Called to be channels of God’s healing touch
Third Sunday before Lent, 16th February 2003
I want this morning to reflect on the Gospel reading we have just heard (Mark 1:40-45).
We have heard the story of a leper. It is a simple story, a brief story. We may wonder at it, at its immediacy, at Jesus’ immediate and total response. A man comes to him. He is in profound need. The man knows his need, and he knows that Jesus can resolve it. And Jesus, seeing the need and the confidence in him, ‘stretched out his hand and touched him… Immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.’ Straightforward and yet, as any health professional will tell you, extraordinarily unlikely in the normal scheme of things. So we are faced with a very vivid picture. An ordinary situation that is transformed by an encounter with Jesus, an encounter that is not simply spiritual, it is not about the promise of salvation, but entails Jesus touching the diseased man.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, and of learned theologians, and of the teaching of the Church, we may also want to say that this is about something greater than just a momentary restoration of health to an individual. Indeed Mark himself uses the idea of secrecy throughout his Gospel to tell us that there is a purpose to the story for which we need to see the whole picture and not just the individual constituent parts. Nonetheless, this story and all the others, stand on their own and tell us something vital about the importance of Jesus and his ministry.
This broken world
Now as we begin to reflect more closely on this story of healing and how it relates to us and the life of the church, I want first of all to say to you that what became crystal clear to me, as I read and thought and prayed this last week, is of the woundedness of this world in which we live. Hardly a fantastic new insight you will say - it is pretty obvious even, whether we look locally or internationally, whether we talk about the suffering of individual people we know, or of military powers that are on the brink of inflicting massive suffering on people who do not deserve it. But in a sense, this world crisis we face today does sharpen up a more profound sense of unease about the health of humanity in so many ways. Whilst we gird our loins for war, millions of people are struggling with the HIV pandemic. Poverty in most parts of the developing world is deepening. Natural disaster and human conflict continue to devastate much of Africa. Issues relating to child abuse, pornography, drugs, alcohol abuse and racism - and many others - attack and undermine our society. Refugees are attacked and denigrated, and many others are scapegoated and marginalized. In our own city we are deeply concerned about these things, about the widening gap between the wealthy, confident, economically successful image we seek to sell, and the actuality of community life in the inner and outer estates, and indeed in other parts as well.
People not issues
And even as I identify these issues, I am conscious of the danger of generalisation - to talk of these as "issues" is to de-personalise them. At the core of all this hurt and brokenness are people - people who are wounded, people who are angry, people who are despised, people who are depressed and nursing deep guilt, people who have been rejected, people who are, or believe themselves to be alone and unloved. For them, all of them, and all the others who are simply struggling with the everyday issues of illness and stress and bereavement and anxiety and the breakdown of relationships, it is the touch of Jesus that could make all the difference.
The problem of stigma
Stigma is a huge problem in this world that loves to scapegoat - it is so much easier, and more reassuring if we can cast our burden of human weakness on to others we deem less human - gay people, asylum seekers, political tyrants, the young of today, the elderly, accountants, clergy, politicians… the list is endless and all-inclusive! Except that it is meaningless to the God of love, to the Jesus who reaches out and touches - for to God we are each known only by our name.
And that, my brothers and sisters, is what really came out of this very clear picture of the woundedness of the world. If the body of Christ has any meaning at all today, it is as the agent for the healing touch of Christ.
But we need to approach this very carefully. And the first task for each one of us to do is to step into that story. Every one of us carries a burden. Every one of us is as that leper was. He stepped forward to face Jesus. Can we strip away our veneer of decency and respectability to step out in his place, to come face to face with Jesus, for without that the words will ring hollow, full of the false piety and humility that we Christians are so good at: “If you choose, you can make me clean.” We must know and believe in the touch of Jesus before we can contemplate the call to be a community of healing, for the sort of community we must be is not self-righteous, judgemental and exclusive, but humble and penitent and welcoming, fully aware of our own shortcomings and weaknesses. There is a surfeit of pomposity, of rejection, of denunciation, and much of it comes out of the Christian community. We need to begin from somewhere very different - our own humanity. I need that touch of Christ to heal me, but I need to know both that I am with others who look for his touch, who know his touch and, through their own discernment of my need and their selfless love of me, can mediate that touch for me.
Acceptance is the key
You see, I believe that at the heart of the needs of the world is a very basic concept, which also lies at the heart of the ministry of healing, and that is acceptance. I must accept myself, I must accept myself with all my imperfections, knowing that Jesus accepts me and touches me. I must, as one touched by Jesus, accept the person next to me with all her or his imperfections; I must accept, I must welcome those who do not come directly into an encounter with me, with all the challenges they lay before me. Indeed, if we are truly to be channels of the touch of Jesus, the healing love of God, we must go beyond this. Acceptance is vital, but it is a cold and passive word (although it is not meant to be). We are called to embrace the other.
I simply want to observe, and I don’t do in order to appear critical, that this lays down a very serious challenge to this congregation and this parish. If we are to be a truly healing community, with all the breadth and richness that implies, then we need to work and pray very hard at it, because we are not very good at it at the moment. I would like to ask you to look around you between now and the end of the service - as surreptitiously as you feel you need to - and just ask yourself how many people out of the hundred or so here this morning you do not actually know by name. In fact, let’s declare an amnesty on embarrassment at not knowing names, and grasp a nettle. Be brave and go and speak to someone whom you don’t know after the service. I expect there will be a rush for the door now! I know that some people choose to come here in some senses to preserve some anonymity and I respect that, but I also have to say that if we cannot embrace one another in a small, Christ-centred community, then any wider ministry of healing will lack credibility.
St Peter’s ministry a network for healing
You see, as I reflect on the sorts of areas that we have seen develop over the time I have been a part of the life here, it seems to me that it very much is about being channels of Christ’s touch in the many different aspects of the life of this city centre, which is the context in which we are working. If we have taken a lead in helping the churches in the city to work more closely together, yes of course it is about efficiency and good management of resources, but equally it is about embracing those who are different in the very narrow context our Christian traditions. If we have, through the ministry of two outstanding priests, had a notable presence in the workplaces of many people in the city centre, it has been to open up quite remarkable opportunities for a healing touch with people who have to a large degree lost contact with their faith communities. If we are able to enter a partnership to use our built resources to support care for prostitutes, the possibility of Christ’s touch amongst one of the most despised and rejected groups in our society becomes a reality. And similarly, by making it possible for women asylum seekers to find guidance and support and friendship here, I hope Christ will be seen to be reaching out and touching and saying ‘I do choose. Be healed.’ If we come here to our common worship together seeking not so much to feel good ourselves, but to ask whether what we do meets the needs of others, then we shall begin to pray and give thanks with a true sense of Jesus in our midst.
I believe that we are called to be a community where healing can happen. We have begun tentatively to develop our healing liturgy - yet all liturgy should be that! But I would dearly love to see that monthly Sunday evening service become a major focus for all of us, both to pray for our ministry of healing, for all who are engaged in care (and isn’t that everyone), and for our own healing and the healing of the world. And there is no time more urgent than now for that to take priority.
Postscript: Not us but God
But let me just add a brief rider to this already over-long sermon. We must beware of assuming, expecting even that we are to be the agents of change and healing. Sometimes, probably the vast majority of times, our only role as we stand alongside our neighbour will be to join in the cry of pain, to hold hands tightly, to lament as the psalmists so often did. To know that one’s suffering is shared is to open the door of hope. To acknowledge our corporate powerlessness is to begin to create the terrain of openness and vulnerability in which our God, the lover of life, can begin the true task of healing.