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the
Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death
like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Jesus, just before raising Lazarus from the dead declared
‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even
though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
What Jesus was asking Mary to affirm was not that he could raise Lazarus from the dead, but that she believed Jesus to be the one who will raise all from the dead who put their trust in him. Lazarus was raised, but he would eventually die. His raising was penultimate – not the ultimate healing that comes through the final resurrection.
I’m going to finish with the reflection of a friend Wendy and I had at Bessels Green. She was no stranger to illness and had known God’s penultimate healing on one particular occasion. However, she knew that she was mortal and said that ultimate healing came with death and entry into eternal life. This came to her suddenly one evening when she was on dialysis. If we follow Jesus Christ, we have put our faith in him for that ultimate healing of the human condition. In the anxiety and fear of Covid, we hold out the hope of Christ in salvation through the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life with him.
We are going to end the message with a hymn – Blessed Assurance