There is always the possibility of healing. Sometimes, there is a cure.
Have you ever wondered if faith is any help for those times when you feel physical or emotional pain? Is there some problem you can’t solve, some habit you can’t shake? As the old spiritual asks, “Is there a balm in Gilead?” That is, is there a way faith can help us? Today we will explore how faith can help with healing, whether the need is physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or social. There is always the possibility of healing. Sometimes, there is a cure.
Healing stories serve to illustrate Jesus’ teachings.
Our scripture lesson from John 9:1-41 fits into our sermon series theme: Close Encounters of a Personal Kind, and it is one of several accounts of Jesus performing healing. Nearly everywhere he went, there healed someone. But he didn’t heal every ailment of everyone he encountered, and that disappointed some people. But the gospel writers knew that faith healers were a dime a dozen at that time. What was special was how Jesus attached the healings to a broader narrative.
John’s gospel has the fewest healing stories, illustrating the points Jesus made in his teaching. In the first healing story, in John 4, Jesus healing a royal official’s son is contrasted with the woman at the well. She came to faith through a conversation. Jesus sighs in frustration that others won’t come to faith unless they receive a miracle. In chapter 5, John tells the story about a lame man Jesus healed, illustrating Jesus’ point about breaking the sabbath laws to help someone.
Does God send illness as a punishment?
At the root of our story today, the question is whether God uses disease as a method of retribution. Does God make us sick?
Notice that the religious leaders are interested in the question of blame. Whose fault is it that this man is blind? Was it because of his sins, or was it the sins of the parents? They assume that if one is suffering, God is punishing them. It’s a feeling we can relate to. When bad things happen, we take it personally and want to know what we did that caused God to let this happen to us.
But Jesus has no room for that. Punishing people like that is not how God rolls. Jesus says the man wasn’t being punished. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, bad things happen to good people. This and other healing stories underscore Jesus’ central message that God isn’t into punishing and blaming but healing and wholeness. Jesus doesn’t get caught up in theological nonsense; instead, he gets to work and helps someone. Our faith teaches that God isn’t the cause of our hurts but is a presence of help when we do hurt.
Does Jesus heal us today? If so, how?
It’s wonderful that Jesus healed people 2,000 years ago, but what about today? I’m sure we’ve all seen videos about scammers who pretend to be faith healers who have people with fake diseases who are instantaneously healed when the pastor whacks them on the forehead. These predatory pastors prey on desperate people, offering false promises. Unfortunately, their predominance undermines a reasonable discussion of the topic and makes us cynical and squeamish about talking about healing.
My Hospice chaplain friend, Rev. David Swinton, told me about visiting someone whose husband seemed annoyed that a chaplain had called on his dying wife:
Husband: “Well, chaplain, can’t you just say a prayer and heal her?”
Me: “Yes…I could. But it’s not billable. Medicare won’t pay for it.”
He was trying to put me on the spot with a snide, dismissive joke. He didn’t know who he was dealing with. That’s my native language. I think that response and some good reflective listening got him to allow me to help him.
Dave was able to have a conversation with him to help him let go of the resentments he’d been harboring. There was healing, but it wasn’t physical. I believe that healing is about physical wellness and wholeness in all areas of our lives.
Sometimes healing is physical.
Some people report that they have received miraculous cures, and several people in this room have relayed their extraordinary experiences to me. The body is a complex and mysterious thing. God is mysterious, and I thank God for their experiences and that they are still with us. By definition, however, miracles are the exception rather than the rule. Despite what some preachers peddle, there is no magical formula: if you do or believe x, y, and z, you will get your miracle.
I remember as a teenager suffering from Chron’s Disease and not getting better. Someone who skipped John 9 explained that my prolonged illness must be my fault. She said I must have some unconfessed sin because she was praying for me, and God always grants her prayers. Apparently, my moral turpitude was so enormous that it blocked God’s intentions. That encounter left such a bad taste in my mouth that I wasn’t sure I even wanted to be called a Christian if that’s the garbage it produces.
Society’s attitudes toward illness and disability need to be healed.
Similarly, a Lutheran pastor, Cyndi Jones, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled, What it Really Means to Be Healed. She has a disability and needs a scooter for mobility, but random strangers approach her in public places and tell her that if she had faith, she would be healed. She said if those people only knew that her wounds bear witness to the power of prayer and miracles. There is the miracle of people who have dedicated their lives to science and medicine that made her survival possible. When she was two years old, an illness caused her throat to be cut open for a breathing tube, and she was put in an iron lung. When the electricity failed at the hospital, her father came and hand-cranked the generator through the night.
She points out that the healing stories in scripture often come not because of the sick person’s faith but because of the role of people like her father, who took the actions available to them to act on another’s behalf.
She helped me see something I had never noticed about when Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus. While everyone else talked about Bartimaeus in the third person, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you.” Rev. Jones argues that Jesus gave him agency, recognized him as a person, and restored his dignity, all as important as his blindness. The same is true in our story, where everyone talks about the man in the third person, “Who sinned?” But Jesus talks with him directly. Others never even knew him, and there is debate later about whether it is the same guy they knew from their village.
Rev. Jones contends that if society was healed of its attitudes towards disability, people with disabilities would have more opportunities and be able to participate in everyday life like everyone else. Healing can happen within communities by welcoming, accepting, and embracing all others into belonging. True healing, she says, is about regaining agency, dignity, and belonging rather than just restoring physical abilities.
What happens when we pray for healing?
I’ve heard of physicians who pray with patients. When we pray for people, it’s not to persuade God to act but to align our spirits with theirs and send positive energy. From my experience, I believe that knowing that people are praying for you helps. One of the hardest things about suffering is thinking you are going through it alone. Knowing that others care and send their positive energy out helps one feel supported and cared for, which is healing.
Healing is about alleviating pain and cultivating joy and meaning in our lives.
We pray for healing all the time. I remember one woman who talked about how prayers of healing took on different meanings. Her healing prayers were for a cure when she was first diagnosed with cancer. Then they took on a different flavor as the healing prayers meant for pain and discomfort relief, then the strength to get through chemo. Healing meant the ability to withstand the temptations toward becoming a sad-sack, bitter, and mean because of her condition.
Later healing meant being able to appreciate the limited time she had left. For a while, it meant making amends and repairing some relational damage. And finally, healing meant that she would be at peace in her spirit as she passed from this life to the next. And she got that. Healing can mean different things at different stages. We have bodies; eventually, they all wear out, and we all die. Religion doesn’t stop that but gives us peace as we go through the process.
How spirituality is connected to healing.
Here is the key. Our faith gives us a sense of inner peace, of being cared for, of finding meaning even in times of difficulty. I end every service by quoting the Bible in the benediction, where I pray for you to receive the peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding. When we are at peace within, it helps the healing process. Our attitudes or stress levels and our bodies are interconnected.
Sometimes healing has to do with our bodies, sometimes it has to do with our relationships, and sometimes with our spirits. I believe they are all interconnected. When any of these areas is off kilter, it tends to throw the others out of whack, too. We stop exercising or socializing, or practicing spiritual disciplines. Our attitudes worsen, and we feel worse and spiral downward, becoming more negative and cynical.
Jesus comes today to take us by the hand and lift us out of any unhealthy spiral we may be in. Do you want to be made whole? We may not all get cured, but we can all get better. Jesus helps us get our lives back on track and focus on what is important. Amen.