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So Many Are Not Healed

Preached on Trinity XXI
Trinity Anglican Church, Lebanon, NH
Oct. 20, 2013

In our gospel reading today we encounter the second one of Jesus’s many miracles. We are probably familiar with it, having heard it many times before. But what are we supposed to take away from it?

Are we to see it as an example of Jesus’s compassion? You won’t get much argument there. As in his other miracles, Jesus encounters a person or persons in great need and helps them. Could we also see it as a strong argument in favor of Jesus’s divinity? Again, that certainly seems plausible. Not only has Jesus recently turned water into wine, but now he is able to heal with only a word. He can heal someone at the point of death, and later, in the case of Lazarus, bring to life someone who is already dead. If this does not bespeak divinity, it is at least a strong argument in its favor. We could also see this event as an illustration of Jesus’s words "ask and ye shall receive." Yet again, there is a lot of merit in that answer. After all, the nobleman could have said to himself: "Why make such a ridiculous request? This guy won’t help me." But he didn’t do that. Moved by great concern for his son and what he had heard about Jesus, he goes to him begging that he would heal his son. He goes empty-handed with a fervent request and Jesus grants it.

So we have several things we could certainly take away from this account, and I’m sure there are others. But instead of looking for comforting affirmation of what we already believe—or are trying to believe—let us pose a different question to this short reading. Let us ask: "why doesn’t Jesus answer all requests for healing?" Surely many Christians have asked this question, and perhaps we here today have asked it as well. Why does He heal some, but seemingly disregard so many others? Human beings desire to make sense of things, and really have difficulty accepting things that don’t have a rationale. We want answers that don’t challenge our cozy categories. So the answers to this question of why some are healed but many are not are legion, and they often come cascading from the mouths of would-be theologians who have figured it all out.

"If people had enough faith, they, or those they are praying for, would be healed" is a popular answer in some circles. This view often leads Christians who see no healing( in themselves or those they care about) to doubt their faith, or at least feel like spiritual failures. The advantage of such a view for its proponents is that you never have to describe what "enough faith" might really look like. You simply "know" after the fact that if someone was indeed healed, then "enough faith" must have been present. We all know that such a view is really problematic. Christians with great faith have suffered a lot through the ages—often more than non-Christians. They have suffered torments of mind and body and prayed for deliverance, and often none came. Paul prayed that the affliction which plagued him would be removed. It wasn’t. Did Paul as well not have "enough faith"?

Others might believe that people fall ill, or suffer in some other way, because of something they have done. Now there are certainly cases where a person’s lifestyle or bad choices do result in some sort of illness, even illness toward death. These are natural consequences. But the Christians offering the above view are generally pointing to some moral infraction, something that displeases God, as the reason God will visit a person, whether Christian or not, with some sort of illness. Really? This view is full of problems for anyone with any moral sensitivity. What horrible crimes were committed by the millions and millions of young children in Africa who have died from malaria? Do we really want to claim some connection between past deeds and the many horrible diseases that befall people? And there is the added difficulty that many people who are obvious evil doers are as healthy as a horse. No, these simplistic theologies will not do.

Other Christians will be more circumspect and say that we cannot know why so many suffer, including those who seem to be innocent of serious wrongdoing, but "God has His reasons." In other words, all of the suffering and death, its seeming randomness and meaninglessness, is God’s will. After all, He is in control and nothing falls outside of His sovereign power. Therefore, everything that happens to us is, by definition, His will. We need to tread softly here, and realize that there are Christian traditions where this view is intelligently believed and articulately defended. It is not appropriate here to mock or dismiss this view. But we need to be careful in espousing a view that seems to make God the author of evil, or, at least, someone who can be seen as aiding and abetting it. This view also seems to cast God as the heartless CEO who has no concern for what his company does or whom it hurts, as long as it operates according to his plan. But we know that this view of God as the aloof senior manager is quite as odds with the attitude of his Son, who, obedient to the Father’s Will, displays such strong emotions, from great anger to great sadness, when confronted by the pain and evil in the world.

So maybe, in the final analysis, we cannot come up with a good reason why Jesus heals some but not others. It may be presumptuous on our part to think we should require an answer to this troubling question. Quite a number of people have left the Faith over this emotionally fraught difficulty. Some become secularists and decide that the world is random and absurd and stuff just happens. Others (probably the majority of people) immerse themselves in the day-to-day, seek diversions, and try to avoid the issue altogether. Outside of Christianity, there are several options. One can heroically decide to fight pain and suffering with no assurance of ever defeating them; one can resign oneself to the meaningless of it all and just mark time; or one can take the Eastern route and see it all the evils of this life as an illusion to be transcended by an enlightened consciousness. There are probably other less benign options. But where ever one ends up on the question, what cannot be denied to the clear-eyed observer is that there is a lot of apparently meaningless suffering that is never eliminated.

So should we all just acknowledge that it is a fallen, broken world and get along the best we can? Is resignation the most prudent course? Should we adopt a version of Christianity that retreats from engaging with this hurting world in favor of an otherworldly escapism?

This is certainly not the way of Jesus or those who follow Him. We are to face suffering as Christ would because He now lives within us. He didn’t come to earth so that we might be afforded an escape route; He came that we might be reconciled to God and enjoy His life forever. The Incarnation is God’s definitive declaration that the world, including our frail bodies, is good and worthy of redemption. We are not souls trapped in bodies that will be gratefully discarded in Heaven. We are meant to have bodies and we will have glorified bodies at the Resurrection.

But in the meantime, we will endure suffering and illness; sometimes being healed, other times not. And in faithfully and patiently undergoing whatever we face, we may be able to join Paul in saying with conviction that "I consider our present sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed." (Rom. 8:18) This belief is not just some sort of optimism on Paul’s part, a manufactured hopefulness just resting on itself. It is rather based on what God has done through His Son. Because "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. 15: 20-22)

"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20)

Jesus brings us life for He is the Lord of Life. In the short passage from John we read for today, the word "lives" occurs three times. Jesus brings life to those who call on His Name. We hope for this not simply in a wistful way that looks for some heavenly harmony beyond the world. Rather, we hope for this because of something that has happened within our created world. It is not something humans have come to figure out, but something God has done, what the theologian Karl Barth called a "new and unheard-of manner of reckoning." This new and unheard-of thing is, of course, the Incarnation of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, his suffering on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.

We, as Christians, can only consider our suffering, and the suffering of all creation, in light of the Cross. It is God’s answer to the brokenness of our world. It is God’s answer to the apparent meaningless of suffering and death. It is God’s answer to what appears to be the colossal waste of human life and potential. For in Christ, everything is gathered up, offered to God the Father, and transformed to glory. Nothing is left out. Nothing is wasted. To say that "all things work for good" as Paul does in Romans 8:28 does not mean that everything is just fine. It is does not require us to say that suffering has meaning, or that evil serves a purpose, Rather, evil and suffering are changed. They are converted. Things that seem meaningless can be made meaningful by the power of God—the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.

This side of heaven we cannot see the glorious use to which God will put all that seems useless. We only know that if we take all that we have: our virtues, our vices, our goods, and our ills, and offer them to God, He will transform them. We cannot yet see what He will make of them, but we know that nothing will be wasted. This is our hope. This is the light in which we consider the sufferings of the present time. And our hope is based firmly in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. God give us grace to follow Him to glory.

Robert Philp

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