The Healing Touch
Philippians – Remember that Paul is in prison and facing possible execution as he writes these words.
Matthew –Show the video clip from The Visual Bible: Matthew for Matthew 8:1-4.[i]
Leprosy was one of the most feared diseases in the ancient world. It was normally a slowly progressing incurable skin disease. It was believed to be highly contagious so people who even appeared to have leprosy were banished from the community.[ii] There are extensive instructions about leprosy in the Book of Leviticus (chapter 13) and priests were central in diagnosing it and judging whether a person was cured. The understanding of disease was different from ours. We think of disease as limiting what we can do, but to the people of Jesus’ time disease or disability was seen as limiting one’s ability to be in relationship with the community and it was often understood as God’s punishment for some sin.[iii] The man with leprosy was isolated from the community. In fact lepers had to mark themselves so that others could avoid them. By Mosaic law, a leper had to wear clothes of mourning or grieving, unkempt hair and men had to cover their beards. Whenever someone would come near the leper they had to shout “Unclean, unclean”, so that people could avoid them. Anyone who touched a leper immediately became unclean themselves. In the movie clip, the leper kneels and turns from Jesus hiding his face and in that action he sums up all of the stigma and rejection lepers experienced.
The leper’s request, “if you choose, you can make me clean” sounds a bit odd to us today, but the man is asking Jesus to break the religious laws of his day to heal him and he is giving Jesus the chance to refuse. In choosing to heal this man, Jesus stepped across the purity boundaries; he disobeyed the rules of his faith and his society to bring his healing touch. This was surely what was most shocking to Jesus’ contemporaries that he touched the diseased and unclean. Jesus stepped across the purity laws many times as he extended his healing touch over the course of his earthly ministry and people were healed, they were allowed like this man to rejoin their families and their community healed not only of their disease but of their isolation and rejection. The disciples witnessed that Christ didn’t reject the sick and disabled. He did not treat them as people cursed by God, but he treated them as beloved by God as he touched them and healed. To the leper’s plea he responded “I am willing. Be made clean.”.
I don’t think any of us can live long without experiencing some kind of brokenness or dis-ease. It may take different forms and healing takes different forms. Physical, emotional, relational and spiritual healing were a big part of Jesus’ earthly ministry, that healing touch continues in its different forms today. Healing may come in the form of physical cure or it may come in the form of a reconciled relationship or it may come in the form of peace, that “peace of God which surpasses all understanding” that Paul talked about or it may come in the form of knowing clear into your core that you are forgiven and loved by God or it may even come in the form of death where all our wounds and weaknesses are left behind with our mortal bodies and we come fully into the presence of God.
Over the course of my life I have experienced Christ’s healing touch in many of these different ways. I remember the very painful messy and long break up while I was in college with the first man I ever fell in love with. One day I came home after seeing him with another young woman in so much pain that I fell on my knees and prayed to God for help. All of a sudden I felt this sense of peace flow into me; the pain drained out as God’s peace filled me up and I was given the strength to go on. Healing did not restore that relationship, but it gave me the strength to continue on into a new future, a future I thank God for every day. I have experienced instantaneous healing and healing that comes from drawing on the strength and power of Christ while working with doctors and other healers through a long process of hard work and tiny steps of progress. In whatever form it takes, Christ’s healing touch is real and it’s available to us yet today. I have not gotten to the place that Paul describes as “Do not worry about anything,” but I have grown more and more willing to “bring by prayer and plea my requests to God” for God is trustworthy and faithful.
Some of our wounds are caused by some choice we made or we think we should have made and sometimes those are some of the hardest wounds to heal because we can’t forgive ourselves. But through Christ we have a sacrament for failure which brings his healing touch even to those wounds. I read that term “a sacrament for failure” in a book by the Rev Dr Leonard Sweet called Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa: 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century. [iv] The sacrament for failure is confession (admitting to God and yourself what you have done), repentance (having a change of heart and direction), forgiveness (receiving God’s forgiveness and forgiving yourself), and new birth (being given another chance to move on leaving the past behind and embracing a new future.) It is a process for healing the wounds we bring on ourselves and Jesus’ healing touch is with us at each step.
As Jesus’ first disciples learned from him, we as a church community seek to offer Jesus’ healing touch to those in any kind of need. There is a real shift in attitude by Jesus’ followers for after his resurrection the disciples continued his ministry of healing. In the book of James (James 5:14-16) it instructs those who are sick to come to the church leaders and ask for them to pray for their healing and anoint them with oil. Rather than participating in the rejection and isolation of the sick or broken, we, the church, are called to embrace them, surrounding them with love, prayer and support offering the healing touch of Christ.
In just a moment, we will be faithful to that call of Christ. I will invite you to come forward to be anointed with oil and/or to receive a prayer for healing with the laying on of hands. The oil is scented olive oil and the laying on of hands involves the pastor and the church leader touching your head or shoulder as they pray for you. You may share with the pastor your specific need or ask for general prayer of healing. You may also come forward and ask for healing for another person as you “stand in” for them. Please let the pastor know if you want the anointing and/or the prayer. Our desire is to do what is helpful to you as we share Christ’s healing touch.
I invite you in whatever way you choose to ask for that healing touch for the broken, ailing places in your lives. Allow us your church community to embrace you and surround you with Christ-like love. And when you have experienced his healing do as he instructed the leper to do “allow your cleansed and grateful life to bear witness to what Christ has done.” [v] Amen.
[i] The Visual Bible: Matthew, (Dallas: Visual International and Visual Entertainment, Inc., 1997), Matthew 8:1-4.
[ii] “Leprosy” under Lev 13:12. Word in Life Study Bible: Contemporary English Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), p. 178. See also Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 124-131.
[iii] Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 47.
[iv] Leonard Sweet, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa: 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century (2000), p.78.
[v] Based on Matthew 8:4 from The Message Bible. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2002).
Sermon delived by Rev. Nancy Cushman on October 9, 2005.
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