Epiphany 2B 1/15/12
In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel there is a hilarious story that mirrors twenty-first century debate about the relationship between faith and modern medicine. Jesus and the disciples are walking, on the Sabbath, in or near Jerusalem and pass a blind man who is probably begging. The ever-compassionate disciples, instead of buying a pencil from the man or stopping to pray for him, point to the sightless wretch and use him as the opportunity to ask Jesus whether he is blind because of his own sin or because of his parents’ sin. God must be punishing him for something, they reason. Jesus answers that his blindness has nothing to do with anyone’s sin but is an opportunity for God to demonstrate God’s power. Using a mud plaster made on the spot, Jesus heals the man.
What follows for the rest of the chapter sounds like a Monty Python sketch. Some people declare this can’t be the same man, and the man insists he really is. The Pharisees can’t figure out how Jesus could have been a channel of God’s healing power since he had healed – that is, done work – on the Sabbath. They want to know how Jesus did this and whether Jesus is a sinner; the man keeps singing the first verse of Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, ‘twas blind, but now I see.”
The Pharisees, after all, are the ancestors of twenty-first century materialists: the only reality is that which they can touch and see and explain. All of life can be explained by cause and effect relationships: If this happens, then this must follow; if this happened, it has to have a rationally explainable cause. This healing makes no sense to them because it breaks all the rules. But then, that’s what Jesus is always doing, from his conception to his baptism to his temptation in the desert to turning water into wine and forgiving prostitutes and eating with sinners to oh so inconveniently refusing to stay dead.
In this sermon series about religion and science, I want to build an argument that there are realities beyond material, scientific reality. It is not that literal reality is not real – it is that it is not the only reality. And all who believe in love and hope and metaphor and grief know that sometimes what is most real can’t be touched or proven. If, then, there are realities we can touch and realities we can’t, how does God heal people when they are ill?
The Greeks, who laid the foundation for all thought in the Western world, thought human beings were made up of three parts: a body, which, though touchable really only served as a kind of container for what made people real; a mind, which was people’s thoughts and intellect, and a spirit, which was the immortal essence of human life. When people died, their spirits escaped the prison of their bodies and went to live with other spirits in a shadowy world where they were free from all physical need and harm. The universe was constructed with physical Earth sandwiched between heaven, the dwelling place of the gods above, and Hades or Hell, the home of dead spirits. There were pleasant parts of Hell – the Elysian Fields – for heroes and good souls – and lower, unpleasant regions where Episcopalians who eat with the wrong fork are tortured for eternity. There are a few places where the three worlds touch, but they are well hidden.
That worldview, which is the foundation for Western thinking, believes that the physical and the spiritual are utterly irreconcilable realities. Devoted Christians still talk about heaven being up and hell being down, of their souls “flying away” from their bodies to a non-physical eternity, of being tempted by “their human side” when they should follow their “divine spark” instead. If you believe in that division between body and spirit, then the best God can do when you are sick is calm your spirit: your body is out of divine control.
The Jewish worldview, expressed in the Old Testament and in the teaching of Jesus the Jew and the Jewish apostles, was and is radically different. The Great Commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5 talks about loving God with all your heart and soul and might, but those qualities of human existence could no more be separated from each other than heat and light from fire. There is no human life apart from a body – Ezekiel talks about the resurrection of the dead, not ghosts; Jesus bears in his resurrected body the scars of his crucifixion and – this is the part I really like – eats fish on the beach with the disciples after Easter. That Jesus feeds hungry people, resuscitates the dead, heals the physical ills of the sick, takes children in his arms, and makes a dinner the focal point of Christian discipleship shouts that human life cannot be carved up into separate categories. The Jewish view of the universe was that heaven and hell and earth were all mixed up with each other, and Christians have understood since the first Easter that in Jesus those three come to a focus.
If that is the reality, as the Bible proclaims with its every breath, then God uses both material, scientific means to accomplish God’s purposes, as well as spiritual, non-physical means. Both are of God. Both material and spiritual reality can be good, and both can be bad. The physical world is utterly shot through with the spiritual. And so, when we are sick, God uses surgery and antibiotics and counseling – and God also moves in ways far beyond all physical explanations.
So why, then, if God is a good and loving God, aren’t people always healed? Francis McNutt, a Roman Catholic priest who for many years has been in the forefront of spiritual healing, lists eleven obstacles to healing:
1. Lack of faith. Not lack of faith in God, but doubt that God can heal. Physicians say that the attitude of the patient is absolutely crucial in the healing process. That is also true physically. If you do not believe you are going to be healed, either physically or spiritually, you probably won’t be.
2. Redemptive suffering. The night before his death, Jesus prays in the garden to be spared, but God has a terrible and larger plan. I have known people who, through the faith they displayed in their illnesses, were such witnesses to God’s love that other people turned their lives around because of that loved one’s illness. Isn’t this what we believe about those who have given their lives in war to save our lives and liberty?
3. Not wanting to be healed. There really are people who enjoy bad health. It gets them attention. Or they believe they deserve it. I have also seen people, especially the elderly, who are simply tired of living and decide to die.
4. Sin. Sometimes there is something broken in someone’s life that prevents them from receiving the healing that God wants to give. If sin is that which separates us from God, then it also separates us from God’s will for us. Before healing can happen, they need to face their sin, repent, and be forgiven.
5. Not praying specifically. McNutt says we need to be bold in our prayers: if someone has a tumor, pray for that tumor to be healed, not that they will feel better. Why doesn’t God just read our minds and do what we really mean? Because, if God wants us to be the instrument of the healing, then we need to focus our attention on the real problem. If you need a heart bypass, the surgeon doesn’t just give you aspirin. Be bold in your prayers: if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
6. Faulty diagnosis. Physicians sometimes simply miss diagnosing the real problem. In the same way, there are times we pray for people to be healed spiritually when they need to be healed physically. There are times we pray for people to be healed physically when they need spiritual healing. Sometimes we pray for feet when we should be praying for heads, or for hope when we need to pray for forgiveness. Focus your attention and prayers where they’re really needed.
7. Refusal to accept medicine as a means of healing. Do you know the story of the man stuck on his rooftop in a rising flood who refuses help from two boats and a helicopter, telling them that he’s prayed for God to save him, and he doesn’t need them? After he drowns and finds himself in heaven, he asks God why God didn’t answer his prayer. God replies, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.” Antibiotics, surgery, therapy, psychotropic drugs, and analgesics are means for God to heal.
8. Not using natural means of preserving health. God will not save you from heart disease if you eat a Big Mac every day, will not keep you from lung cancer if you smoke, will not save you from depression if you do nothing but think about yourself all the time (that’s really depressing), or keep your body thin and flexible if you rest on your rump all day long. Jesus died to save us from sin, not stupidity.
9. Now is not the time. This is a hard one. God’s timing is not our timing. McNutt says some healings are instantaneous, some are delayed, some happen gradually, and some do not seem to happen, at least in the physical sense, at all. Sometimes the healing comes in a different way, as in death.
10. A different person is to be the instrument of healing. Sometimes that’s a different physician. Sometimes that’s a different person to lay hands on us and pray for us. I have seen people in comas wait until a particular person arrives – or leaves – before they are healed by death. I have also seen prayers by one saintly person have no affect, but prayers by another work miracles.
11. The social environment prevents healing from taking place. Our lives are inseparable from the communities in which we live and work and worship and learn. Hatred, stress, and dysfunctional relationships make people sick. Sometimes healing cannot happen unless the sick are removed from the circumstances that feed their illness, either physical, spiritual, or emotional.
If the universe is divided into separate physical and spiritual realities, and human beings are just temporary physical shells holding immortal spirits, then we have to choose between physical medicine and spiritual miracles. That is not the world of the Bible, where spirit and body are eternally and wonderfully joined in the person of Jesus. The best physicians I know are the ones who know that the emotional and spiritual health of their patients is absolutely inseparable from their physical well being. The best spiritual counselors and healers I know believe exactly the same thing.
Medicine or Miracles? Yes!