When Mark suggested that I might like to come and preach here at All Saints, I was very pleased to accept the invitation. When he told me that the subject was “What would Jesus say to the sick” I was even more pleased and also a little daunted. I was pleased because this is a subject that is very close to our family’s heart, and daunted because there is so much that I could say that I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit it into one sermon. With that in mind, I’m afraid there’s no introductory joke or easy way in this week, we’re going to dive straight into the deep end.
In thinking about what Jesus would say to the sick, it seems to me that we have two tasks. The first is to hear and understand what Jesus is saying and then to work out how to say those things to others.
The first thing that Jesus would say is that God loves us. We were created by God, not because God needed us, or because we deserved it, but because of the love of God. Throughout the Old Testament, the there is a phrase that is used over 2,500 times to explain why God does things. That phrase is loving kindness. In the eyewitness accounts of Jesus life we are again and again told that he had compassion on the people that he met, he loved them. In fact, why did Jesus come to earth at all, why would the Son of God come to live as a man and die a tortured death? Why would he do that? Because God so loved the world, because God so loved you and me. All of this is summed up by one of Jesus’ followers, one who knew of God’s love in his deep friendship with Jesus. In a letter he wrote some time after Jesus died John wrote this, “So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Why does God love us? Is it because of what we can do for God? Is it because we’ve earned it? Is it because we go to church, read our Bibles, pray our prayers, lead the worship, give our money away, preach sermons, help with mums and toddlers? No. All those things might be good things, they might be right responses to God’s love for us, but they do not cause God to love us. God loves us because God is love.
I have chronic lung disease, and there are times I ask God where he is in this suffering and what can be pretty horrendous pain, and especially when I have felt frustrated and powerless in my disease, thinking of myself as useless, unable to do in the sense that society values those who do. God showed me something that affected me deeply about this last year when I was in hospital, something that helped me see that God loves people for who they are rather than what they do or are able to do.
Opposite my hospital bed was a patient I will call Katie, a 44 year old profoundly disabled woman. I knew nothing of her story at first, all I saw was the lady looking after her, sitting with her, stroking her hair and telling her she was gorgeous, and loved. Here I got a glimpse of how God sees each and every one of his children. It’s like God was there, stroking Katie’s head, telling her she was gorgeous, and loved.
I got to know Katie and her mum over the next few days. Katie had had brain damage and muscle wastage all her life, she is so very tiny with arms and legs like sticks. She cannot talk, or walk, or eat. Yet her mum sits painting her nails and adorning her arms with bright bracelets. She spends hours singing to her and reading magazines to her, showing her pictures. She styles her hair and dresses her in beautiful clothes. She loves and cherishes her daughter and gives her life to her, self sacrificially. Her mum doesn’t see Katie’s worth in what she does. For her mum, it’s in who she is, her daughter.
God is like that. He sings over us, and sees us as beautiful. He adorns us with jewels and dresses us in beautiful clothes. For someone with chronic illness, it is very easy to feel useless, to feel like the world has passed you by, to feel as if you’re a spare part, simply a burden. But God doesn’t see you like this. He gives you worth, because he created you, because you are his beloved child. It can be incredibly liberating to live in the freedom of this, to know you never have to earn God’s love, just as you don’t have to earn approval from others or a place in the world by ‘doing’. You can be free to be yourself.
So the first thing that Jesus says to the sick is that God loves them. The second thing that I would like to focus on this morning is what Jesus says in the conversation that Paul relates in his letter to the church at Corinth. Paul is suffering. We don’t know what he’s suffering from, and it doesn’t really matter, in fact it seems to me that the lack of certainty allows us to apply it fairly widely. If you’ve got a thorn, you know what it is. It hurts and it stops you doing what you think that you ought to be doing. You’ve asked God to take it away and it’s still there. How are we to square this up with the statement that we’ve just made, that God loves us? Jesus says to Paul, and he says to all who have a thorn, “my grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”
I have found again and again that it is at my weakest that God’s strength and power seem at their fullest. Recently I invited a group of friends to a group to explore the Christian faith, and they said that without my illness they wouldn’t be there (my illness meant I was at home and able to form these relationships) and they wouldn’t have found the faith they did. This was God’s power at work, for I often felt much too ill to offer much at all, yet God gave me the vision and enough resources to do this, and this often involved asking for help from others, which is one way some of these friendships developed on a deeper level. You never know what God is going to do with your circumstances, but it may blow you away how amazing God is if you are available to him and let yourself be vulnerable to others.
What would Jesus say to the sick? Firstly, “God loves you”, secondly “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” Thirdly, “There is healing”. In the reading that we heard from the eyewitness accounts of Jesus life that Luke compiled, we hear Jesus giving his followers authority and power to heal diseases and then we hear that they went out and used that power and authority. People were healed. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he went around healing people. After his death and resurrection his followers healed people in his name. Physical healing was a sign to the hearers that the message of hope that Jesus brought was true. It was a sign that Jesus had authority to forgive sins, to restore someone’s innocence. However, whatever healing was given on earth it was temporary. Everybody dies a physical death. There is no exemption from this, we will all die. It is what happens next that is important. Jesus promised that those who trust him will live in God’s presence for ever, with no hurt or illness. There will be complete wholeness and healing for every single person who entrusts their life to Jesus. As a sign of this, there will be some healing on this side of death.
Something I saw as a teenager has always stayed with me. My cousin Becky had a problem with her eye and needed numerous operations to correct it. On one occasion her operation was just before we all went off to a Christian camp. When she came out of the op her eye was red and swollen, the stitches were still in and there was risk of infection, but she insisted on coming.
At the camp we bumped into an old friend, a pastor from Kenya named Daniel. Now Daniel was a guy who believed in the miraculous to the extent that he saw miracles most days, his faith was absolutely amazing. He saw Becky and said ‘what is wrong with that girl?’ He then told us that Jesus wouldn’t want her to be in this discomfort for this camp and asked if he could pray. When he prayed she opened her eyes, and the redness and swelling disappeared, and the discomfort had gone. In this case Becky still had her eye problem, there wasn’t complete healing of the condition, but of the symptoms for that particular time.
Similarly there have also been times when I have experienced healing. Times when my breathing has been freed up, pain has gone, and infections have disappeared in response to prayer. My underlying condition is still with me, and affects me often, but despite this I am a witness to God’s healing power.
What would Jesus say to the sick? “God loves you”, “My grace is sufficient for you”, and “there is healing”. So if that is what Jesus is saying, how does that shape our mission? In what ways are we to pass that message on, to say these things on Jesus’ behalf?
Firstly, we need to abide in God’s love and love in the way that God loves. As Mark said last week, we need to work from rest, not rest from work. In the same way we can only sustainably and authentically love from a place of knowing ourselves to be loved. In my ministry I have sometimes found that if I am entirely honest with myself I have been mostly interested in mission as a way of recruiting people so that I could feel less anxious about the fragility of the church that I was serving. The danger is that people can tell when someone is looking to use them or has an ulterior motive. We need not be anxious, we need to love as God loves us.
Secondly, we need to be vulnerable, to allow other people to serve us in our weakness. Jesus was thirsty so he asked the woman at the well to give him water. Paul was beaten and imprisoned in the city of Philippi. He could have prayed for healing, we don’t know. What we do know is that he sang hymns of praise to God, there was an earthquake, and that this made such an impression on the jailor that he asked what he needed to do to be saved.
“They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.”
Paul received the healing touch of the one who had locked him up before baptising him. If we are to be true witnesses to our crucified God, we should not be ashamed of our hurts and wounds, we should allow others to see our weakness, humbly accepting help, as it is in that weakness and humility that God’s power will shine through.
Thirdly, we should pray for healing for people. Jesus gave his followers power and authority to heal. The Holy Spirit is given to all believers, and gives us that power and authority. In my experience there are three things that stop me praying for healing for people. Firstly I don’t believe that anything will happen. I lack faith. Secondly, because I don’t believe anything will happen I’m afraid that people will think less of me. I’m too proud. Thirdly, and also because I don’t believe anything will happen, I’m afraid people will not trust God. I’m timid.
However, it is also my experience that when I am obedient and do offer to pray for healing for people, my faith increases, whether or not there is immediate, apparent, healing. I have never known anyone I’ve prayed for think less of me, they have always been grateful that someone has cared enough to offer to do something that might help. Thirdly, I have seen more increase in trust in God in people that I have prayed for, again whether or not there was an obvious healing. I still feel like I have to screw up my courage to do it, and I still fail to do so sometimes, but I am convinced that part of our mission is to exercise the power and authority Jesus has given us to bring healing to people as a foretaste and sign of the complete healing and wholeness that he promises, in his eternal love, to all who trust him.
What would Jesus say to the sick? “God loves you, God’s grace is sufficient for you, God’s power is made perfect in weakness, there is healing and wholeness for you.” It is our mission to pass that message on by loving from love, by being vulnerable, and by offering healing.