When we get sick, we may ask for prayers, but we probably will also go to the doctor. That’s probably a smart move. But, according to the letter of James, if you’re sick you “should call for the elders and have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and any one who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
The Gospels tell us that Jesus was a healer. Morton Kelsey has pointed out that the gospel writers devote 20% of their accounts to Jesus’ healing ministry. When Jesus came to town it’s quite likely that he healed someone. That might make him a healing evangelist like Aimee Semple McPherson.
According to Luke Jesus was heading toward Jericho when a blind man cried out to him: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Even though the people in the crowd tried to quiet him down, he kept shouting at Jesus: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Now, Jesus was probably in a hurry. He had work to do, but the man was persistent and so Jesus stopped and met with the man. Jesus asked him what he wanted from him. Now, at first thought the man was probably begging for alms, but, in a moment of clarity he asked Jesus to make him whole. He asked Jesus to restore his sight. Then Jesus told him that his faith had saved him and with that the man’s sight returned. When that happened, everyone, including the formerly blind man, glorified God.
While we don’t usually connect healing with salvation, Jesus did. The Greek word for salvation is “sozo.” You can translate it in a variety of ways, including to save and to heal. So, could it be that when we confess that Jesus is our savior, we’re also confessing him to be our healer?
A Disciples preacher I know told a story about a woman who came to his office asking him to pray for healing. Being a good rational Disciple, he wasn’t sure what to do. You go to doctors for healing, but this woman was coming to him. He finally decided to pray for her, but he made a distinction between healing and curing. One could experience healing without being cured. Or, another way to put it is that you can be whole without your body being in perfect working order.
Now Jesus didn’t cure everyone he met, but he did bring wholeness to the lives he encountered. He made the blind to see, cleansed lepers, brought relief from mental illness, raised the dead, and more. In the book of Acts we see his disciples doing the very same thing. We might not be able to explain what happened in these healing events, but what we can say is that something did happen. According to Luke the man who was blind could see once again.
If we think of healing and salvation in terms of wholeness, then perhaps we’re on the right the path. Wholeness can come in a variety of forms – physical, spiritual, mental, emotional. To speak of wholeness is to also speak of brokenness. God isn’t the cause of this brokenness, but God is the one who brings healing of that brokenness.
This past week during my time in Maryland, I had the profound blessing of meeting Deanna Thompson. I had already connected with Deanna on Facebook after I published a review of her Deuteronomy commentary on my blog. Because the Academy of Parish Clergy named her commentary as its Reference Book of the Year, I had the opportunity to meet her in person. What I didn’t know beforehand was that she lives with Stage 4 cancer. Because the cancer had already spread to her spine by the time it was discovered, it is incurable. Since only 20% of people with this kind of cancer are alive five years after the diagnosis, she probably should be dead by now. While her prognosis remains grim, she’s still alive more than five years later. While she doesn’t claim to be cured, healing is surely present in her life. She’s in her third remission, and it’s clear that the Spirit of God is alive in her, even as she lives with dying as a scholar, teacher, wife, mother, and most of all a person of deep faith. Living with this reality is challenging, but her life exudes joy. It is true that not everyone will be cured, but even if a cure is not forthcoming healing is still possible. [See her book: Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace].
Jesus’ healing ministry served as a sign of the presence of God’s kingdom in this world. In his healing ministry who brought wholeness to a world that experiences brokenness, even if this wholeness has not yet been perfected. But looking back to our first stop in this journey of discovery about the meaning of salvation, it is good to remember that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Corinthians 5:19). The healing ministry of Jesus is an expression of God’s work of reconciliation that leads to a new creation.
Jesus is the healer, but we have a role to play in this ministry. Remember that Jesus said to the man: “receive your sight, your faith has saved you” (vs. 42). Faith plays a role in the process of experiencing God’s healing touch.
Bruce Epperly has written at length about healing and the Christian faith. He writes that “while we cannot defeat God’s ever-present aim at healing, wholeness, and shalom, we can stand in its way, diluting its impact in our lives” [Healing Marks, p. 35]. He goes on to say that “God wants us to stand up and walk, and not sit on the sidelines in terms of our health condition or future prospects.” Jesus says to the blind man – “your faith has saved you.” Or, as Bruce puts it: “if faithlessness can impede God’s activity in our lives, faithfulness can open new pathways for divine energy and inspiration to flow into our lives.”
That’s what I see in Deanna’s story. For some reason, even though the cancer remains present, she has chosen to embrace the life that is there in front of her. Yes, she would love to be cancer free, and her journey to wholeness has been difficult, but at the same time she is experiencing God’s healing touch in the form of being alive and being in communion with her family, her friends, her colleagues, and her church. It isn’t an easy pathway. She lives with death as an ever present possibility, but she also lives with the hope that there will be more ahead of her – both in this life and in the next. Of this dual hope she writes:
As I attempt to “live like I’m dying” in the midst of a serious diagnosis, the body of Christ that surrounds me helps me hope that today’s sustaining connections with family, friends, and the church are glimpses of God’s promised life to come. In the midst of uncertainty, we go on, even when we’re not sure we can, hoping for more in this world and the next. [“Living with Dying,” Women of the ELCA]
If salvation includes heaven, it is much more than that. If so, then perhaps healing should be part of our conversation about salvation. Yes, salvation is the work of bringing wholeness to life and to creation. This wholeness is received and experienced by faith. It is a hope that we can take hold of in this life and in the next. While we might not experience perfect wholeness in this realm, there is the promise of resurrection and the perfection of our faith.
Bruce Epperly writes, helpfully I think:
I contend that God’s bliss embraces the pain of the world and that God transforms our tears into celebration by taking the pain into Godself fully, completely, and intimately. Our wounds are Jesus’ wounds and by “his stripes,” that is, his sharing in our trauma, bereavement, waywardness, and pain, “we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). [Healing Marks, p. 151].
Yes, by his stripes we are healed – and we receive our salvation, both as individuals and as a community in Christ.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. [Chalice Hymnal, 501]
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 26, 2015