To Be Healed: To Be Saved

A sermon preached by The Rev. Canon Lance Beizer

At St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut

June 20, 2010

Today’s story of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac – that is, the man of the gentile area known as Gerasa who was plagued by a legion of demons is one of a number of healing stories in the gospels – stories that can be taken as examples of the wonders that Jesus was able to perform because of his status as the Messiah, or that his disciples were themselves able to perform once he was gone. That would be the easy way to deal with them, and I’m not about to suggest that it would be improper to do so. Although this particular story comes from Luke’s Gospel, I’m reminded of the insistence in John’s Gospel that Jesus’ miracles were more than mere miracles – that they were signs for those who witnessed them that he was in fact the Messiah.

However, for me, this healing story also provokes a question that has been for years at the core of my Christianity. Now that Jesus is no longer with us physically, but instead has become the Risen Lord, will he heal everyone who calls on him today? Can we who follow him perform our own healings? Much depends on what we mean by the word “healing.” Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church have healing rites, with anointing and prayer. I belong to the Order of St. Luke the Physician, which, though founded by an Episcopalian in the 1930s, is now ecumenical. Members believe that prayer can aid in physical and emotional healing. Unlike Christian Science, however, the order teaches that God also works through physicians.

Some Churches, which are less-dogmatic descendants of Christian Science, like Unity and the Church of Religious Science, permit members to visit doctors but train practitioners, like those of the Christian Scientists, and teach that, when you pray in a way that is what they would describe as scientific, designed to tap into the divine power available to all of us, you are bound to reap the benefit you seek. Unfortunately, some folks’ aspirations aren’t really awfully high. One woman I used to know from that religious tradition had as her highest prayer goal always having a parking space at the theater or supermarket.

There are also those Churches that are more evangelical in nature and have spawned well-publicized healers like Oral Roberts and Kathryn Kuhlman. Although both of these individuals had massive followings, but also many detractors, it seems pretty clear that at least some of their claimed healings were genuine. Others, of course, have been shown to be nothing but frauds – I remember one, Peter Popoff, who had an earpiece through which he got messages about people in his large audience who had conditions that might be easily dealt with by suggestion. However, some years ago, while I was on the staff of the University of California, San Diego, in the early ’70s, I had a friend who was an accountant at the school. He was from Ohio originally, where he had been raised in the Foursquare Church, created in 1922 by Aimee Semple McPherson, surely one of the most colorful of all of America’s rich history of religious characters. This Church, evangelical and Pentecostal in nature, teaches spiritual healing. My friend became a young pastor in one of their congregations, and began to conduct healing services. Despite his training, he was actually both surprised and a bit frightened when some people did indeed respond to his prayer. He was overcome by a sense of personal responsibility for those who were healed, but also filled with anxiety because not everyone was healed – at which point he decided that accounting was a far more appropriate career path for him.

So it is clear that prayer can bring about physical healing, but we also have to admit that not everyone is physically healed through our prayers. We can ask for healing, but it is God’s decision whether to heal or not. And how. Any teaching that suggests that, if you pray in a particular way, God has to respond favorably has the unfortunate implication that we humans are in charge, not God. It depicts God as sort of a candy vending machine that simply has to deliver what we want so long as we put the right amount of money into it and push the right button.

The stories of two people I have known can give us some guidance in the question of whether Jesus does heal today. Marty was one of those folks who are truly salt of the earth. Not a rich, sophisticated Silicon Valley sort, he was, nonetheless, a hard-working, computer-savvy techie, who was, with his wife Margaret, a member of a church I once served. He was, moreover, the sort of guy who could always be counted on not only to do his job well, but also to volunteer for anything the church might need done. A good guy, the kind, frankly, that every church needs. And both he and his wife cared deeply about others. So when one of the lay members of our church and I put together a chapter of the Order of St. Luke, he and Margaret were quick to say that they wanted to be part of the group. They were faithful participants in the weekly study group the dozen members of our chapter attended in order to become full members of the Order, and then, about a third of the way through – it takes about six months—we were shocked to hear from Marty that he had just been diagnosed as having a cancerous tumor that pressed up against his liver.

Yet he continued faithfully to attend our meetings, and, while we were completing the course, we began to pray in earnest for him – a powerful experience for us all. Despite his condition, Marty and Margaret regularly staffed healing stations after the regular Sunday services had ended so that they could pray for the healing of other members of the congregation who requested prayer. Marty also came every Wednesday morning to a healing Eucharist service and we continued to pray for him there.

You want to hear that Marty’s cancer disappeared. I certainly wanted to hear that his cancer disappeared. Alas, I can’t tell you that it did, since he died just a year or so later. So, we may well ask, what good was all that prayer?

First let me also tell you about Mary, another member of our group. She had had a massive stroke just a few years before, which left her in a coma for a couple of months. She, too, had had a profusion of prayers uttered on her behalf during that period. As she tells her own story, she had the sensation while she was in the coma of being on Heaven’s porch, looking in at it through a window, but she didn’t enter, though she really wanted to, because she was told that she had more to do back here. And back she came. Not, I must admit, without continuing problems caused by the stroke, but back – and productive (she was actually the church secretary for a long time), also regularly praying for others and staffing the healing stations.

I suppose one could argue that prayers helped one, but not the other. But it was clear to those of us who were close to them that prayer continued to be an important part of the experience of both Marty and Mary. Furthermore, from their prayer lives, both contributed enormously to the lives of others around them, not the least of whom were their fellow participants in the Order of St. Luke. No, Marty didn’t live another twenty years, but through his ever-deepening prayer life and the sense of meaning and purposefulness in his own life in those last couple of years he’ll have a positive affect on many, many people for a lot more years than those that he lost.

The value of our lives is determined ultimately not by how long we are able to hang on to them but by what we do with them. So let’s not be discouraged if we don’t see physical miracles when we pray for someone. Prayer is a way for us to come into God’s presence, and I believe that intercessory prayer helps to bring others with us. Healing is not always physical. The Greek word for “healing,” also means “saving.” Even in English one can see the obvious similarity between the words “salve,” something we might put on our skin to heal a wound, and “salvation.” So perhaps we need to ask ourselves which is more important to us – to be healed of our physical infirmity or to receive God’s gift of salvation. As humans we all have that which calls out for healing in our lives. And today’s Gospel tells us that it doesn’t matter who we are, Jesus, our Healer and our Savior, will be there for all who reach out to him in simple faith.

In his name, AMEN.

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