Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Illness and Wholeness and Jesus

I've been reading a lot about Jesus healing people this week, as I prepare for a sermon on Mark 1:29-39. This is the story of Jesus healing Simon's mother-in-law, falls directly on the heels of the story of how he cast an evil spirit from a man in the synagogue and in the same day at sunset healed crowds of people who gathered at his door after hearing about the two miracles above.

I have heard many commentators talk about how healing people of their diseases not only healed their physical ailments but also restored them to their place within family and society. No longer are they outcasts, but whole members of society. I myself have preached something similar - I remember a particular sermon about the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34 which had those kinds of overtones.

A preaching blogger, Sarah Heinrich said this:

...illness bore a heavy social cost: not only would a person be unable to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but their ability to take their proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of a household, town, or village, would be taken from them. Peter's mother-in-law is an excellent case in point. It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.

I suppose all of this is true, but these days there is something about that which does not sit quite right, especially as I consider preaching this message in a contemporary context. It is equally true now as then that illness and disease cuts people off from their callings and roles. it is equally true that people with illnesses - whether they be mental or physical - struggle with questions of identity, self and relationship to community, when they are unable to fulfill what has been set before them because of their illnesses.

Another blogger, Brian Stoffregen, asked this question:
How do we proclaim Jesus' power to heal that takes seriously both these biblical passages of healing and the present reality that mental and physical ailments are not usually instantly removed through prayer and evoking Jesus' name and power over the ailments?
Exactly! We do not (usually) have the miracle of healing available to us and yet I believe that the text still has power because of how Jesus responded to people who came to him in their illness. It is important that he did respond. Although in their communities, these individuals may not have had value, may have been untouchable, to Jesus their value was still clear and obvious. Simon's mother may not have been able to serve and care for her family and guests, as previously had been her role and perhaps even her calling. But she was still of immeasurable value, perhaps of even more value, as Jesus attended to her in a special way.

In life and ministry I have encountered or been in relationship with several individuals who have seen terminal illnesses or mental illness interfere with their ability to fulfill their passions and callings. These same illnesses often are isolating, cutting off persons who struggle with them from their communities and friends, making them unable to reach or or take initiative. It is incredibly painful to live with a longing for relationship and the living out of calling and to be trapped in a body that prevents it.

Fortunately we have the clear perspective of history. We, who are Jesus disciples now, are called to restore or maintain the ill person’s role in community. Unlike the crowds and the families of lepers and diseased persons in Jesus' milieu, we can see the value in friend and stranger whose illness can be a dividing wall. We are not able to perform miracles, but we can offer the gift of time and presence. We can offer the intentionality of looking through the eyes of Christ instead of the eyes of the crowd.