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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mark 1:29-39

 Let the Healing Begin

Prayer and Spinal Meningitis

The parents called from the emergency room. Sally had spinal meningitis and the doctors offered little hope. They asked Pastor Will to visit. Driving to the hospital the pastor felt bewildered. He wondered how he was going to minister to a child of five and her parents. When he walked into the room, he took Sally’s hand and spoke softly to her. She did not respond, her throat was inflamed and she found it too difficult to speak. He asked her to repeat the words to a prayer; “Now I lay me down to sleep…” There was no response. He became embarrassed. He suddenly realized that she might not have been taught that prayer, so he spoke softly to her about Jesus being the friend of little children, said the Lord’s Prayer and concluded with a blessing. Sally surprised Pastor Will by reciting the bedtime prayer as he was leaving the room. He turned and smiled.

The next day, Pastor Will offered a special prayer for Sally and asked the congregation to remember her and her parents in their prayers. Later that week, Sally’s Mom called. Her voice sang with joy, her daughter was improving and they expected her to get well. A month later Sally attended a special service and presented a thank offering for a mission project. The father looked into the eyes of his pastor and said, “You worked a miracle.” Pastor Will told him, “The miracle belongs to God.”[1]

While most of us will smile and nod our head in positive affirmation upon hearing about such a story, I wonder then, why aren’t churches throughout our country and in particular, our church, noted for such occurrences taking place with greater frequency. Or is our belief in healing merely a reflection of the popularized version that dominates our culture.

Bill Moyers’ book, Healing and the Mind became a best seller. The former White House journalist explores the relationship between mind, body, and soul in the healing process and encourages the well to take steps to prevent sickness and the sick to explore avenues of healing beyond conventional medicine that includes the spiritual. [2] And Newsweek magazine did a major story last year on the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences.[3]

Healing is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame in a culture mesmerized by New Age spirituality, but that is not the same belief evident in the NT Church. Until the Reformation, miraculous healing stories played a dominant role in the ministry and mission of the Church. One historian credits their accounts as one of the five reasons for the phenomenal growth of the Church throughout the Roman Empire.[4] Any review of the gospel accounts will discover the prominent role of healing stories in the narrative material. The crowds did not flock to Jesus because of his witty humor or his elegant elocution. The people came because he healed their sick. The challenge for the Church today is to demonstrate in its life and ministry what she believes her God can still do.

No Manual

But before any serious discussion of healing begins a word of caution should be offered. We must remember that the Bible is not a do-it-yourself-manual. It is a revelation, not a how-to-book of techniques, methods, or procedures. Jesus did not come to show us three steps for curing blindness, four steps for healing the lame, and two steps for casting out demons. He came to die for us. His teaching announced the coming of the Kingdom. In his life, we see the power of that reality overcoming the destructive forces of sin and evil. The only common theme of every healing story is the uniqueness of every situation.

Jesus chose different approaches and various methods with almost every person. On one occasion, he stuck his finger in the person’s ear, another time he spit on the ground and made a mud patch that he placed on the man’s eyes. Sometimes he would take the person by the hand and other times he would not even touch them. Jesus does not offer us one specific technique to healing.[5]

Secondly, faith was never an absolute precondition for healing. On several occasions, the authors of the gospels do not make any mention of the person’s faith. The widow of Nain may not have even known who Jesus was before he raised her son from the dead. The apostle John does not mention whether a man healed of blindness actually believed in the power of Jesus to heal (John 9:1-11). And Mark is strikingly quiet about the faith of any one in Peter’s house in today’s passage. This is not to suggest that faith may not have been present, but the writers did not choose to stipulate the prerequisite of belief.

With those words of caution said, let us explore the guidance Mark offers to those who would like to see the power of healing unleashed in their ministry.

The Need at Hand

Rudy once fought in the ring. After his conversion, he decided to visit hospitals and pray for the sick. Rudy attacks every problem with the courage and zeal of prizefighter. He never asked for permission from the hospital administration. He just walked onto the ward and went from room to room praying for the sick. When the administration discovered what he was doing, they called security and escorted him to the exit.

Rudy was not bothered by his expulsion. He assumed that believers would face persecution for their faith. What troubled Rudy was no one got out of bed. During a time of prayer, Rudy heard God ask him, “Rudy who told you to go to the hospital to pray for the sick.”[6]

A Church does not need to search for hurting people. Sickness, disease, and death abound in this fallen world. Jesus found them wherever he went. During one of his first teaching sessions, a man plagued with a demon interrupted him. Jesus silenced the evil spirit and freed the man from demonic bondage. After the Sabbath service, his disciples took him to the house of Peter. The fisherman’s mother-in-law was sick. Jesus took her by the hand and the fever left her. Mark would have remembered this story because the woman healed was his great aunt. Jesus did have to search for hurting people; he simply reached out to those around him.

Going Public

Some years ago, a journal published a report written by a professor at the Harvard Medical School that presented a few perplexing conclusions. The MD pointed out that the postmortem examinations of deceased patient’s often revealed unmistakable traces of disease healed by the body without the person ever knowing about the illness. He explained that the human body has a propensity for life and an inner healing power that is ten times greater than medicine’s imitation.[7] This was good news for those who try to keep their religion a private affair. They had scientific evidence that they did not need to ask anyone to pray for them. They could avoid the embarrassing questions about what bodily part will be removed or where exactly the doctor will probe.

While some prefer to keep their problems and their religion to themselves, Jesus never did any healings in private. They were always public affairs. Mark does not record that Peter told Jesus in private about his wife’s mother, so Jesus could say a private prayer. Someone told Jesus in public that the woman was sick with a fever. Those were grave words to a culture lacking antibiotics. Once stricken with fever a person often died. After he is told, Jesus visits the woman. We do not know how long he visited. We do not know what he said, but by his very presence, we know that she had to acknowledge her vulnerability and need. I wonder how often God waits for us to come to the point of publicly acknowledging our need before he heals.

The importance of the role of the public healings is better understood when we consider the nature and purposes of Jesus’ ministry. He did not come to heal our ailments so that we could live happily ever after in our own private little world. His ministry of healing was a demonstration of the power of the Kingdom. He healed to display the glory and power of God. He transformed the eyes of the blind and opened the ears of the deaf, so that people would know that the forces of evil have been defeated.

A local church will seldom witness miraculous healings unless the members are willing to go public, not just with written requests on yellow cards for their friends or family, but by asking and allowing others to publicly pray for them. A few weeks ago, someone asked for pray for his ear. He not only filled out a prayer card but later he asked that we pray and anoint him with oil. He told me that his ear improved soon afterwards. Miraculous, perhaps not, nevertheless the intensity of the pain was less after the public prayer.

While God does not perform miracles on demand, healings are the confirmation of the dawning of the Kingdom. They will not be restricted to wishful thinking and secret prayers. Unless we are willing to take a step of faith by going public by allowing others to offer public prayers for us, we limit the opportunity for God to demonstrate his awesome power.

Within The Tradition

With a light stroke of the pen, Mark reveals to us the importance of our heritage and tradition. He notes that the people waited until after sundown before they came. They waited until the Sabbath had ended. They did not trample upon their customs. In Presbyterian terms we would say, they did things decently and in order. Jesus will later shatter the Sabbath traditions that placed rules above people but early in his ministry, the people still sought to obey the traditions of their faith.

People who seek spiritual renewal often abandon the traditions of their youth and adapt a new form of worship and religious habit. They arrogantly condemn the past as binding and inhibiting the fresh movement of the Spirit. God honors all forms of religious devotion, especially those that humbly respect the practices and customs of others. In our zeal to serve God and allow him to unleash his power through our life and ministry, we cannot trample upon the customs and style of others. God is not honored through our disrespect and judgmental spirit. Any ministry of healing that we begin to explore will need to stay within the heritage to the Reformed faith.

Shattered Confidence Becomes the Seed Bed of Faith

Not long ago, the medical profession felt quite confident that the nature of disease was fully understood. During the early part of the 20th century, a cure had been discovered for some of the most dangerous diseases. As the century progressed, polio and smallpox were eliminated. New antibiotics were being discovered each year. New methods of treating cancer were proving quite effective. And new ways of repairing the human body were being developed. But recently that confidence is being undermined. Old viruses are mutating into super bugs with resistance to some of our most powerful antibiotics. The lives of some of our own members have even been threatened. An expensive cocktail of drugs may control the development of HIV but there is still no cure for the dread AIDS virus. This summer we witnessed the spread of the West Nile virus from New York City to across our country. Next summer the threat will only increase.

The confidence that we once placed in our medical technology is being shattered each day. But rather than panic the Church must use this as an opportunity to demonstrate its faith in the healing power of God. Our faith will never become a substitute for medical treatment. We will probably not cure many people by offering a simple petition but we may discover that our prayers will serve as an important compliment to the healing team that produces, “medically unexplainable reaction to treatment.”[8]

The Church is faced with a challenge. Will we step forward in faith or walk through the motions of a powerless religion.

[1] Will Oursler, The Healing Power of Faith, cited by Glendon E. Harris, “Are We Ready To Acknowledge Divine Healing,” Pulpit Resources, July 15, 1979, Vol. 7, No. 4.

[2] Bill Moyers, Healing and the Mind, (New York: Doubleday, 1993)

[3] Ted Olson, “Is it all in your head: neurotheological and shmeurotheolgical” Christianity Today, Online:, posted May 4, 2001.

[4] Phillip Yancy, “Jesus the Reluctant Miracle Worker”, Christianity Today, May 19, 1997, Vol. 41, No. 6, p. 81.

[5] Morton T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity, (Harper and Row: New York, 1973), p. 52-68.

[6] Francis McNutt, Healing, (Creation House: Altamonte Springs, Fl, 1988), p. 203.

[7]The Healing Stream”, Saturday Review cited by Glendon E. Harris, “The Doctor Within,” Pulpit Resources, July 30, 1989, Vol. 17, No. 3, p. 17.

[8] These words were written by my oncologist, David Notter, Wenatchee Valley Clinic, to the personnel committee of the First Presbyterian Church, Wenatchee WA after my first chemotherapy.

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