Those of you who have been following our sermon series: Christian beginnings, a journey through Acts, will notice that this is our penultimate stop along the way.
This morning we’re exploring, “Healing in Jesus’ Name”.
You’ll need no reminding by now that Acts is the second volume of the work we know as Luke’s Gospel. We know little about the writer of these two texts but we believe that he may be the man referred to at the beginning of Colossians, Luke, the beloved physician. Now, when it comes to matters of healing, particularly “miraculous healings” I would think that doctors are among the least likely people to accommodate belief in supernatural intervention.
And yet, it is precisely those who are most familiar with illness who have the greatest appreciation that understanding the body’s needs is not an exact science: every patient exhibits slightly different symptoms and responds differently to treatment and so, even in our extraordinarily advanced world of diagnoses and remedies “healing” is still an area which defies our complete understanding.
The more I think about what it might mean to be “healed”, the more concerned I get about creating an illusion that physical wellbeing is the same thing as wholeness – or that illness or disability is a sign that something is fundamentally wrong. We all suffer from one ache or pain or another and I suspect that none of us could claim to have a completely clean “mental health” record – it’s surely a matter of scale and definition…
Of course in biblical times there was a different understanding of disability and illness – not least because those who were unable to work or marry were in very real danger of becoming destitute, but what we must understand is that stories of miraculous healings were conveying a much greater message about God’s transformative powers than the suggestion that it is God’s will for each of us to have a perfectly healthy body or sound mind.
Last year’s Paralympics were an incredible challenge to any of us who may think that disability is something that requires “healing”. The most able-bodied among us are unlikely to be able to achieve what those top athletes could – even if some of our body parts do function better than some of theirs. And, of course, even the greatest paralympians are just as susceptible to human weakness as anyone else – as the ongoing trial of Oscar Pistorius illustrates…
So, let’s have a look at what Luke, the beloved physician, might be telling us in the two remarkably similar stories of healing, which we heard this morning.
In the Gospel account a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus by his friends and lowered down through the roof. In Acts the lame man is being carried by his friends to the temple gate.
In both cases someone’s life is transformed from dependency towards independence – the first is now able to make his own way home and the other can enter the temple.
We’re all so familiar with how demoralising it is to watch people moving in the other direction, from independence towards a growing need to depend on others. It can be one of the most difficult and potentially debilitating effects of illness, accident or just age and many of us fear this as much as pain… Clearly it won’t do to suggest that the power of God’s healing spirit simply leads us from dependency to independence.
But I think there are other ways of interpreting what Luke is telling us about the power of healing in Jesus’ name.
Here are two people whose lives have been determined by what they can’t do, they have been excluded from religious gatherings and presumably many other social gatherings. Whilst acknowledging the faith of the man’s friends, Jesus speaks directly to the person who is paralyzed – recognizing his humanity and affirming him in his own right. The movement here is from social isolation towards a new way of belonging.
Whether or not he is freed from a physical paralysis we can see the potential for understanding the power of Jesus’ healing as liberating people from the paralysis of social exclusion – something which can be addressed in many different ways when we value people for who they are rather than define them by what they can’t do.
In Acts, Peter mirrors Jesus’ behaviour – Luke chooses his words carefully, directly repeating the Gospel phrase, “Stand up and walk”… The man not only walks but leaps – entering the temple presumably for the first time and certainly for the first time under his own steam… No-one is beyond the reach of God’s life-giving touch, no one is to remain at the gates of the temple – the message of liberation is for all.
What I want to suggest that physical healing is just a sign that God’s kingdom reaches beyond the limitations that religion/society might try to place upon it. For Luke, God’s kingdom includes those who are paralyzed and lame – not as victims in need of healing but as full members of God’s realm.
The ministry of healing begun by Jesus, Peter continues. This is another important part of Luke’s intention to show that the leadership of the Way has passed with authority from Jesus to Peter and it will continue – even into this generation. Jesus’ authority has not been lost despite his death: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.”
Luke is marking an important shift in the power dynamic. It is not those with imperial or religious power who can transform and heal, but the one who has been rejected, publicly humiliated, even executed. It is the one who hung in shame on the tree, the one born crippled, the one who suffers some kind of paralysis, whom God chooses to bring about the healing of the nations…
Because in both of these passages we are reminded that the miracle is located in the wonder of those who perceive it.
In the Gospel we heard that, “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe.” In Acts, “All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit… at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.”
The word “miracle” comes from the Latin, “miror/mirari/miratus” – to revere, admire, wonder at. The miracle is not the act of healing but recognition that something extraordinary is happening.
I went to visit a friend recently. He’s been ill for a while and I’ve been saddened to see him struggling with his treatment and feelings. He’s just been told that the prognosis is not good. I expected to visit a broken man but instead I found that he had an aura of peace and light about him.
I can’t really describe it but some of you will also have been in situations which seem to go against the physical reality.
We don’t need to define a miracle as the work of a deity, breaking the laws of nature. We only need to be open to the wonder of God’s healing spirit which is already at work within us and around us. We mustn’t define “healing” in such a way that it becomes an event; healing is a process of becoming whole – something which all of us are undertaking.
I suggest that Luke’s purpose is to show that healing in Jesus’ name is a fulfilment of God’s promise of wholeness, this quality of life which transcends those things that threaten to paralyze us or cause us to stumble.
In Isaiah 35 we hear the prophetic call:
the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
the ears of the deaf unstopped
that the lame will leap like a deer
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy (Is 35.5-6)
It’s no accident that in Acts, Luke says that the man who was lame “leapt up”. This is not just a story about one man being healed but it’s an illustration that God’s Way of Life can break into our reality and transform it.
It isn’t straightforward and simple and much of the language of healing is fraught with ambiguity, but Luke is showing us that healing, in Jesus’ name, subverts the usual power relationships.
When Luke describes the man asking for alms he uses a word which can be translated both as a financial offering and as the mercy of God. He thought that he needed money but he received the gift of life. We don’t always get what we think we need when we pray for healing – our own or someone else’s – but God’s mercy is constant and probably what we are asking to receive is greater insight into how God is already at work in situations which threaten to paralyse us with fear or blind us to God’s mercy.
I wonder what holds us back from entering life in all its fullness?
Perhaps the powerful words that we heard in both our readings this morning are not meant for someone else, but for us: what might it mean for Jesus to speak to us and say, “Stand up and walk”?