Christ’s multi-dimensional, all-embracing healing

Stephen Adam, 18 October 2015

Acts 16: 6–12a; Luke 10: 1–9

Today we celebrate St Luke, that great apostle, ‘an evangelist and physician of the soul’ in the words of the collect [short prayer assigned to today]. Luke was the author of both the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, accounting in total for around 25% of the New Testament. He was a Gentile, a non-Jew, and was a faithful companion of St Paul. We learn from 2 Timothy that he was the only person with Paul in prison in Rome.

As we read Luke’s account in Acts of Paul’s great missionary journeys we cannot help but be struck by both the urgency with which Paul seeks to spread the good news of the gospel and the vast distances he covered, either on foot or by sea voyage. Our first reading this morning points to a critical moment in the spread of the infant Christian faith, with Paul’s vision of a man saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia to help us’.

Travelling from what is now Syria and through Turkey, Paul and his companions make the momentous decision to cross one of the great frontiers of the ancient world, across the Aegean into Greece, and so bring Christianity into the Greco-Roman world. Under Constantine in the fourth century it would become the recognised state religion, and as it captured the allegiance of successive rulers of the western world so Christianity would become the bedrock of European civilisation and culture. This, then, is a critical moment for the mission of the early church, and Luke is there as an eyewitness.

Luke’s writings have this universalist scope: he wants to show God’s redeeming purpose at work in Jesus Christ, that this message is for all, and that Gentiles are also included by God’s grace within the people of God.

Alongside the sheer breadth of Luke’s vision there is also the tradition linking Luke with healing. This is sparked by two things: he is called the ‘beloved physician’ by Paul in his letter to the Colossians; and there are more stories describing Jesus’ healing in Luke than in the other three gospels. So as we celebrate St Luke this morning, I’d like to focus a bit more on Christ and healing.

If we look more deeply into the structure of Luke’s gospel we discover something quite specific and important about what healing means for him. Healing is not simply about curing diseases of individuals – it’s much deeper than that. It’s about wholeness of body, mind and spirit; being touched by and embraced within the love of God made known in Christ – a love that extends to all.

It’s no coincidence that Luke roots the start of Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, as Jesus recalls the prophecy of Isaiah and says that today these words have been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

The healing that Luke wants us to understand and to share in, as we are called afresh today to share in the mission of Jesus, is multi-dimensional in its scope. It’s ambitious stuff, embracing every aspect of our human condition.

  • Good news to the poor: here is the challenge for economic healing.
  • Release to captives and letting the oppressed go free: here is the challenge for political healing – and goodness, as we see the largest mass movement of people across the Middle East and Europe since the Second World War, the need for such healing is really acute.
  • Recovery of sight: here is physical, bodily healing and, at a deeper level, an invitation to see the gospel with fresh eyes and willing hearts.

This is a gospel that begins in the most unpromising of circumstances with a young, pregnant, unmarried woman proclaiming the greatness of the Lord, announcing the divine reversal of social status. It’s a gospel that shows how a despised Samaritan traveller caring for the man robbed by thieves becomes the revelation of God’s love. It’s a gospel that portrays the rejected beggar Lazarus, his sores licked by dogs, as being the inheritor of the kingdom. And it’s a gospel that recounts how the hated tax collector Zacchaeus acts as host to Jesus, who brings salvation into his very home.

And so the healing that Luke speaks of is suffused by the proclamation of Jesus that ‘the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost’. It’s a picture of God watching and waiting and yearning for his children to turn back to him, running to meet the returned prodigal. Luke points us to the eternal, forgiving love of the Father who loves his creation. Dante, the great Italian poet and writer of the late Middle Ages, called Luke ‘the scribe of the kindness of Christ’.

One of the greatest affirmations in the New Testament is that ‘we love because God first loved us’. That love of the Father is there for us in sickness and health, and through the good and the bad times.

Last Sunday, in the context of our Eucharist, Peter offered us the ministry of healing with the laying on of hands. Peter spoke of how each of us carries in different ways hurts and losses from the past. We’re all wounded and have bruises from our life experiences; loving and grieving go together – they’re two sides of the same coin.

There’s no miraculous cure for our mortality; after all, the gospel doesn’t promise us eternal health, but eternal life – meaning a quality of relationship with God in Jesus Christ that no physical infirmity can destroy. Jesus knew as well as us that life can be brutal, unfair, painful and short. It’s a world in which the good often contract terminal illnesses, and one in which the worldly often seem to prosper. Jesus never explained suffering or sickness, but instead simply affirmed that God is to be trusted.

The gospel doesn’t promise us eternal health, but eternal life – meaning a quality of relationship with God in Jesus Christ that no physical infirmity can destroy.

The gospel stories of Luke remind us that each one of us is precious in God’s sight, and he loves us just as we are. As the prophet Isaiah says, ‘I have called you by name and made you my own’. It’s a lifelong journey for us as we discover afresh God’s healing love. As Michael Mayne puts it, ‘Life is the setting in which we learn how to trust and how to love’.

I confess that I find the questions around suffering some of the most challenging for my faith. At the deepest level I can only find some resolution in the context of the Eucharist, where we encounter Christ’s brokenness and death transformed into a sacrament of life and hope.

Let me conclude by quoting Michael Mayne again, who in his spiritual writings expresses these things so much better than I can. Michael was a former dean of Westminster Abbey who knew all about the reality of suffering, as he wrote some of his finest work while facing a particularly cruel terminal cancer. Michael invites us to look at a crucifix:

[It’s] a way of saying, to those with eyes to see: Christians don’t believe in a God who is remote and indifferent to his creation and their suffering, but in one who so loves his creation that he reveals his nature in the only language we can understand, in the human language of one man’s birth, life, suffering and cruel death … [What this life and death discloses] is a God who fails to answer our agonised questions about the why of pain and suffering and loss, but instead (in that most profound of mysteries) himself enters into the questions.

For my own part, I believe that this is the most accurate picture of God we have.

Today as we remember with thanksgiving Luke, whose gospel speaks so profoundly of inner wholeness and healing, may each of us freshly discover and be touched by the love and healing power of Jesus, and seek to show glimpses of that love to those around us. And so let us pray,

Almighty God, who inspired Luke the physician to proclaim the love and healing power of your Son, give your church, by the grace of the Spirit and the medicine of the gospel, the same love and power to heal; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.