21 March 2008
In Numbers chapter 21 we read that, because their complaining, God sent a plague of venomous serpents on the people of Israel in the wilderness. When they cried for mercy, the Lord instructed Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up in a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by one of the snakes could look on the brass snake and not die. Now, the snake twisted around a pole is a medical symbol, a symbol of healing.
Jesus applied this story to his cross when he said "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … " (John 3.14-16a)
Earlier today, Good Friday, we heard Isaiah chapter 53, "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … and by his bruises we are healed." (vv.4-5). This is echoed in 1 Peter 2.24: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed."
Revelation 22.2 speaks of the tree of life, "and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."
Just as beyond the cross we see resurrection life in Christ, so to we also see healing. To develop this thought a little more, I would like to share with you this extract from Jürgen Moltmann's, The way of Jesus Christ. (Fortress, 1983, pp. 105ff.). (I have edited this to shorten it a little and to make some of the expressions in the formal translation from the German easier to read aloud.)
The expulsion of demons and the healing of the sick are the mark of Jesus' ministry from the very beginning. … The lordship of God drives out of creation the powers of destruction, which are demons and idols, and heals the created beings who have been damaged by them. If the kingdom of God is coming as Jesus proclaimed, then salvation is coming as well. If salvation comes to the whole creation, then the health of all created beings is the result — health of body and soul, individual and community, human beings and nature. That is why the people who gather round Jesus are shown to be not so much 'sinners' as sick. Suffering men and women come to Jesus because they seek healing …
… [I]t is only when Jesus appears with his message that the sick and the possessed emerge from the darkness into which they had been banished, and press forward to him. This is not chance. When the doctor comes, the sick appear. … In the light of the imminent kingdom of God, this world, which is in such need of redemption, appears for what it is: truly possessed in its sicknesses.
… [A]t that time disease bore the stigma of impurity [and] the sick suffered from cultic and social discrimination. To put an end to this discrimination was an act of social criticism …
… When God sets up [God's] rule over [God's] world, and the Creator has compassion on [the] creation, it is not extraordinary that the sick should become well and devils should be expelled; it is a matter of course. Jesus' healings are simply … 'miracles of the kingdom'. In the context of the new creation, these 'miracles' are not miracles at all. They are merely the foretokens of the all-comprehensive salvation, the unscathed world, and the glory of God.
Without this … context, indeed, they lose their meaning and become absurd marvels which can be forgotten. But in [the context of the coming kingdom of God] they speak their own language. They point to the bodily character of salvation and to the God who loves earthly life.
The lordship of God, whose presence Jesus proclaims and discovers, brings salvation. The particular characteristic of this salvation is 'healing power'.
… Every sick person experiences healing in a different way, because diseases and possessions differ. And the same is true about the experience of deliverance from affliction and liberation from oppression. It is only the summing-up which says that Jesus 'healed', and that with the lordship of God 'salvation' has come.
Salvation, then, is the summing-up of all the healings. Since it is part of the lordship of God, it is as all-embracing as God himself and cannot be restricted to part-sectors of creation. [Salvation] is not [only] 'the salvation of the soul', although of course the sick person's soul also has to be healed. [We cannot] exclude any particular earthly sphere from salvation, [calling it] 'well-being' or 'welfare' and subtracting it from the influence of Jesus' lordship.
… Salvation does not mean merely 'spiritual benefits'. It includes the health of the body. Jesus makes 'the whole human being' well (John 7.23). It is … wrong to push salvation off into a world beyond this one, and to limit its effects to an invisible life of pure faith, outside empirical experience.
Nor should we [say that healings are] signs of … the forgiveness of sins. The healing of the sick and the forgiveness of sins are [both] necessary, and the one cannot be reduced to the other.
At the same time, however much we stress the holistic nature of salvation, which is grounded in the power of God, there is a difference between salvation and healing which cannot be overlooked: healing vanquishes illness and creates health. Yet it does not vanquish the power of death. But salvation in its full and completed form is the annihilation of the power of death and the raising of men and women to eternal life.
… [T]he healings are signs, this side of death, of God's power of resurrection … Every healing is a living foretoken of the resurrection [through] the healing of [women and men] in their essential beings.
… Sick people are … healed; they are made free and well. At the same time the world is de-demonized; the [causes of sickness] are destroyed. Jesus heals the sick and symbolically liberates creation from the powers of destruction, which at that time were called 'demons'.
… The real theological [challenge] of the stories about Jesus' healings, however, is raised by his passion and his death in helplessness on the cross. 'He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, God's Chosen One' (Luke 23.35). But this is just what Jesus apparently cannot do. The healing powers that emanate from him, and the 'authority' which he has over the demons, are given him not for himself but only for others. …There are no miracles on the road of his passion. On the cross he dies in forsakenness by God and man. Or is this the greatest of all the miracles, the all-embracing healing? 'He bore our sicknesses and took upon himself our pains … and through his wounds we are healed' (Isa. 53.4, 5). This was how the gospels saw it. So Jesus heals not only through 'power' and 'authority' but also through his suffering and helplessness. In this wider sense of salvation as the overcoming of death and the raising to eternal life, people are healed not through Jesus' miracles, but through Jesus' wounds; that is, they are gathered into the indestructible love of God.
[The society of Jesus' time closely associated] sickness and possession. Today [such a] link would lead to a stigmatizing of the sick [that] would be in direct contradiction to Jesus' healings. When the sick are demonized—people with AIDS [or mental illness] for example—they are shut out of society and condemned to social death. Today it is precisely the de-demonization of disease which [may] be the first step to the healing of the sick … preserving their social relationships and … recognizing their human dignity. … [T]here are also … unjust circumstances which make people ill. … So it is often impossible to heal the sick without healing their relationships, the circumstances in which they live, and the structures of the social system to which they belong."
Jesus' healing, and healing by the Spirit of God, touches both the inner person and the life circumstances that contribute to an illness.
Yes, by his wounds we are healed.
I recently had someone ask me what was so 'good' about Good Friday. Which is indeed a good question! Because maybe the most shocking thing of all about Good Friday is the way it invites us to see death as both intensely real and shocking, but that in those real deaths also lie the necessary source of hope, for us, for new life.
Those of you who were here for the first hour you may remember that the refrain of the first Robin Mann hymn (TIS 357). This ended each verse with line : "when our life began again". For example, the first verse went :
When his time was over,
the palms lay where they fell.
As they ate together, he told his friends farewell.
Jesus, though you cried out for some other end,
love could only choose a cross
when our life began again.
"When our life began again". This elegantly points to the paradox that is Good Friday. Today is the day when the forces of evil triumph—the day when the darkness really does stamp out the light. Yet it is the very act of destruction that creates the conditions for the new life to follow.
There were many deaths on that awful day. While Jesus' physical death was the most obvious, in fact just about everything about his life went down with him, and I wonder whether maybe some of the other psychological deaths were worse.
I was mentioning to a lapsed Catholic friend earlier this week that one of the things about the Passion story is that we see Jesus confronting and enduring pretty much every one of humanity's big primal fears one by one. She hadn't thought of it that way and was clearly a little shocked as I went through these in summary form.
Jesus started off by facing what is perhaps the biggest practical fear of all—that of anticipating what is to come—in Gethsemane. Then he confronted about as directly as one could imagine :
Yes, Jesus died that day. Really died. It was the day His life began again. But there were other deaths too.
Most obvious maybe was the inner death of the old Simon Peter, the alleged 'rock', but in practice the thickest of a pretty thick lot of disciples, and the one who in particular never understood what Jesus was saying or doing. Nevertheless, up until Good Friday, Peter had had one great personal quality he could fall back on and define himself by—and that was his loyalty and devotion. It was Peter who had most loudly proclaimed at the last supper, and undoubtedly meant it, that he would never betray Jesus. And then he heard the cock crow. Surely something in the very core of who this Peter was completely cracked and died that day. The central characteristic that he defined his sense of self by, simply wasn't there in its time of testing. In the darkness, and in that fearful time, he collapsed, then snapped. But then maybe Peter calls down his fate upon himself. Remember that in St John's version of the Passion story we heard today, Peter says only three words, albeit twice : "I am not". The very form of that denial is prophecy. And if Jesus in St John's gospel is the great I AM then Peter's denial goes very deep: I. AM. NOT. On the day Peter's life began again. Just how Peter was brought back to life, is a story for after Easter, but for today it's his inner death that we should ponder. We should hear his grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying. Whatever our most cherished notions of ourselves and our personal qualities are, maybe what is most doomed for death, and maybe what needs to die if we are to grow. It is unlikely to be much fun though, nor will we almost by definition ever be able to choose it.
Then there was the quiet suffering of Jesus' mother at the foot of the cross. One of the most delicate and tender things about our gospel stories is the way that they do not intrude into the personal. This is at its most poignant when we ponder what must have been among the greatest deaths of all that day—Mary's watching her son being killed in the most agonising and humiliating way imaginable. It is almost incomprehensible that any normal mother could undergo that and come out not being a mental wreck. And for sensitive Mary, the girl who had talked with an angel and who had given birth to the Messiah? We often think of love as a support, something that will save us and provide us with consolation at times of crisis. Well, Mary's love, her all embracing mother's love, certainly could not save her that pain. It just made her more vulnerable to having a stake driven through her heart. But, then, it might also be worth remembering that she was pretty much the only person given any consolation on that day—and that was to be given a new son, John, by Jesus, at the foot of that awful cross. Maybe her pain was too great. On that day when Mary's life began again.
I'll leave you to meditate about the various deaths undergone by the other players in today's drama : Pilate and of Judas, of the young man fleeing in the night, of the Sanhedrin, of the crowd. The day when they found out what they were made of (or what they were not); the day when relationships were fundamentally redefined. When the darkness of evil rampant cleansed them of their pretensions. When, for better or for worse, their lives began again.
And for us? How do we, who were not there, but can have heard this story many times, respond?
When his time was over,
the palms lay where they fell. …
love could only choose a cross
when our life began again.