Our Commitment to Healing Ministry – May 29, 2016
Twelve years ago, we made the decision to make the ministry of healing a central component of our ethos as a faith community and to make it available every Sunday. Yesterday, 26 of the fifty plus members of that ministry –which is our largest ministry – came together for a refresher and reorientation of their important work, the first of three such sessions I am offering. I thought this morning a good time to recognize the prominence of this ministry for our community.
The Gospel story we just heard is one of several in this long season following the feast of Pentecost that gives us accounts of the healing ministry of Jesus. Restoring broken bodies, minds and spirits to wholeness was at the heart of his mission. At Pentecost, the church received the Holy Spirit which empowered it to continue doing what Jesus did: preach the Good News, heal the sick, and cast out evil.
For the first few hundred years, healing as a fundamental ministry of the Christian community continued to thrive. As other schools of thought began to emerge and influence theological views, there was a shift in what place prayer for healing had in the church. Over time, the anointing which had been a sign of God’s desire to restore people to wholeness morphed into “Extreme Unction,” – the last anointing given only to the dying. For centuries, the power of healing ministry would be lost.
For the Anglican Communion, the pendulum would begin to swing the other way under the leadership of Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, and later for the Episcopal Church in the 1940’s and fifties with the Order of St. Luke the Physician. Then in 1979, our new Book of Common Prayer would include a rite of healing that could be used in public worship services.
I think some people have difficulty with the concept of healing. Perhaps it’s because for a long time it was not a part of their religious experience and, for some, still is not. I wonder if the question of “faith” isn’t a barrier as well. Certain traditions even talk in terms of “faith healing,” implying that healing comes only when one has enough faith.
Yet the root of the word for “faith” in the earliest translation of the scripture is a word that means “trust”—not a blind acceptance of a list of dogmas and doctrines. God just asks that we trust that God loves us as we are and loves us enough to want us to be made whole. And while physical ailments are what may come to mind first when we think of healing, there are many other reasons to seek this grace—broken relationships, addiction, anxiety, grief, depression, recovery from any kind of abuse and painful memories.
I don’t need to convince those of you who frequent the healing stations of how powerful an experience it can be. It’s a very sacred, intimate, and moving encounter that radiates the strong energy of God’s grace. If you haven’t come forward for healing prayer, know that it is there when you need it. You don’t need to say or do a thing. The ministers of healing will pray for you, anoint you with blessed oil as a sign of the presence of God’s Spirit, and gently place a hand on your shoulder as God welcomes you into the healing circle.
The particular healing event in today’s Gospel suggests a few things for me. First, it affirms God’s care for all without regard to social status or religious affiliation. The person healed was a slave who worked for a non-believer, a Roman. He recognized something in Jesus that was compelling enough for him to take the risk and ask for this healing on behalf of his servant who was critically ill.
He was probably an agnostic or believed in Roman gods but he trusted this Jesus who said that he had power from on high. He respected his authority. The response he got from Jesus likely shocked the Jewish elders. Such praise for a non-believer’s faith would be most unsettling.
It raises the interesting question of around what power and authority do we orient our lives? What holds our lives together? Do we order our lives around the authority of the Gospel and its core values of mercy, compassion, acceptance, and welcome? If we do, then are we not bound to be radically generous in sharing God’s resources, not the least of which is making this community a channel for healing?
The power to bring healing and solace and wholeness to those in need did not cease to be in the first century of Christianity. God continues to empower God’s people with that gift. In his book A Room Called Remember, author Frederick Buechner says that we have it in us to be Christ to each other and maybe in some unimaginable way to be God too. We have it in us to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked on us.
In truth it is the whole community that imparts the gift of healing in its radical welcome of all. Jesus calls us to a larger circle of mercy, love and justice then does society. We might even be amazed by someone’s faithful action who is and looks very different from us.
God meets us where we are, just as we are. It doesn’t matter if we show up in a tux or gown or in torn jeans, a tee shirt and sneakers. And let me say that in another way for anyone who really needs to hear it: God has established no dress code in heaven and neither should we here in church. God looks deep beyond the clothing we wear to see what is in our heart.
Today we celebrate the gift of healing within this community, once again alive and vibrant in the church. By God’s grace we have built a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. And, later as we sing what we believe, let this house proclaim from floor to rafter as may we sing at the top of our lungs: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place!