Tag Archives: healing

When disaster strikes

(Sorry, behind with this after a holiday!)

for a comment on Lent 3c gospel, see this page

“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
(1 Cor 10:13, part of 1 Cor 10:1-13, epistle for Lent 3c)

There is always some disaster in the news, and it seldom involves us directly. Yet when we do suffer, some react as if no misfortune should ever happen to anyone – and that is ridiculous. Of course we take precautions and try to avoid disaster, but life will always be uncertain and changeable. Some texts have little impact until circumstances change, and then we hear them in a new way. This is one

“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
(1 Cor 10:13)

An important text for anyone whose world falls apart, in any of the many possible ways, of which bad health is a common cause. What do we do about it? I’d like to repeat some of the obvious things:

It may be nobody’s fault – but do ask if that is true. If disaster overtakes you, take the opportunity to review – not just “Was it my fault?” but what was your life all about, and how does that match up with your Christian faith? If there are issues, then repent and confess them, so that they can be cleared away. That doesn’t guarantee cure or solution, but it will save you carrying guilt and remorse.

Do what you can, and not what you can’t. Recognise the limits on what you can do. Christian faith is not about denying the real limits of frail health or convalescence. It does not offer “magic” ways of avoiding pain, hard work, or the impatience associated with slow recovery. These things, however, can have a positive effect on faith, if people learn to live within limitations, to listen more, to be less concerned about “looking good” and “working hard”, and think more about God’s priorities.

Don’t stop practising faith. You still need worship, and prayer, and the support of fellowship, and teaching. In fact, these things become more important. You may not “feel like it” – but you need it! You may have to adapt; even to ask for help – lifts, handing over jobs, seeing other people take your place.

Pray – and not just to go back to things as they used to be!. Take away my illness? Sometimes God does that, but more often he heals in other ways –

  • it may be that he will heal the things that make illness difficult: impatience, pride, the need to “do” or “lead” or “succeed”
  • it may be that through illness you will find yourself more alert to other people, and better able to serve them
  • it may be that he will change your perspectives on life, and your ambitions
  • it may be that he will change your relationships with other people
  • it may be that you will learn to trust when you do not understand

– and I am sure there are other things.

“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
(1 Cor 10:13)

If your life is good and easy, then rejoice! – and don’t feel guilty about it. Just remember that it may change, but never beyond your capacity. If some sort of disaster does strike, you should know how to start dealing with it, and how to find help if it proves serious.

Generosity, groups and the Gospel

One of the things I value in Christianity, and in people, is generosity. Not so much a readiness to hand out money, as a kindness, a positive attitude – perhaps because I recognise an ungenerous streak in myself that I have to work on.  So it won’t be a great surprise that I enjoy Mark 9:38,39 at the start of this week’s selection (Mark 9:38-50). Unlike groups in his day, and ours too, Jesus refuses to allow a monopoly to “our group”. (It’s no use Joshua saying stop those 2 prophesying – Numbers 11:4-29).

Jesus explanation shows how it works – if they not only claim the name of Jesus, but are doing something good with his power, – then don’t stop them, they won’t be able to rubbish Jesus after that. There is nothing here about those who use other “powers”, some of which are forbidden to Christians. Remember that Jesus is the greatest spiritual power of all – a fact which is the basis of Christian healing, and indeed exorcism (when, uncommonly in British society, that is needed). Those who work as his disciples share in something great; those who will not (whatever they write on the T shirt or headed notepaper) are useless.

You might think the passage then moves away from generosity. There is a series of sayings about damaging faith – (the Greek is “causing to stumble”, a word that gives us English “scandal”). In fact, it illustrates “ungenerosity” to others, and to yourself!

So, to damage someone else’s faith is desperately serious
and to damage your own, no less so!

What could do that? Does for example you liking for sport limit the energy you put into living as a real Christian – then it’s time to give up sport! (A bit of exaggeration? Yes and no. Your ability to play sport will decline with age; even watching it will become harder. Your competence in Christian living should increase to meet the critical challenge of God’s judgement). You may be able to reduce your commitment to sport, but if not, abandon it in favour of living Christianity.

Maybe it’s not sport, but TV, or insistence on “time for yourself”, or laziness, or some sin like dishonesty, immorality, or pride . . Whatever gets in the way of living faith – give it up! It’s the seriousness of the issue we tend to avoid. It’s not about “our group” – church being nasty to sportsmen, or actors, or . . ; it’s about losing faith, and finding our chosen life in danger of destruction. (“Hell” here is the Jerusalem rubbish dump, where there were always fires smouldering to consume the waste). God’s generosity is real – he wants us to live well, and to avoid that with other priorities is not just foolish, but dangerous.

You don’t want to be counted (by the only one who matters) as “rubbish”, your chosen lifestyle down the chute? Then be serious about doing faith!

Faith is always about Jesus, not the claims of one group against another. But that is no excuse for laziness or inaction; this is more serious than your career, or your human relationships – it may direct and change both, so – get busy!

Mary Magdalene

[Mary Magdalene is traditionally remembered on 22 July, so many churches will replace the routine readings this Sunday to turn to her story]

The “Saints” in New Testament language are defined as all faithful Christians.  Still, we often use the term for those best known, perhaps for their place in the New Testament. These have a place in our education, as examples of the grace and work of Christ in believers, and of the diversity of vocation. They also challenge our limited horizons:
to those inclined to say “This is me, this is all I am ever going to be, and all I want from religion is a bit of comfort” they offer a resounding “NO” This may be where you now start, but by God’s grace you will grow into His purposes, as they did.

Mary Magdalene was “rubbish”: a woman, and one possessed by demons until Jesus freed her (Luke 8:2)! Yet she is remarkably honoured:

  •  she is mentioned as one of the group of women who followed Jesus. Indeed, it may be significant that she is usually mentioned first.
  • she is granted the first appearance of the Resurrected Jesus (John 20), and is the “apostle to the apostles”{a medieval term from several theologians}, sent to tell them the good news
  • she has a clear place in the gospel story – not bad for a nobody (and good reason for us to revise our ideas of who “matters”!)

But be careful not to get her story wrong. Dan Brown in the da Vinci Code took ideas from the Gnostics, (and their late and untrustworthy writings, the “Gospels” of Thomas and of Mary) that she was Jesus’ lover or wife, mother of his child/children, teacher of the apostles. Wishful thinking? Inability to believe that a close relationship could not be pure? Ben Witherington notes there is NO early historical evidence that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than disciple to Master/teacher.

But let’s go back to what we know with confidence, and ask “Why, or in what way, is her life an example for us?”

  • Firstly, she accepts what God does for her. Healing, change, becoming part of a new group (and no doubt adapting to it).
  • Secondly, she re-makes her life around God’s purposes. We can only speculate about her life before: did she have family (or had they given up?) Certainly she recognises the source of her healing, and she follows. A very important part of Christian life is finding where God wants to put us, and being content to work at fitting there.
  • Thirdly and very importantly, she invites us to look again at the way Jesus relates to people. He has funny ideas about who is important. He avoids making people dependant, yet is of first importance – to beggar, scholar, and fisherman.

Saints are useful to make us think of what God does, and wants to do, with his people. We need to be careful not to read into their stories what we want to find, but there is plenty here to instruct and challenge us.

Be a blessing!

[many will be remembering Mary Magdalene, rather than using the Proper 11b readings this weekend, but for Mark 6:30ff . .]

Look at Mark telling us of Jesus popularity! (Mark 6:30-34 & 53-56). People wanted to see him and be with him; he was ready to teach them, and they to listen. There was healing, too. No doubt they talked most readily of losing illnesses and disabilities – but there must have been repaired relationships, and redirected lives, as well.

So why is it that Jesus later loses some of this, and today’s church is not hailed as a great place to enjoy, to learn, and to find wholeness?  The gospel will explain how opposition to Jesus developed into a plot to kill him, but I wonder if we fail to take seriously our call to be a blessing?  We are given so much, and – yes – chosen by God. What for? Because we are superior to others? Don’t fool yourself – there are many who work harder, deserve more, have greater potential.

We are given faith, to share and be a blessing. We are meant to be built into a living Church – always difficult because if involves personalities – a Church to set about God’s plans for our local community and its people. Welcome is not a Public Relations necessity for “successful” churches – it is part of faith!

When it works, it is lovely – the picture of people gladly welcoming Jesus, and enjoying the healing he brings, is not outdated. It remains difficult, because we so easily want to be “better”, because we find it so hard to be a blessing, and sometimes find it hard to see how to safeguard that from those who might spoil it.

The answer is not theoretical, but a commitment to follow Jesus. I don’t know fully what he wants me to do, but I’ll make a start on what I know. I don’t know how it will all work out, but I will trust that it does, and see hope and joy in that, better than any alternative.

 

Are you receiving me?

(There is a dialogue sketch on Mark 6:1-13 available here).

How do you communicate with God? It’s a very personal thing, and should be. But it is also important, and so worth talking about.

People vary in the ways they relate. Some are more spontaneous, some more formal and organised – I remember a story about one person, who was said to pray as if he were addressing a business meeting, but – they said – that was all right because he talked to everyone like that.

The story of Jesus going to the synagogue in his home town (Mark 6:1-13) is sad. He is known to be a wise teacher and powerful worker of good miracles – but he is offensive because of his local background. Nobody suggests he has done anything wrong, it seems just to be that he can’t be taken seriously. It’s sad, because it means he can do little there – there isn’t the open communication, or the trust we call faith, which makes it possible to teach and heal.

But then the twelve are sent out on mission. Their confidence in Jesus has grown to a point where they can take a risk and try things for themselves. It will be an important leap forward in their faith, their understanding, and their communication skills. The instructions to take no provisions increase this – can it work? Yes, apparently God can do it.

So, how do you communicate with God? Is it a “wish list” of things wanted, or an expectation of emotions flattered and soothed? Is it about what you want, or is there a relationship where you can be honest about what you want and feel, but also listen for what God is doing and saying – even when that is not what you want to hear?

Are you like the locals, who didn’t want to take Jesus seriously and found excuses not to, or like the twelve, who (probably with very mixed feelings!) went and did what they were sent to, and as a result learnt and grew and celebrated?

Authority – and conflict

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do, and when Jesus goes to Capernaum synagogue, it causes quite a stir. (Mark 1:21-28)
First, there’s his style. He doesn’t talk like the rabbis of the time, quoting other scholars’ comments in a learned way, claiming the authority of their study and their official position. He talks about God as if he knows directly, and tells stories of ordinary life to explain God’s love – as a shepherd searching for lost sheep, or a father finding a lost son.

The official reaction might have been to dismiss an ignorant con-man, if it had not been for the second thing. Jesus demonstrates his authority, even over unclean spirits. You can’t ignore someone who successfully heals someone who was probably known in the community. You can see the beginnings of a conflict – Jesus threatens the status quo.

[Incidentally, we sometimes wonder about “evil spirits” and mental illness. The advance of psychiatry is a great blessing, and many of those obsessed with spirits and possession need a good doctor. There is a difference in this story, in that the spirit recognises Jesus, and has knowledge beyond that of the man possessed. Despite the “Hollywood effect”, (sensationalising and sometimes trivialising,) there is a difference, but spotting it needs care and experience, and discernment by someone who is not the patient.]

The healing of the possessed man also points to a more serious conflict – Jesus is taking on, not just the vested interests of the human religious establishment, but also the evil powers enslaving humanity.

Back to talking about God. Moses had spoken to the people about God (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), and they found him less frightening than the fire on the holy mountain. Deuteronomy speaks of another prophet, to speak for God. It is a dangerous position. The words of the prophet must be listened to; but to speak as if God had given the message when he had not is to be liable to death.
Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. !

But of course, there is a good deal about danger in these readings. As we come to the end of Epiphany season, we realise not only that Jesus was shown to the world, and became known, in a number of ways:

  • Baptism,
  • calling disciples,
  • miracles,
  • teaching,
  • authority . .

but also that these things brought him into conflict. Part of the conflict was with people who wanted things to stay as they were – because they did well out of the status quo, or were afraid of what might happen, or couldn’t be bothered. Another, and perhaps better way of understanding that conflict was to see Jesus challenging evil – the darkness of fallen minds and bad customs, the evil of oppressive relationships, cruel poverty – in short, challenging the devil for supremacy on earth.

The violent metaphors for Christian life – battle, struggle, temptation, victory or defeat – are not the most popular now. As we look forward to Lent, we will find that Christian life cannot do without them, though they are not the whole story.

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. Even apart from the need to get it right, it brings us into the most fundamental conflict of all!

Obedience

One of the issues not often talked about in Christian discussion is obedience. Who is Jesus, that I should obey!?

The story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:4-11) gives us some answers. This is the start of the Epiphany season – looking at how Jesus was “shown” to the world: first the Wise Men, then Jesus’ baptism, later miracles, healings, calling disciples . . But let’s go back to obedience. A lot of people will do some religious things – they don’t mind a bit of church, moral teaching, things to think about. That’s all very well for a start, but it isn’t Christian commitment, because that’s about obeying Christ. (Yes, I know there are questions about how your orders are delivered, but the first issue is whether you are going to obey orders, or simply think about them).

What makes you – what would make you – pledge obedience to anyone? For me, it would have to be someone very special, and someone who didn’t have a big head, or a threatening manner, or an urge to manipulate me for his/her profit . .   So look at what Mark tells us about the start of Jesus ministry. Does he burst onto the scene and say “I’m the greatest” “You’ve must look at me, take notice of me, do what I tell you!” – No, he doesn’t. Does he come and say “Follow me or go to hell” “I’m the only one who can save you from eternal punishment” ? No again.

Mark tells us how it starts (missing out the childhood bits). It starts with a messenger of God, preaching in the desert places – and it isn’t Jesus. Only when John has set the scene does Jesus appear. And what happens then? Jesus joins the movement that has already been started. He is baptised, showing his acceptance of what John has been doing, recognising that God is behind it.

And that’s the point. Just as John wasn’t out to make a reputation, so Jesus is not concerned with his “career development” and his “rating in the polls”. He is about what God is doing, and he knows what it means to obey. That’s very important.

If you have any doubt, see how, after he is baptised, (and has the dove and the heavenly voice), he follows the direction of the holy Spirit and goes off into the desert to be tempted / tested. Nobody’s idea of a fun time, no holiday, but Jesus isn’t committed to having fun. He is committed to doing what God wants, even needs, doing. He obeys

What would it take to make you pledge obedience, not just interest, and being influenced, and wanting to hear more. But – obedience? Would it be a saviour who is able to join what someone else has started, who takes orders himself (even when it means struggle and difficulty). Would it be Jesus, who is able to command your life – time, money, relationships, job, spare time activity?  Perhaps you are already there, and just value the reminder. Perhaps you haven’t thought of it like that, and need to look again at this saviour who is being shown to the world. Do – he bears a close examination. But have no doubt that what he asks of you is nothing less than the committed, obedient service – that he himself gave.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is not about self-advertisement or super-stardom. It shows even Jesus being obedient, and so calling for our loyalty.

Racist?

Was Jesus a racist?  It might not be question you would ask, but imagine a journalist today picking up Matthew 15:21-28 as a news item!  Jesus has come out of Jewish territory – perhaps deliberately for a bit of peace – and seems to ignore a woman asking for help. Worse, she is described as “Canaanite” – the name of the corrupt pagan tribe the Israelites had displaced during the conquest of the Promised Land.

This is not casual prejudice.  Jesus had sent out his 12 disciples (Matthew 10:5,6) “not .. to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns . . to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” The first call was to the people God had chosen for a special purpose – not all peoples were equal!  There was a reason, of course.  It was not some “superiority” in this nation, but the fact that their history should have prepared them for Jesus and his mission.

It is clear Jesus was not hostile to foreigners –  in Matthew 8:5-13, we had read of the healing of the (Gentile) Centurion’s servant, and Jesus’ comment on his faith.  Here again, we have, after hesitation, and conversation, healing of a “foreigner”, and at a distance.  I suggest the problem is not in Jesus’ behaviour, but in our question. If we fail to think, we assume Jesus must match up to our standards. In fact, the reality is the other way, and we must understand and adapt to his.  It is from his teaching and example we get the value given to other humans, including those of different race, language and culture.  All are valued by God, and the Christian gospel, preached first to those prepared by their history, is open to all.

At the same time, different cultures, like individuals, are not the same. Israel was chosen by God for a special job, and the gospel had to be preached first to them. The centurion, and this Canaanite woman, anticipate a later stage when all may come by faith to Christian faith – and there remains a distinction between those who do, and those who do not. Christian, and non-believer.

The fight against racism is a Christian one, reflecting the understanding that every human is made in the image of God, and is of value to him. None are to be dismissed or devalued.  But that does not mean that all cultures are of equal value – nor that ours is all good. There are parts of our culture that are thoroughly rotten. How do we judge them? Against common opinion? No. Against the standards of Jesus. If we lose the ability to tell the truth, that is bad. If we fail to care for the weak and helpless, that is bad – by gospel standards. In the same way, other cultures may need correction, not because we say so, or in comparison with “British” ways, but against the standard of Jesus.

Jesus wants to announce God’s Kingdom to his chosen people first – and that is right. If a centurion and a Canaanite woman are given faith to anticipate the situation after Easter, Matthew will record that to show his church how all are accepted by faith – but not to suggest that all people and all cultures, let alone all creeds, are equal.

I hope that you do stand against Racism, and make the effort to bridge the gap of language and culture to strangers. I also hope that you realise that cultures, and individual actions, are not all of equal value, and to be weighed not by the popular opinion of the moment, but by the teachings and actions of Jesus. Weigh actions by Jesus’ standard.

Gerasene demoniac dialogue (Pentecost 5c)

Some years ago I developed the idea of scripted dialogue in place of a monologue sermon.  It has some advantages – a conversational style, encouraging the idea of talking about scripture and its application, emphasising the relevance of text to contemporary Christian life etc.  This is a dialogue, for two readers in place of a sermon, which I “translated” from a sermon written previously, on the gospel passage Luke 8:26-39.  Comments welcome:

A It’s been quite a week: an MP has been killed, apparently while doing her job and doing it well; at the same time we are looking forward to an important referendum next Thursday

B and there’s a football competition, too!

A Indeed. You might wonder if that reading about the man Jesus healed in the cemetery has any relevance.

B It seems to me typical of Jesus that he is concerned about somebody that everybody else has given up on. There is no suggestion that anyone is looking after this man, keeping an eye out for him, leaving him food or clothing, but Jesus doesn’t bypass him and go to the “important” people.

A Yes, and that links with the MP’s murder. Jesus is reminding us that everybody matters to God, and should to us. All the groups Jo Cox was involved with, including minorities and refugees, but also Thomas Mair, however sad or mad he may be. We have to think about caring for all, not just the ones like us, or the easy ones. Jesus wasn’t afraid of dealing with someone demon possessed.

B Now that’s a question! Was he mentally ill, or did he really have spirits in him?

A Christians would have different answers to that. There’s no doubt that mental illness is real, and thankfully we are learning how to treat it successfully. If you know people affected, encourage them to consult their doctor, take their advice – and then make sure you don’t avoid them. Mental illness will affect a fair proportion of this congregation at one time or another. For me, after some years leading a Diocesan Healing and Deliverance Team, I am also confident that demon possession is real – but it has been uncommon in this part of the world. The team that clergy can consult is there to help, and some will need that help.

B So you are saying that mental illness is real, and demon possession can be, too?

A Yes. But let’s go on. Jesus’ concern for this man is not the only point here. What about the reaction of the local people to the event?

B They don’t seem very happy to have a local “problem” solved. I suppose the drowning of the pigs has something to do with it, which doesn’t say much about their values. I wonder if they also found the whole thing – well, frightening. Too challenging to their assumptions, and the accepted order of things.

A I think you’re right, though it is sad. They actually ask Jesus to go away because they are afraid – afraid of someone who has just restored a man they had given up on! I don’t know if there is something there about the Referendum – and no, I am not going to tell you how to vote. But fear is a bad motivation (and seems to have been used on both sides). It is also bad to think that, as Christians, we are allowed to cut ourselves off from other people. How best to move forward, for the good of all, that is the question.

B and we can’t make up your minds how that works out. Think, pray, and vote carefully. So, we’ve talked about Jesus attitude to this man, and then about the community’s attitude to Jesus. What about the ending; doesn’t Jesus usually tell people not to talk about their healing?

A Yes. When he is among Jewish people, he worries that he will be seen as a revolutionary leader – a “Messiah” in political and military terms, leading an army against the Romans – but here he is among Gentiles. He wants this man to be a reminder of the power and love of God, a testimony if you like. He is to live in the community that told Jesus to leave, a reminder of what happened, and how life might be different.

B So he is to do the things we are being encouraged to do now – live as a follower of Jesus, imitating his attitudes and actions out of gratitude, and ready to explain when people asked things like “What happened?” and “Why have you changed?”. I suppose that would have been quite challenging for him, as it is for us, but it certainly gave him something to do!

A – and it gave the people of that community a second chance. With the man living there, and staying in his right mind, they were going to have time to think again

B about the relative value of people and pigs?

A and about what Jesus could do, or what God’s plan for them was. I’m sure they didn’t think they were bad people, but they missed out in a big way that day, and Jesus finds a way to leave them a signpost, if they wanted to look for a better road. It would be sad to think nobody did.

B even sadder than losing the football?

A much more. Some of us believe in life after football, after all!
B Well, that’s our dialogue sketch on this gospel. It’s a bit of an experiment, and its not going to replace sermons, but let us know after the service if you found it helpful as a different way to reflect from time to time – and perhaps even as something to start you talking about scripture and how to apply it.

Deserving? (Pentecost 2c)

 

As I get older, I am reminded of the need to know what I am doing. It is too easy to “lose the plot” – a theme which comes up in this week’s readings. Paul (Galatians 1:6-7) seems to think the Church in Galatia may have forgotten the basis of the gospel, and coincidentally Luke seems to record a similar contrast (Luke 7:1-10).

Jesus is in Galilee, in Peter’s home town near the fisherman’s lake. There is a delegation of synagogue leaders, who ask him to heal the slave of a Roman soldier. This is odd. The soldier is not part of the Jewish community, and he works for the occupying army! But it seems that he has built their synagogue. To the Jewish leaders, he deserves Jesus attention and favour.

That’s not too hard to understand. There are still people in Church, and outside the congregation, who think God owes them a favour or two. That is wrong – because God owes nobody. And it has missed the point, which is a great pity.

Now look at the attitude of the Centurion:

  • there is faith. He trusts Jesus, to be able to heal, and to want to heal. He explains that he knows about authority – and recognises that Jesus has it, in a rather different way to the military.
  • But there is also humility, especially, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;” Luke 7:6 Unlike the synagogue leaders, this man knows he does not deserve Jesus favour. He has not “bought” anything with his gifts, except that he now knows where to look for help, and his own real status. And what is his status? He is a child of God, asking the Father’s help and love.

This is the importance of remembering the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus. What is that Good News? That God will give us what we deserve? – No, for nobody is good enough, or up to God’s standard. Nobody (including retired Vicars!) The Good News is that God does not give us what we deserve, but offers love, forgiveness and life for free – because that is the sort of God he is! The centurion had it right. He understood that Jesus might be embarrassed – or criticised – for going to the house of a foreigner, a Pagan, so he does not ask him to come in. He understood that he needed to ask, knowing he depended not on his reputation, but on Jesus’ grace. He understood that trusting Jesus was the way to get what he needed, and more. Some people still like to use his words as a prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Jesus was amazed how well he understood, and Luke records the comment, along with the fact that the slave was healed.

That is the gospel: because of Jesus, God’s love is offered to us, as freedom, forgiveness, healing, new life – all the things we need, (though not always what we think we want!). The synagogue leaders, and some people in Galatia, got that wrong, which was dangerous. It risked losing the benefit – or perhaps even worse, stopping other people enjoying it. It is still important to know what Jesus offered, and how to help people get it!