This is the second part of our focus on healing. I don’t pretend that I will have said all that needs to be said, but we need to move on in Mark’s Gospel. I would like to remind you of the opening points I made at the beginning of last week, which express my position on the question of healing:
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.
Last week I said the backdrop to these messages is Covid and obviously that has not changed. However, in the light of the account we have read today, I’d like us to broaden our horizons and consider that the backdrop for the majority world is still the experience of the paralysed man Jesus healed: they need a miracle, because they do not have the resources to pay for medical care and attention, even if they are available. Please do look again at the work of BMS and in particular the work being done at Guinebor II Hospital in Chad. Watch the whole video that is on the website.
As we consider healing through this account from Mark’s Gospel, I am going to use a number of questions.
1. Why does Jesus link sickness with sin?
2. What were the teachers of the Law so offended?
3. What does this account tell us about Jesus?
4. So what?
Jesus’ opening statement to the man on the mat, “My son, your sins are forgiven”, is so inappropriate in 21st Century terms. What has sin got to do with sickness? Sickness is a biological condition diagnosed through medicine and has to do with disease and genes. Paralysis and other physical conditions are caused by accidents or the advance of disease. Mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances or a traumatic experience. None of this necessarily has anything to do with sin. And what is sin anyway?
This problem arises again with the healing of the man at the Pool of Bethesda when Jesus tells him to stop sinning or something worse may happen. James wrote,
Are any among you sick? They should send for the church elders, who will pray
for them and rub olive oil on them in the name of the Lord. This prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health, and the sins they have committed will be forgiven. James 5:14-15
It is not helpful to be told that your sickness is caused by your sin. So why does Jesus do it in these two instances? In the New Testament times, linking sin with sickness was common place and also had biblical precedent.
Psalm 103:3 He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
Psalm 41:4 As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me;
heal me, for I have sinned against you!”
Psalm 107:17 Some were fools through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;
Exodus 15:26 “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and
do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.
Isaiah 38: 16-17 Oh restore me to health and make me live!
17 Behold, it was for my welfare
that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
behind your back.
In ancient times sickness and disaster were seen as caused by God’s disapproval; repentance – turning from wicked ways and back to God – would bring healing. However, the book of Job is a counter balance to that, and although his friends examine his life to find the cause of his situation, they can’t. In fact the only explanation seems to be that God allowed The Accuser to afflict Job in a test – and at the end God basically says to Job, ‘Who are you to question me?’ There are no easy answers but in the face of affliction we as followers of Jesus Christ are called to be faithful – as was the example of the early Christians and has been the example of Christians since. I come back to the prayer of 1662
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.
There are three things to bear in mind when considering the question of sin and sickness.
1. Jesus did not approach this man or any other person when meeting their needs, with an air or hint of judgement. He wasn’t cristicsing or chastising the man, but making a statement before healing both spirit and body. We would do well to follow Jesus’ example when approaching people or when we are tempted to judge their situation or illness.
2. Whilst 21st Century Western World rejects the concept of sin, we do believe that the underlying problem for the world and for people in the world is sin sickness and that this had to be dealt with through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
3. In the PC world of not attributing blame for people’s sickness to their lifestyle, it still happens and happens publicly. Like many issues you only have to scratch the surface and you reveal what people really think. A prime example of this is the discussion this week of the reason why the UK has the highest number of deaths per capita in the current pandemic.
It has been suggested that we didn’t enter the pandemic a healthy nation; that people’s lifestyles have contributed to vulnerability; that overweight people in particular – and we are the fat man of Europe said one commentator – are vulnerable. Whilst this is also denied, vulnerability and the cause of vulnerability cannot be ignored and we do carry some responsibility for the health decisions we take. Sin is not always the cause of illness, but it does affect our lives and is the root cause of the dis-ease there is in the world.
So when Jesus forgave the man’s sin, why were the teachers of the law so offended? This is a little easier to answer. We have already alluded to the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures state that God forgives sin in the previous passages quoted. And here is where the cause of offence lies: only God can forgive sin – or someone acting on God’s authority, such as a prophet. The pronouncement of good news in Isaiah is related to redemption and the forgiveness of sin and the prophet has been given the authority to make that pronouncement. The priest could pronounce forgiveness following the sacrifice and repentance as laid out in Leviticus.
Basically when the teachers of the law question Jesus’ statement of forgiveness, they are asking, ‘What possible authority can this man have to forgive?’ It was outside his prerogative as far as they were concerned. More than that, it would indicate that the Kingdom of God was present, and how could that possibly be represented in a man from Nazareth? It would be like saying the words of Isaiah 33 had been fulfilled:
For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver;
the Lord is our king; he will save us.
And no inhabitant will say, “I am sick”;
the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.
Here is where the offence lay and Jesus compounds the problem by physically healing the man – the verification that he had authority. As we know, the miracles of healing did not convince the religious leaders of the nation, but confirmed them in their opposition.
The question the teachers of the law asked, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ leads to us asking what this account tells us about Jesus? In turn, it links back to Jesus’ opening statement in the gospel, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ In Jesus the Kingdom of God is here and this the teachers of the law understood to be the implication of Jesus’ action. In Luke’s Gospel it is spelled out for us:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
In healing the paralysed man in spirit and in body, Jesus was removing all the obstacles for him coming into the presence of God. The miracles of healing point to the Kingdom of God being present in Jesus – that’s how they work in the gospels. This is what the prophets said would happen when the Messiah came. And the Messiah brings complete healing. That is what Isaiah 53 tells us – complete healing comes because
he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
Ok, so what? How am I to understand healing or lack of it? The headline is that we will not be fully healed, fully restored until we are presented perfect in Christ at the resurrection. Underlying that is an understanding that the world is sin sick and impacted by that sin sickness. It is illustrated in the fact that countries that can afford to, have bought up millions of doses of the covid vaccines, and those that can’t afford to don’t get them. It is also illustrated in the fact that we talk as though we should be free from sickness and death, both inside and outside the church. Let me illustrate.
On Radio 4 this week there has been an attempt to honour those who have died as a result of the pandemic. I listened to two brothers talk about their father who was 92 and by all accounts still active and engaging with the issues of the world. He caught covid and there was a sad account of him saying goodbye to his family. The implication was that he would still be alive but for this virus – which of course may be true. However, something at some stage was going to end his life.
My friend who had liver cancer would probably still be alive – but for cancer. Our friend Jean would probably still be alive, but for kidney disease. Sickness, illness and old age are a present reality, because the end of the age has not yet come. We can trace it to life style, where we are born and health choices we make. Ultimately as Christians, we believe there is an underlying sin sickness that only Jesus can deal with through his death and resurrection.
Some churches follow the theology that God doesn’t want you sick and that we wouldn’t get sick and we would know healing if only we had enough faith. As a result sickness and death are a failure of faith. This is not what the Bible teaches. What it does teach is that Jesus is the complete healer and it will come about through resurrection. Therefore, in the light of the resurrection death cannot signify defeat, but the opening of the door to eternity. So Jesus says to us, “Your faith has saved you. Take up your mat and walk”. We walk in faith in Jesus Christ and in the light of the resurrection.