Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
2 Kings 5:1-14Psalm 301 Corinthians 9:24-27 Mark 1:40-45

By Bruce G. Epperly

The good news of Epiphany and the Christian message is God’s vision and movement toward abundant life, not just for the privileged, worthy, or healthy, but for all peoples in every condition of life. In a world in which politicians still invoke a relationship between poverty and laziness and preachers and spiritual leaders often connect disease with faithlessness, divine punishment, and poor character, today’s stories open wide the gates of healing to friend and stranger, and insider and outsider. There is no guilt or punishment, simply grace and restoration.

The healing stories of the Bible are often neglected, explained away, marginalized, or seen only as metaphors or statements of changed social standing. In contrast, I suggest that they reflect past and present experiences of whole-person transformation, embracing body, mind, spirit, and relationships. I believe that they reflect peoples’ encounter with a God whose care embraces cells as well as souls and whose ministry now includes meditation and medication, chanting and chemotherapy, touch and tomography, and prayer and Prozac.

Mark’s gospel sees Jesus’ healing ministry at the core of the coming realm of God. Virtually half of the first ten chapters of Mark relate to healings of body, mind, spirit, and social standing. Last week, we explored the healing of Simon’s mother: Jesus touched her and restored her to health and vocation. Today, we reflect on two stories of persons with leprosy, a skin ailment that in the case of first century Jewish communities, led to social ostracism, theological and ethical judgment, and familial alienation.  To heal these forms of marginalization would be enough, but Jesus does more than heal relationships, he cures bodies. God is concerned with the whole person. As recent medical research asserts, prayer, meditation, and religious commitments can have a positive, indeed, curative, impact on people’s health.

I suspect many progressive and mainstream Christians are daunted in their quest to reclaim the healing ministry of Jesus by the comments of leading progressives such as John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan denies that Jesus’ ministry involved curing physical ailments. After correctly noting the distinction between healing and curing, and illness and disease, articulated by contemporary medical anthropologists, Crossan notes: “This is the central problem of what Jesus was doing in his healing miracles. Was he curing the disease [leprosy] from an intervention in the physical world, or was he healing the illness through an intervention in the social world?” In response to his question, Crossan boldly asserts: “I assume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease or any other one [emphasis mine], healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization.”(82).

Although there is much to commend in Crossan’s understanding of Jesus’ healing ministry as a political and sociological phenomenon, why not take a more holistic – and, dare I say, more progressive – approach to the question and answer “yes” to both healing and curing, and social and physical transformation. Jesus’ healing ministry transformed people’s social location, bringing them from marginalization to full humanity, as Crossan rightly asserts, but Jesus’ acts of compassionate care also transformed the whole person in the dynamic interplay of body, mind, and spirit. (Excerpt from “Did Jesus Cure Anybody?”

The story of Naaman joins insight and humor. Sickness can be the great leveler that joins the 1% with the other 99%. Despite his military authority and power, Naaman is plagued by a skin disease, serious enough that he would enlist the aid of foreign political and religious leaders. When the general comes to Elisha’s house, after giving a great gift to the King, he expects the royal treatment. He is enraged when the prophet, through his intermediaries, counsels him to dip seven times in the nearest stream. He assumed a complex and expensive treatment, but is given the simplest counsel: what you need to be healed is right in front of you, follow the directions, and you will be well.

Naaman’s servants prevail upon him, reminding him that he would gladly pay a fortune for relief, when relief can come at no cost! We don’t know if Naaman ever had faith in the treatment, but he followed the directions, and was restored to health. Sometimes the healing we need is right in front of us: the pathway to health is simple, for most part, involving aligning ourselves with what’s good for body, mind, and spirit – exercise, good eating patterns, positive relationships, and soul food. What we need is already here, we just need to follow the divine bent of our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Nevertheless, there are times when illness strikes, often unrelated to lifestyle, diet, or moral character. It is important to recognize that although our actions can shape our health, they are not all-powerful in determining heath or illness. There is free play and randomness in the universe and in our bodies. A former colleague dies of lung cancer despite the fact she never smoked; a young man has germ cell (testicular cancer in his chest) for no apparent reason; a healthy, lean runner dies of a heart attack with no previous symptoms. Certain people recover against the odds, while others die despite the odds being greatly in their favor.

Despite the mysteries of sickness and healing, I believe that prayer, positive affirmations, meditation, diet, and interpersonal support, can be factors in restoring us to well-being. At the very least, a perceptive pastor is challenged to raise the issue of healthy living, and simply invite her or his congregation to transformed lifestyles. Of course, we preachers must also take heed of the counsel “physician, heal thyself,” as we look at our own lifestyles.

Paul’s Corinthian counsel is a bit confusing. Is Paul advocating some form of mortification of the flesh, a severe asceticism, aimed at “punishing the body?” If so, we need to disregard his counsel – there are enough religiously-inspired behaviors that are harmful to people’s physical lives without adding one more. With W.H. Auden, we need to “love God in the world of the flesh.” We need to honor our own incarnation of divine handiwork; after all, as Paul says earlier in Corinthians, the body is the temple of God’s spirit.

I think Paul is advising us to be mindful of embodiment and to treat our bodies in such a way that they enhance rather than detract from our relationship to God. Paul gives us no explicit counsel here, but once more, we can take seriously healthy diet, moral behavior, meditative practices, and affirming touch as part of a recipe for supporting our spiritual lives. We can use our bodies for love and fidelity, not alienation, objectification, and disingenuousness.  

Psalm 30 rejoices in restoration to well-being. It is clear that the Psalmist is wrestling with the realities of illness: the Psalmist perceives illness as a form of divine absence. He feels abandoned by God amid the struggles of his illness. It can almost appear that God is the source of illness. But, the Psalmist rejoices that God is ultimately the source of restoration, renewal, and refreshment.

Like Elisha, Jesus encounters a man with leprosy. Given his standing as a social outcast, moral inferior, and theological sinner, the man is both reserved and bold in his encounter with Jesus. Rather than shouting, as social convention demands, “unclean, unclean,” he assertively begs for a cure. “If you choose, you can make me well.” Jesus responds to his call, stretching out his hand – breaking down social mores relating to “untouchables” – and cures him of leprosy. “I choose. Be clean.” Cleanliness embraces his social and religious standing, as Crossan asserts, but it also cures his leprosy. Jesus risks his own social and religious cleanliness to bring the energy of healing touch to this man.

Such cures, as well the gospel emphasis on Jesus’ healing ministry, can’t be ignored or minimized by suggesting that they are spiritual metaphors or parables. They beg the following questions: Can we affirm healing and curing without supernaturalism? Can we assert that Jesus touched and transformed people without succumbing to scriptural literalism? Could it be that Jesus was so connected with the primal energies of the universe that he could convey powers greater than the average human life? Could Jesus’ touch be catalytic for cells as well as souls, and neither be arbitrary nor alien qualitatively to cause and effect relationships? Are there deeper laws of nature than the everyday?  If so, can we be part of Jesus’ healing ministry today? What greater works does Jesus call us to today?

In many years of practicing healing prayer and laying on of hands, I am convinced that our touch and prayer can be life-transforming. Nevertheless, many of those I have touched, anointed, and prayed for continue to live with chronic illness or have died. This does not deter me from practicing healing ministry. I assume that healing practices can be a tipping point among the many factors influencing a person’s health condition. Moreover, I believe that our prayers create a field of resonance that enables God’s aim at wholeness to be more effective in people’s lives: this can be a factor in prevention and curing of illness and astounding recoveries. It can also soothe and encourage those who will never get well.

Today’s focus on healing and curing can be a catalyst for a lively congregational discussion about the power of prayer, televangelists, and what we can expect from God and ourselves. While avoiding supernatural interventions and arbitrariness, we can remain open to prayers and practices that nurture well-being, prevent illness, and help persons die with a sense of peace. If your congregation is involved in a healing ministry or is considering initiating such as ministry, theological education is necessary both in sermons and in workshops. (For more on the healings of Jesus and congregational healing ministry, see Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice; Abagail Evans, The Healing Church; Morton Kelsey, Healing and Christianity; Tilda Norberg and Robert Webber, Stretch out Your Hand; Agnes Sanford, Healing Light.)

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.