11 February 2018

The healing narratives continue this week – with a twist! The connection between the healing of the man with the skin disease on Mark’s Gospel and the healing of Naaman in the Old Testament is clear, but things get very interesting – and a little uncomfortable – when the Epistle reading about discipline and focus is added to the mix. Could it be that the nature and extent of the healing we receive differs according to our willingness to submit to Christ? This is the disturbing but life-giving question that the Lectionary asks this week.

I pray that our worship may lead us into a deeper commitment to the ways of God’s Reign this Sunday.

2 Kings 5:1-14: Naaman, the general of the king of Aram, suffers from a skin disease, but an Israeli slave girl informs him of the prophet Elisha who she believes can heal him. So Naaman sets out to Elisha, who, through a messenger, tells the general to wash in the Jordan seven times. At first Naaman is indignant, but then, after some pleading by his servants, he obeys and is healed.

Psalm 30: A psalm of celebration for God’s grace and protection, for ensuring that the psalmist’s enemies did not overcome him, and for his favour. Also a recognition of how easy it is to get comfortable in God’s presence and goodness, but how easily this sense is lost – although when this happened and the psalmist cried out to God, God responded and turned mourning to dancing.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27: The apostle encourages his readers to be disciplined and to stay focussed in their following of Christ, like runners in a race or boxers in a ring, in order to claim the prize of an eternal crown.

Mark 1:40-45: A man with a skin disease asks to Jesus to heal him and Jesus does, instructing the man not to say anything to anyone but to show himself to the priests as a witness to them. Instead the man spreads the news which makes it impossible for Jesus to enter any towns, forcing him to stay in deserted places outside the cities. But even there, people keep coming to him.

The main thrust of this week’s readings is clearly God’s healing power and grace. In this case, the particular affliction of skin diseases is the focus, but the wider implication is easy to see. In the reading from 2 Kings, the well-known story of Naaman, the king of Aram’s general, is related, along with the dismissive way that Elisha facilitates his healing. There are resonances here with the man who is healed by Jesus – both in the disease that is experienced, and in the response to the healer. In Elisha’s case, Naaman is initially indignant at the prophet’s instruction, almost to the point of rejecting them and the healing they promised. In Jesus’ case, the man ignores the clear instruction to tell no one but the religious leaders, with overwhelming results for Jesus. We are not told whether he ever obeyed the instruction to go the priests. These two stories also have resonances with the Psalm in which God’s rescue, God’s presence and God’s answer to prayers for help are all praised.

It is the epistle reading that seems like an odd one out this week. Paul speaks about discipline, focus and hard work as the necessary requirements for receiving the eternal crown. You may decide to leave it at this, and not seek any connection between this passage and the others, choosing to focus either here or on the Gospel. Alternatively, you may want to contrast Paul’s call for discipline with the undisciplined responses of those who came to God to be healed – both Naaman and the man Jesus healed wrestled with choosing their own agenda over God’s. In the end Naaman, submits and is healed. The man in the Gospels is healed anyway, but never submits to Jesus’ instruction – he receives the benefit, but cannot have received the relationship that comes with following Christ’s ways. He had found a healer, but not a Teacher or Master.

This may be a good angle from which to approach the theme this week. There is a difference between coming to Christ in order to receive benefit only – clinging to the hope of being saved, for example, or receiving healing, prosperity or happiness – and coming to Christ in order to become a disciple. There are all too many who choose the former, but Christ calls us to the latter. There is, of course, the benefit of the “eternal crown,” of abundant life, when we become disciples of Christ, but discipleship is far more than just receiving a benefit. The benefit is simply a by-product of a life lived for Christ’s sake. The call to follow Christ and to submit to God’s ways, is, in itself, sufficient reward because there is no other way that is worthy of our full devotion.

Global Application:
We don’t like to hear that God’s grace and healing is in any way conditional, but there seems to be an element of that stark reality in the readings this week. While on the one hand, the healing of the man in the Gospel story indicates that Jesus heals first, and then the instructions come – which he is free to obey or not – the Naaman story reveals that he was required to follow Elisha’s instruction before the healing could happen. Then, of course, there is Paul’s challenge that, in order to know God’s life, we need to be disciplined and “run to win”. What might this mean for us in today’s world? To begin with, we need to define what the healing of the world might look like. For those who seek a “quick fix” the healing of the world would probably mean “getting things back to how they were” – which would be a world without challenges to the status quo, and free from economic crises. This can certainly be achieved, but would this be healing? I don’t believe so – since the brokenness would remain, and our political, economic and social systems would inevitably collapse again at some future time. This is where the call to obedience – to discipline – comes in. Like the man who is healed by Jesus, but fails to submit to Jesus’ Lordship, we can find ways to get the benefits without cost – and we often try to do this. But, when we do, we lose the life-giving reality of true wholeness and of God’s Reign that comes when we submit to Christ and live according to God’s ways. So, if we seek true wholeness for our world, we will discover that we must learn the discipline of the Gospel – the simplicity and restraint, the generosity and compassion, the patience and commitment, the justice and peace – that can change the systems of our world in radical and creative ways. I am not suggesting that we can create God’s Reign on earth. I am suggesting, though, that as we begin to live according to the principles of God’s Reign we begin to embody the prayer that God’s kingdom may come “on earth as it is in heaven” and that we facilitate an environment in which the work of God’s salvation, healing and justice may be manifest. However, when we fail to embrace God’s discipline – the ways of God’s Reign – we make it impossible for us, and our world, to experience the benefits that God’s Reign would bring.

Local Application:
It seems to me that there is a tendency in our society to believe that we can “shortcut” our way to anything. We try to fight obesity with creams and pills, without the discipline of exercise or healthy eating. We try create relationships with quick sex and none of the work of navigating our own, or the other person’s, “rough edges”. We try to find wealth and fame through reality TV or lotteries with none of the “paying of dues” that is usually required for lasting influence of that magnitude. And we try to find physical and spiritual wholeness through quick routines of affirmations, prayers and thought processes that cost us nothing. Yet, by and large, we remain unhealthy, disconnected, disillusioned and unfulfilled. Somehow we just don’t want to hear that the abundant life we seek might require discipline, time and submission to something other than ourselves. We have even tried to frame the Gospel in these quick-fix terms to our own detriment. However, both healing stories and Paul’s exhortation reveal that, while we may find some benefit from our self-centred solutions, we won;t find true life – the eternal crown – without the disciplined work of learning to follow Christ and follow the ways of God’s Reign. Nor will we find the life we seek if we seek it simply for ourselves. The call of God’s Reign always involves the slow, patient work of learning, growing, discipline and walking together in community. If the man with the skin disease had thought for a moment about the consequences of his actions, he would not have subjected Jesus to the crowds that followed his story. He would also have prioritised going to the religious leaders in order to give Jesus the benefit of official recognition (which may not have happened anyway, but at least he could have tried). Instead, he used his story to gain glory for himself without thought of the impact of spreading the word against Jesus’ request. He sounds a lot like us! And we can learn from him and from Paul’s wise instructions, to find life by becoming true disciples – disciplined followers – of Jesus.

Counting The Cost
Healing The World

Hymn Suggestions:
I Cannot Tell
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Heal Us, Emmanuel, Hear Our Prayer
Jesus, Keep Me Near The Cross
The Gift Of His Touch
How Long?
Hallelujah What A Saviour (Link to YouTube video)
Lord, Why Does It Seem
Jesus, You Have Called Us
Who Is This? (Miracles)

A Communion Liturgy for a Healing Service

Video Suggestions:
Spiritual Discipline