Mt. 8:14-17, “Healing”, Fifth Wednesday in Lent, 29 Mar 2017

To suggest that we’re capable of being healed, or of healing one another, without doctors or modern medicine makes us modern people skittish.  We have become convinced that healing by anything other than scientific, empirically verifiable means is either the result of good luck, accident, or coincidence.  Consider the recent example of Jimmy Carter, a nonagenarian diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, who tested as cancer free only a few months after his diagnosis.  We can explain his swift cure by referring to the scientific genius of new immunotherapy drugs.  But consider the Midwestern boy I know of, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and who was almost certainly going to die, but who, upon going back to be scanned months later to see how the tumor had grown, found that it had completely, mysteriously disappeared.  Most of us would explain that by saying it was remarkably good luck.  We might rightly give thanks to God for both of these outcomes.  But I contend most of us would be more reluctant to say how or if God healed them.

Our reticence about naming the God of Jesus Christ as the agent of miraculous healing has many sources.  We are rightly concerned not to condemn those who remain sick or those who die in spite of their desperate prayers for healing.  We are also rightly concerned about those who take advantage of others’ sincere faith for personal gain—snake oil sellers, new-age magicians…preachers.

But to dismiss outright the possibility of healing miracles even in our modern age is to disregard one of the most compelling aspects of Jesus’ character and ministry.  To simply delete Jesus’ healing miracles would be to leave the pages of the Gospels in tatters.  Jesus’ fame spread so quickly primarily because of his power to heal.  In Matthew 8, after he heals a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, and many others, great crowds come after him, so that he has to escape by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  If we had lived in that region at the time, we most likely would have first heard about this fellow named Jesus because of his miraculous healings.

Because healers and magicians were so common in antiquity, we should ask why so many are crowding around Jesus.  The difference lies in the fact that when Jesus’ heals, he isn’t doing magic.  As Gerhard Lohfink notes, “A striking feature of Jesus’ miracles is the speed with which they occur.  There is never an account of a long procedure like those characteristic of many medicine women and men, shamans, and healers…The eyewitnesses were moved and shaken by Jesus’ power and authority.”[1]  In other words, Jesus does not see the world as a mystical system of spiritual buttons and levers you can manipulate with the correct formula or spell.  Rather, as Lohfink asserts, Jesus’ healings reveal “God’s sovereignty over creation…[and] the brilliance with which God endowed [creation] from the first.”[2]

Jesus healed people using two methods: the spoken word, and physical touch.  He also healed two types of people:  those who expressed faith, and those who didn’t.  When he heals the centurion’s servant, he does so by “word” from a distance, in tandem with the centurion’s faith.  Jesus often tells someone after healing them that their faith has made them well.  But when Jesus comes to Peter’s house, and finds Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever, there is no mention of her faith.  Jesus also does not cure her fever by speaking a word at a distance.  Jesus cures her fever simply by touching her hand.

If we moderns would be more inclined to embrace the possibilities Jesus’ healing ministry opens for us, we would likely prefer the former means.  That is, we would be more comfortable asking God to heal others through prayers of intercession.  But I believe a more comprehensive appreciation of Jesus’ healing ministry will lead the church to take seriously the immediate power of the healing touch, of skin-to-skin contact between human beings.

This is true from birth.  Placing a newborn directly, skin-to-skin, on its mother’s chest for long periods of time keeps the baby warmer, leads to healthier blood sugar levels, and is even shown to enhance brain development.  Newborns who’re able to experience immediate skin-to-skin contact also cry less.  So, from birth we cry out for skin-to-skin contact.

To be clear, I’m not advocating applying Jesus’ modes of healing as mere technique for healthier living.  To do so would be to succumb again to strictly scientific assumptions about the world, but with embarrassing and disappointing consequences.  Rather, I believe a recovery of the sacramental and incarnational modes of Jesus healing ministry will reintroduce us to a way of life that recognizes the sovereignty of God over all things, including our flesh.  Just as God has taken on the corruption of human flesh in the flesh of Jesus on the cross, so we are called to bear one another’s burdens, not from a distance, but up close.

“Are any among you sick?” James asks. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (Jas. 5:14-15). 

Put simply: The Body of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is given the power to extend Christ’s healing ministry into the world.  The wiser physicians already know this, and are becoming increasingly aware of the power of faith and tight communal bonds in matters of life and death.  May we also soften our hearts to reimagine what it means to say Jesus is Lord of our bodies, and to entrust ourselves completely to the One who is called the Great Physician.

[1] Gerhard Lohfink, No Irrelevant Jesus, 62.

[2] Ibid., 63.

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