That evening, at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons
May I speak …………………
I remember once trying to lead Sunday night Compline from the Book of Common Prayer one balmy Summer evening in a beautiful garden in Jerusalem next to Pentecostal group who were screaming at the top of their heads for the Holy Spirit to come down and heal some poor woman at the center of their prayers. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace – seemed very appropriate, in a variety of different ways!
But what was that Pentecostal Pastor doing ? What do we think faith healers are when we see them on the God channels – nearly always men of course – nearly always conservative evangelicals – calling the sick down to the front of the auditorium, laying hands on them and praying in the name of Jesus – and watching the sick, lame and invalid walk, see, hear?
Most Anglicans are pretty skeptical about this kind of spectacular show healing – but – even Anglicans pray for healing on the quiet. We pray for the sick in our prayers, we ask God to heal people, and this morning a small group of people will pray with people individually at Communion time. Are we just being inconsistent? Or hypocritical, perhaps – going through the motions but not really believing anything will happen ? Or are we hedging our bets in case the Pentacostals are right ? What if all that show-biz stuff really works ? Where would that leave us polite anglicans with a penchant for good order and 16th century liturgy?
There’s no doubt that religion – all religion – believes God answers prayers and heals people. Brother André’s shrine in the Oratory has an impressive collection of crutches, sticks and other items left behind by the miraculously cured faithful and so does the Buddhist shrine in Dambulla in Sri Lanka. And of course Jesus healed people too … and he told his disciples to do it as well:
they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many
So – all those years ago – was it true? Did Jesus really make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk – just like the evangelical faith healer – did God really intervene directly into our physical world to do weird and wonderful miracles through Jesus? Or is that the sort of thing God just doesn’t do? Because if God could intervene 2,000 years ago, then there’s no reason why God can’t intervene now – if the conditions are right …
Or was it just that Jesus spoke with such power and authority that people thought they were healed : In which case the big show-biz healers are right – say it loudly, say it confidently, say it with authority and some people will eventually believe you just enough to be able to get over their psychological hang-ups.
So there’s the big question: Does God still heal today ?
But the problem for me in that big question : Does God heal today ? is the much bigger question: Why doesn’t God heal today – Why, when there are so many tragic cases which just look so obvious to us, does nothing happen when we pray? If God can heal an arthritic person in a wheelchair on prime-time television at a big evangelical $50 a seat healing service, then why doesn’t God heal the 6 year old child with leukemia or with bone cancer lying in a quiet provincial hospital bed. If we say that God doesn’t heal today, then at least God is being fair to everyone – but if God can heal suffering children and chooses not to, well that raises all sorts of difficult questions about what sort of a god, God is. Doesn’t it?
When I was newly ordained – just a couple of months into the clerical collar, my vicar went on holiday for a month and I was called to the hospital bedside of six year old girl with cancer who was clearly dying. Now I ask you, what can anyone say in those circumstances? : pray harder? You don’t know what praying hard is unless you have been a parent at the bed side of a dying child. So how could I – or anyone – dare to suggest that this mother and father were not praying hard enough! ‘God wants your precious daughter by his side in heaven …… isn’t that the sort of thing people say : well no, and if anybody had said that to me about any of my children I would have told them what I thought of God in no uncertain terms ! ‘Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room’ Wrote the dean of St Paul’s – but that’s not how it feels to a parent watching their child die. And “Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.’ Is probably the worst of all – I will stand and the grave and cry, if a child is dead.
The Early Christians – like the Jews – assumed that God did get involved. For Mark, and for the Gospel writers there was no doubt that Jesus was a healer – this was a sign that he is the anointed one, the one who was to come, the Messiah, the Son of God. For the Early Church there was no doubt that Christians should pray in Jesus’ name for one another and no doubt that God could and would heal. Somehow past generations were able to live with the apparent arbitrary nature of miraculous healing in a way that we – in our generation – just find difficult. They were happy to call it a mystery, an unknown, a fact of life. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.
And mystery it still is – for the alternatives : believing in a god who cannot work miracles – a weak god – or believing in a god who chooses not to work miracles – an uncaring god – is not much of a religion either. In fact that god is probably worse ! Why should we worship, why should we love with all our heart and soul and mind and strength a God who plays no part in our physical world, a God who cannot help us but just leaves us to suffer on our own. Even a sympathetic god – the God who chooses incarnation and suffering and death so that he can feel our pain and know we are going through is at best shallow and at worst patronizing if God cannot actually help us. We can in fact do that much for ourselves.
So I for one am left with the mystery of not knowing why God does what God does, and why God does not do what God does not do: As a young and tender curate I prayed with that family by the hospital bed honestly asking earnestly for what we all wanted –that the young girl should live and be cured. And when she died I took the funeral and I broke down and wept with the family – there was not much more which could be said or done. And from that time on I have come to believe that all we can do is be totally honest in our prayers : to ask God fully for what we want, without reserve, – which is usually to tell God that we want a miracle – and then to accept whatever comes with faith and trust: And so I am now outrageous in my prayers because to be less is dishonest : and the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord – I certainly don’t understand it – nor do I need to justify God’s actions any more : God just is.
And the other side of not understanding this mysterious God – and God’s even more mysterious choices – is that I don’t understand the world I live in and the world’s mysterious choices either. As a prolific meat eater I know every day that all creation depends on a violent balance of life and death. The balance of predator and prey in the animal kingdom is finely tuned for the survival of all. And the greatest paradox – so it seems to me – is that if death were finally destroyed here and now on this earth, if God had allowed us to eat from the tree of life and death, once we had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, – so that we all lived for ever, then – paradoxically – creation would most surely be dead. The living virus and the madly growing cells which kill us are also the life force which brings new life into the world. It cannot be otherwise.
So right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we see people two thousand years ago grappling with the same question: the whole city was gathered around the door: And they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
Yes everyone is searching. Where can we find the Good News so that we may live :
Two thousand years ago people of Galilee looked to the Pharisees and Saducees, to the Torah and the Tradition or – being Galilee of the Gentiles they looked to Roman Gods or Greek philosophers, or like people do today to the Eastern mysticism of Mithras and dualism. But who will give an answer – Where is wisdom to be found ?
Now I am a great believer that when we reach this point in our Biblical reading and study, the point where we no longer know the answer and just hit our head against a wall with the questions – then that is the point when we arrive at real prayer – the point when we stand before God with nothing more to say, and we just have to listen and learn. Sometimes we listen and learn for direct revelation in the silence of our own hearts – anglicans tend to call that Reason and Experience, sometimes we listen and learn through the wise words of our teachers and companions, we tend to call that Tradition, and sometimes we go back to the text and see how Jesus answers the question: We call that Scripture, and all three of these work together and demand a great deal of discernment – which is the Anglican way.
So, leaving the inner voice to you yourselves, and taking on the role of teacher and companion, let us look together at what Scripture says. Jesus says:
Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Interesting: And I am going to leave you with the three points Jesus makes in response to our healing dilemma:
First – don’t think about it too much. The thing that strikes me about Jesus’s response is that he does not explain his actions or the theology behind what he is doing. ‘Let us go on’ – he says : – those are very hard words for a person like me to hear in the silence of prayer and meditation because I want to understand what God is doing, I want to know – I want to be like God – you could say, and you know where that temptation comes from ! Let us go on – says Jesus : the answer is in how we live our lives, not in what we understand.
Secondly – proclaim : This is a big word, it’s not just tell people, it is to make our announcement like a herald of Good News. It has an act of defiance in it – an act of prophecy even against all odds and against all evidence – for me it means holding on to and announcing the Goodness of the reign of God at all times and in all places, for all people and for all cultures, in season and out of season, as St Paul so eloquently put it in his epistle – it is an obligation put upon us to be heralds of good tidings, even when the news all around us is hellish.
And thirdly – cast out demons. Not demons with horns and tails, pitchforks and wicked grins – but the real demons which beset our world : greed, abuse, violence, slaughter, genocide, racism, homophobia, inhuman and barbaric behaviour in the name of religion or politics or ideology – each one smiling at us as it tries to tempt us into its power – the list goes on and on for these demons – the demons of the 21st century are real. And the mission of Jesus – our mission which we take up as we follow in his footsteps, as we try to live his life – is to cast them out, one by one, wherever and whenever we find them.
Let us go forth therefore, proclaiming in our words and deeds the joyful Good News of the victorious Reign of God, and let us finally beat down Satan and all his works under our feet : that is healing : that is salvation : that is Christianity, this is our faith.