Among many others I have long believed that, although the 7 sacraments share several traits in common, the one most often unappreciated is that all of them are about healing. So to-day’s gospel may be frequently associated with Holy Unction and ministration to the sick and dying, but not with Penance, Holy Matrimony, and the other sacraments. Still, healing is exactly what we are about here because healing is a prominent theme in every sacrament. It’s what God does for us when we receive the Holy Sacraments. Bap-tism by water is a healing grace that drowns sin. Holy Eucharist restores us to communion with God. And Penance, if practiced aright, restores us to the family of God. Indeed, each of the sac-raments is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace that heals us and restores us to healthy relationships with God and each other. We don’t claim that they are a cure for sin and that having received them we never sin again. What we do say is that they unite us to God in a mysterious way and that, despite whatever sins we may later commit, they mark us as Christ’s own forever. I think early theologians got it right when they said that the sacraments are ‘medi-cine for the cure of souls’ and that, like other medicines, their effect is enhanced by centered prayer and other spiritual disciplines.
Nowadays, in addition to sacramental ‘medicine for the cure of souls’, Western biomedi-cal resources and technologies for both curing and caring have never been more advanced. In the US we have the most sophisticated, and also the most costly, medical instruments of any country at any time in the history of the world. At the same time, as media frequently remind us, the practice of American medicine faces several crises. Among the most urgent is simply accessibi-lity to physicians and hospitals – and following closely is the fair distribution and allocation of medical services. Another is the disproportionate delivery of sophisticated medical instruments in increasingly widespread systems of managed care. In NC we are currently watching with more than casual interest the proposed massive merger between the UNC and Carolinas Health Care systems. Will this be just a giant monopoly for half of our citizens or will it actually provide bet-ter and cheaper medical care – and most important, the health and well-being of our friends and neighbors? We are confronted nationally with opioid abuse and medicine’s role in the needed steps to correct and curb our addiction to drugs – and with the immediate and future fate of the Affordable Care Act and the far-reaching implications of its retention or modification or elimina-tion for the well-being of millions of Americans. If we amplifying these and similar issues to in-ternational scale – to consider world hunger, ravaging diseases, and illness-inducing behaviors – we only increase the scale and the stakes.
Perhaps I should tell you that, since well before popular interest in medical ethics became front-page news, I have had a longtime engagement with medicine, ethics, and public policy. For the past 50-60 years I have marveled at the astonishing technical achievements of Western medi-cine and had a lover’s quarrel with much of it – disputing the simplistic notion that scientists are question-askers and theologians are answer-givers and arguing for conversation rather than con-troversy. The historic clinical issues range from abortion and the ‘right to life’ to death and care of the dying – but as recently as the 20th c. scholarly resources consisted mainly of ancient secular wisdom together with some scattered ecclesial opinions by RC priests, and a mid-20th c. book on Jewish medical ethics. So although the present status of medical ethics dates from the mid-20th c., its genesis is many centuries older. Now that I am an octogenerian, I have deeply personal as well as professional interest in these matters. But my reason for mentioning some of the promis-es and problems of modern medicine is not to demonize them but to ask what they might have to do with today’s story of Jesus’ healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and the other sick people who were brought to him. This is how we came to be where we are.
Since late antiquity, when Eastern Orthodox Christians first established hospitals, religi-ous organizations have led the way in providing for the institutional care of the sick; so for mil-lennia medicine and religion were tightly intertwined. Just 60 years ago church-related hospitals were caring for more than a quarter of all hospitalized patients in the US although most religious-ly affiliated hospitals were identified more by their names than by the policies and practices of their medical staffs. That was the consequence of the germ theory of disease in the 19th c. and a scientific medicine that increasingly replaced supernatural explanations of disease with naturalis-tic ones. The result is what is called the desacralization of healing.
But at the same time the germ theory of disease was revolutionizing research and practice in Western medicine, faith healing was paradoxically experiencing a major revival – especially in religious circles which had traditionally associated miraculous healings with shrines and relics and pilgrimages. In 1964 our own Anglican tradition reaffirmed faith healing, asserting that “…all healing is of God – the work of God the Holy Spirit who uses Sacraments, the Laying-on-of-hands…priests, physicians, surgeons, nurses, psychiatrists…indeed, the Church herself, the blessed company of all faithful people – as agents through whom She achieves her will to heal”.
Meanwhile, medical anthropologists made important distinctions between what they call ‘disease’ and ‘illness’. In their definitions, disease is a biomedical condition that affects the phy-sical mass that is our mortal body, and it is either function-inhibiting or death-inducing, or some-times both. Illness, on the other hand, is a condition that disvalues and depreciates the person by causing disruptions in social relationships and the loss of meaning. So illness is different from disease precisely because it is not biomedical but psychosocial. It is the kind of social problem that in the NT is closely related to sin.
Along similar lines, many of us believe that there is an important distinction between cur-ing and caring – or curing and healing. Curing eliminates the cause of a disease – as an antibiotic like penicillin kills streptococcal infections. Healing, on the other hand, may or may not relieve the cause of a disease – but it can create the conditions by which a person learns to cope with dis-ease and disability and be restored to social relationships and a sense of personal well-being. So if illness is the condition in which you are bounded by yourself alone – collapsed in upon yourself – and isolated from others – today’s gospel story suggests that Jesus can heal illness by restoring a fullness of life that breaks the bonds of self preoccupation and opens up a world full of deep rela-tionships inhabited by love and compassion, mercy and peace.
How that happens is today’s story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. The sign of her healing is not simply that her fever vanishes, but that she is restored to her proper domestic posi-tion and begins to serve the people in her house. What her restoration suggests is that we are saved in order to serve – that we are made whole in Christ in order to be agents of healing in the name of Jesus. What kind of healing is expected of us may be an open question – but if Jesus has hands that offer healing, those hands are surely yours and mine. The familiar quatrain goes like this: Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work today; He has no feet but our feet to lead us in the way; He has no tongue but our tongue to tell us how He died; He has no help but our help to bring them to His side.
And there is also the irony that Jesus performs this work on the Sabbath. The original purpose of Sabbath-keeping was that renewal and restoration and healing of relationships would occur precisely as we take our place in the rhythm of God’s rest – therefore no work was permit-ted on the Sabbath. But Jesus sets aside that rule and heals this woman by restoring her to life in her community. Think about the implication for such a healing of persons living with AIDS – persons who may not have that disease cured but who may surely be welcomed into the commu-nity and healed of the illness that is social ostracism and estrangement. Magic Johnson, the for-mer basketball star, is a national example of such healing. The same can be said of those with cognitive disabilities, physical challenges, and chronic disease. They, too, can find healing – life and wholeness in a community that embraces them even when their physical and cerebral condi-tions are not cured.
If we read Mark’s gospel carefully, we frequently encounter what scholars call the “mes-sianic secret.” It’s in today’s reading when Jesus tells the demons ‘just be quiet about this’. It’s an admonition he gives to other witnesses of his miracles as well. They are not to tell anybody about what they have seen. Mark suggests by this silence that Jesus regards his miracles as a subordinate feature of his ministry and thereby corrects the false christological inferences that could easily be drawn from triumphal accounts of his miracles. His main purpose is not to per-form miracles but to preach the good news of the coming kingdom. Demons may truly recognize Jesus, but calling him the “Holy One of God” simply because he performs miracles is dangerous-ly misleading. To be sure, he is the “Holy One of God” – but more important than merely calling him by that title is recognizing, as the centurion at the foot of the cross did, that he is the Great Physician – the crucified Son of God – who, by his suffering and death, heals us from the most severe of all our maladies – our sins.
So the role of miracles in Mark’s gospel is larger than claiming Jesus to be a wonder-worker. Mark, like Paul, wants his readers only to know Jesus crucified and risen. And that means we can look back, as it were, and see all of his extraordinary healings not simply for what they are in themselves but as glimpses that anticipate the permanent healing secured for us on the cross. The single healings, in other words, are prefigurations of the ultimate messianic miracle of the cross and resurrection. And that makes the miracles in the gospels preliminary acts that fore-shadow the greatest of all acts of healing. What Mark most remembers about Jesus is that he was able to help people – to heal them and make them whole – so his principal message is that restora-tion to wholeness is Jesus’ saving work.
All of us are familiar with a supposition which many of us make when we read or hear about miracle stories – namely, that the recipient of the miracle sincerely and deeply believed – and that it was belief that helped make the miracle real. Matthew frequently makes this attribu-tion – a paralytic is healed when Jesus sees the faith of his friends and a hemorrhaging woman is healed when Jesus says ‘your faith has healed you.’ So there are places in the New Testament where Jesus is reported to have said, “their faith (or your faith) has made you whole” – but neither story in today’s gospel makes any mention of anyone’s faith – which may be why my scripture teacher in seminary concluded that the gospel miracles in Mark are just to be taken straight, like good Bourbon, he said, because ‘I believe, Lord, help my unbelief’ is our perpetual condition. We surely ought to use what little faith we have – but even without faith we may still receive God’s blessing and be blessed like Peter’s mother-in-law. She didn’t ask to be cured of her fever or give any indication that she believed Jesus could restore her to health. But God has bound himself to us as ‘medicine for the cure of our souls’ – and Jesus can transform us into God’s friend – just as he took that woman’s hand and cured her of fever.
I would expect that losing your rector of 3 decades is a painful, dislocating, and stressful experience. And now you anticipate Fr. Remer’s arrival as your Interim Rector – and the serious business you face of discerning God’s will for the continuing ministry and witness of St. Timo-thy’s church. I have served as an interim rector and I have a sense of the wonderful challenges that are before you – so if I may, I’d suggest 3 simple take-away points that Mark offers in to-day’s story that, if implemented, would help make that task a bit easier and St. Timothy’s an even more vibrant and serving congregation. First, today’s gospel reading makes clear that when we pray for healing it’s not our faith but God’s mercy that makes us whole, so don’t be paralyzed by your lack of faith. Second, so long as we can accept ‘no’ for an answer, nothing important to us is too small or trivial to evoke God’s concern as well, so go ahead and petition God about your most fundamental concerns and count on his mercy. And, finally, remember that we are healed in order to serve, and that God expects us to demonstrate that healing in acts of service in and to the community.
I bid you, then, to pray that God will set us free from the bondage of our sins and give us the liberty of that abundant life which he has manifested to us in his Son our Savior Jesus Christ. And give thanks to God – Deo gratias – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.