Fr. Sean Kim
August 25, 2019
An audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for eighteen years. She has spent those long years bent over and unable to stand up straight. When Jesus sees her in the synagogue, he interrupts his teaching to call her over to him. He lays his hands on her, and she is healed. The woman stands up straight and begins to praise God for the miracle.
The healing of the crippled woman is one of many healing stories in the Gospels. Part of the reason why Jesus attracts such large crowds wherever he goes is because of his reputation as a divine healer, a miracle-worker. I don’t know about you, but I personally struggle with the healing stories. Every time I hear a healing story, I ask myself: Why don’t these healings occur today? Why aren’t the people that I pray for cured miraculously?
If I were a Presbyterian, I could provide a clear answer to this problem, but as an Episcopalian, as is usually the case with theological issues, I’m not so sure. As many of you know, I come from a Presbyterian background, and I know that my lingering Calvinist attachments have been of some concern to Fr. Charles. But I actually think there may be some other closet Calvinists in our midst. The official Calvinist theological position on miraculous healing is that such acts stopped or ceased with the age of the apostles. The technical term for this is cessationism – from the word cease. According to this doctrine, all miracles, including divine healings, are believed to have ceased with the age of the apostles two thousand years ago. In other words, Jesus and the apostles had the power of divine healing. We do not. The story goes that some people came up to John Calvin with a challenge. They told Calvin that the Roman Catholic priests were performing great miracles among the people And they dared Calvin to perform even greater miracles as proof that he was right and that the Roman Catholics were wrong. Calvin’s response: “I will not perform any miracles for you. The age of miracles ceased with the apostles. The miracles were necessary only to establish the foundations of the church. But since that time, the power to perform miracles no longer exists.” Many Presbyterians, as well as many other Protestants today, are cessationists. They believe that miracles existed back in Jesus’ day, but not now.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have Pentecostals and other charismatics who firmly believe in divine healing and other gifts of the Spirit. Some of you may have seen such claims of healings, what we used to call “faith healings,” on television or in person. The Pentecostals and charismatics reject the idea that miracles are limited to the apostolic age, and they believe that we, too, have the power to perform the same miracles.
When we turn to the Roman Catholics, we also find a spectrum of views on divine or miraculous healing. On the one hand, we have such phenomena as Our Lady of Lourdes. Countless pilgrims travel to Lourdes, France, to be miraculously cured by the healing waters, and there are many testimonies of healing. Yet, at the same time, the Roman Catholics also have a tradition of seeing illness and suffering as a virtue. Many of the saints who are venerated contracted devastating, debilitating diseases, and many died young, but their suffering is seen as part of their imitation of Christ.
Confused? So what should we believe about divine healing? What do we make of the healing stories in the Gospels? What is it that we pray for when we pray for healing? There is no clear answer to these questions in Scripture or tradition. But I would like to share with you some personal reflections on these questions. Going back to my Calvinist, cessationist background, I’ve come across some awkward situations in my ministry when it comes to pastoral care. Our Postulant for Holy Orders, Lynda Hurt, has just completed her training for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Saint Luke’s Hospital, where she served as a hospital chaplain. I did my CPE training a couple of summers ago. One day, I was called to the bedside of a dying man. His family had just decided to take him off life support, and he had just minutes to live. The man was surrounded by his wife and three adult children. One of the children, his youngest son, was very distraught, and seeing me in my clerical collar, he cried out: “Do something! Heal him!” I was caught off guard, to say the least, and before I realized what was coming out of my mouth, I blurted out: “But I’m not a Pentecostal.” Fortunately, the family did not kick me out of the room, and I was able to minister to them without any more embarrassing incidents.
As you can tell from this story, divine, miraculous healing has not been a part of my personal experience. My father died of ALS, and my maternal grandfather and mother both died of Alzheimer’s. In spite of all the fervent prayers that we offered up, they suffered terribly and died. Actually, in the case of my grandfather, my grandmother tried to cure him by calling in a Pentecostal healer to our house, but the only thing the healer managed to do was frighten my grandfather with her loud prayers and yelling.
So both my theological and personal background predispose me against believing in divine healing. I know of many Episcopal clergy who have had extraordinary miraculous experiences. I am not one of them. Yet, at the same time, I cannot subscribe anymore to the doctrine of cessationism, at least in its strict form. Medical science has changed dramatically over the years. We no longer believe, as we used to, that the body and mind are separate, and that healing involves only fixing the body. Today we have alternative medicines as well as music therapy, pet therapy, and a host of other ways to address illness. The logic behind all this is that the mind – and spirit – have a profound impact on the body. Healing is no longer just a clinical process treating the body; healing is holistic – it involves the whole person. You have probably heard of studies that show that people of faith live longer lives. So there’s an element of the unknown – mystery – behind healing and health. Then, who am I to deny that miracles can happen? Who am I to deny the countless testimonies of those who have been healed through the power of prayer? Divine healing may not be a part of my personal experience, but it is an integral part of the faith for many of our fellow Christians, perhaps some of you here this morning. We believe in an Almighty God, who can do anything God wills, and the very act of prayer is a request for divine, supernatural intervention. God can heal through natural or supernatural means. It is not for us to limit what God can do. When we pray to God for healing, we open ourselves up to the possibility of divine action.
In our prayer to the Virgin Mary, the Salve Regina, we speak of life as a vale or valley of tears – a beautiful, poetic expression of the trials and tribulations of life. Who is immune from sickness, accidents, and ultimately death? Life is filled with brokenness. But we need not despair. We have the promise of hope and healing in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Physician. As the crippled woman came to him two thousand years ago, let us also come to Jesus and pray for the healing of our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!