1st Corinthians 12:1-11
In the time of Jesus—“in the days of his flesh,” medicine was still in its infancy, and spiritual healing was important
Gentiles practiced spiritual healing. Aesculapius was the Greek god of healing, and temples erected in his honor were scattered all over the Roman Empire. Many of those who went to these temples and received healing erected expensive tablets in honor of their god. Few people would have done this had they not actually been healed.
What then do these pagan healings mean for us? At the very least they indicate the power of faith to affect our physical health, however well placed or however misplaced that faith may be.
Some years ago, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention caused a stir when he said that God did not hear the prayers of non-Christians, but Psalm 36 declares that “All people find shelter under (God’s) wings.” I have no doubt that God overhears prayers that are not even directed to him.
Spiritual healing was important to the people of Israel, too. At times they blamed illnesses on sin and sought relief in the temple, where priests offered sacrifices on their behalf. At other times they blamed physical and mental illnesses on demons and called upon Rabbis and Holy Men to cast them out. [Note 1:]
In the gospels, Jesus imitated the healing practices of his time. He did this when he cast out demons, and when he healed the blind man of Bethsaida. In the case of the blind man, Jesus spat on the man’s eyes and then laid hands on him, which was something Jesus’s contemporaries did. (Mark 8:22f). Of course, in the gospels, Jesus raised healing to new heights. He cleansed lepers, restored the sight of one who was born blind, made the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
On three occasions, the gospels report Jesus raised the dead. In Mark 5, Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus, taking her by the hand and saying to her, “Talitha cumi!”, which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” In Luke 7, Jesus raised the son of the widow of Nain when he stopped his funeral possession and touched his bier and said, “Young man, I say to you, ‘Arise!.’”Some people think that the boy was in a trance and that the little girl was “just sleeping,” as Jesus himself said she was. John 11 is different. Therein Jesus pointedly delayed his arrival at Bethany and allowed Lazarus to rest in his tomb four days before Jesus arrived to stand before his friend’s grave and say, “Lazarus, come out.”
That Jesus raised people from the dead is remarkable, but not as remarkable as the resurrection of Jesus. Those Jesus raised eventually had to face death, again. They were merely resuscitated, and modern medicine frequently resuscitates those who are pronounced clinically dead. When God raised Jesus, Jesus was not just resuscitated but transformed into a new order of life, which the New Testament calls Eternal Life. In his incarnation, Jesus tasted death for us all, then raised our humanity into heaven, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he might have preeminence, the first fruits of a great harvest, which will be made up of all who belong to Jesus. Jaroslav Pelican said, “If Jesus was raised from the dead, then nothing else matters, nothing else at all.” Eldon Ladd said, “The resurrection of Jesus viewed through the lens of the empty tomb is the massive sign that God has not abandoned us in our little world of time and space, but penetrated it, shattered it, and begun its transformation.” And James S. Stewart said, “The central business of preaching today is telling men and women that the same power that took Jesus out of the grave is available to us, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.”
Does this mean that we should look to God alone for healing? Christian Scientists think so. When I was at the Little Church on the Lane one of our members, a widow, had married a Christian Scientist. One night she called me to her house in a panic. I arrived as quickly as I could. Her husband had fallen into a diabetic coma and could no longer speak for himself. I told her that, as his wife, she had the right to call an ambulance. She did and that call saved his life.
Some fundamentalists think all healing should be left to God, too. Several weeks ago a friend told me that her son and his wife had refused the Covid vaccines because they wanted to trust “Jesus alone.” I suggested that she tell her children that, in the gospels, Jesus often worked with the medical authorities of his day. I told her how In Luke 17, as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance, crying “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When Jesus saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The priests were the highest medical authorities of that time. And the lepers went, as Jesus had commanded them, and they were cleansed.
When I was a chaplain at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, I read this story from Luke 17 to a woman from the hills of Kentucky. She was dying and had refused an operation that her doctors thought could save her life. Her doctor had asked me to talk with her. After hearing the story, the woman turned to her husband and said, “I think the surgery may be God’s will; I am going to have it.” I prayed with her and with her family and left the room. Her doctor and his surgical team were waiting in the hallway. I shook my head, “Yes,” and each of them greeted me with a smile. Her doctor even shook my hand and thanked me for the role I played in getting her into surgery. She survived that surgery and did well. UK was a secular hospital, but it felt like a holy place to me. [Note 2:]
The healing ministry of Jesus did not end with his death, resurrection, and ascension. In Acts 2, St. Luke tells us that it was the Risen Jesus who sent the promised Holy Spirit upon his waiting church. And in 1st Corinthians 12, St. Paul tells us that the gift of healing is one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives some members of Christ’s body for the common good. In other words, the healing ministry does not belong to any individual, it is a ministry of the whole church.
What kind of healing ministry do you expect from your church? [Note 3:]
In her book, “The Kingdom of the Sick,” Susan Dunlap describes three churches, all located in Durham, N.C., and each which takes a different approach to the healing ministry.
The first church is a Pentecostal church. This church is all about a cure. The care of the sick begins with a ritual in which the sick call for the elders of the church to come and lay hands on them and anoint them with oil. This church believes that God has an obligation to heal his children and that those who pray for healing have an obligation to believe that God will heal them. No doubt their members favor Bible verses like Matthew 21:21, wherein we read: “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
The second church is a Catholic church. This church is concerned with a cure but it is even more concerned with acceptance. In this church, priests, nuns, and the laity all pray that the sick will be healed, but the sick are told that not everyone will be healed, and they are encouraged to submit to God’s will and trust God’s purposes. Members of this church think that the apex of faith is found in Job 13:15, where-in Job breaks through his grief and pain to confess of the LORD, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust him.”
The third church is a downtown, mainline protestant church. This church is primarily concerned with care. When a member falls ill, a network of care is immediately put into place to provide practical assistance. Members who are in the hospital, receive visits and cards, fruit, and flowers. When they come home, they receive full meals and lots of attention. Members of the youth group sometimes cut their lawns or rake their leaves. Adult members often drive them to doctor’s appointments, help them shop for groceries, or sit with them at night. Members of this church are quick to point out that, in 1st Corinthians 12, God not only appointed healers but also helpers. “Helping is a gift of the Holy Spirit, too,” they say.
In which church would you be most comfortable? I see things to admire in all three. When our daughter was born with a slight, albeit lifelong issue, like members of the Pentecostal church, Elayne and I called upon Bishop Herbert Spaugh, who not only prayed for our daughter’s healing, but laid hands on her, and anointed her with oil. The bishop died not long after, but Elayne and I have lived to see the answer to his prayer because our daughter has overcome every challenge. She is a home run! Still, as we waited for her healing to be fully revealed, like members of the Catholic church, we made it a point to submit to God’s will and trust his purpose. Trusting God saved us a ton of anxiety and grief. So did our willingness to take the advice of Jesus who said, “Let the difficulties of each day be sufficient for each day.” The late Raymond Binkley was fond of saying, “There are two days in every week about which we should never worry, yesterday and tomorrow.” Finally, like members of the Downtown Church, we were blessed when members of all the congregation we served, including this one, gave us the time we needed to give our daughter the care she needed. We often had to take her to appointments at the hospital in Chapel Hill. None of the congregations we served ever asked me to do keep these appointments on my day off, or when I was on vacation. That was a gift of caring, and knowing one is cared for is a big part of the healing process!
Of course, there are three kinds of healing. First, there is immediate healing, such as the kind we see in the gospels. I have seen immediate healing on several different occasions. I have also experienced it in dramatic fashion, on several occasions, though in one case, the immediate healing is still being revealed, day by day. Second, there is gradual healing, such as the kind we see in hospitals every day. God is active in gradual healing, too. A famous surgeon wrote, “The doctor binds the patient’s wounds, but only God can heal.” I believe medicine is a vocation, a calling. In the age of Covid, our healthcare professionals take that calling seriously and are stretched to the limit and sometimes beyond. Let us take care not to add to that burden. Let’s take the shots when they are available, mask up, and maintain our social distance. Finally, there is resurrection healing. Jesus is the first fruits, we are the harvest. We all owe God a death; but as followers of the One who died, and was raised, we know that death is not the end. The late Norman Vincent Peale used to say, “No baby wants to leave the warmth and security of their mother’s womb to be born; and none of us wants to leave our life in this world to die; but both birth and death, are gateways through which we must pass to a fuller life.” The final healing is resurrection healing, everything else is partial. Of course, we want to put it off as long as possible!
To that end, in the age of Covid, we cannot be too careful. If we are ill, we ought to pray and seek the healing ministry of the church. As people of faith, we know that “with God, all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) We ought also to seek medical attention, as soon as we can. Diagnosis is the first step toward a cure, and the quicker the diagnosis the more likely the cure.
And if the cure does not come right away? Well, we must continue to trust God. It was Cicero who said, “As long there is life there is hope.” And if this life runs out? Well, I believe we will be grateful that we have not just an insurance plan for life but an assurance plan for Eternal Life. How did the hymnist Fanny Crosby put it?
Blessed assurance Jesus is mine,
Oh what a foretaste of glory divine.
Heir of salvation, purchased of God,
Born of his Spirit*, washed and his blood.
*To Eternal Life!
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
Note 1: All healing begins with spiritual healing. In the book of James, in the same passage that we are told that when we are sick, we are to summon the elders of the church, we are also told to confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another. (James 5:16) It is in the confession of sins that we prepare ourselves for the healing that God has for us, whatever kind of healing that may be. Sick or well, our first duty is to be in right relationship with the God who loves us and offers us the promise of God’s care.
Note 2: Even many secular hospitals—like the University of Kentucky have a chaplaincy program. Some hospitals do much more. Many offer an optional service called healing touch to interested patients. Some years ago, I participated in the therapy of a friend who was dying with a healing touch therapist whom I knew. Indeed, she was the daughter of a Moravian minister. My friend was long past being able to communicate to anyone in any way, but I believe he knew were there, and I hope that the therapy was a comfort to him. The late Bishop Spaugh once wrote an article entitled, “The Hands of a Nurse Are the Hands of a Healer.” Yes! Jesus himself recognized the importance of human touch in the healing process.
Note 3: Certainly, we expect our denominations to found and sponsor hospitals, clinics, care homes, and other healing institutions. And we expect our denominations to supply chaplains to hospitals and care homes and the like. Individual churches also have healing ministries.