s044g99 Somerton Park Sunday 11 13/6/99
"Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons" Matt 10.8
It is astonishing to me that Jesus asks the twelve to do all these things - whereas we think that these are all things that we look to Jesus to do. I am reminded again that in each of the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the five thousand Jesus invites the twelve to feed the multitude (Mat 14.16 = Mk 6.37 = Luk 9.13). In the light of the miraculous nature of today's injunctions, I suspect that Jesus' intention was not to get the disciples to share what food they had with the crowds, but that one or other of them should say the blessing over the loaves and the fish, and so initiate the miracle themselves.
But again we find that Jesus gave no specific directions as to how the disciples were to accomplish these things. He doesn't give them a prayer book on which we Anglicans are so particularly used to relying. There is no set prayer for curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, or casting out demons; as our book gives us a special prayer "For Rain" and quite a different one "For fair Weather" (BCP :-)
Indeed if the crowds felt "harassed and helpless" (Mat 9.36) I would have thought that the twelve would have felt doubly so, as they are sent out - without gold, silver, copper, bag, sandals, or even a staff ... (Mat 10.9,10)
And we are told, they were sent after Jesus had given them "authority over unclean spirits ... and to cure every disease and every sickness".
This is surely the commission of the continuing Church. The ancient people of God were to be "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Ex 19.6). Their special character as a "holy nation" was not for themselves but to be a blessing for the nations amongst whom they were set. The job of the priest is to facilitate communion between God and humanity - to circumvent, ritually or otherwise, the barriers that are perceived to exist between God and people.
The priest breaks these down, and so it is the special task of the priest to declare God's forgiveness and to administer the sacraments. For followers of Jesus, we see that forgiveness has not to be pleaded for, but in fact is already there before we ask, because Jesus has died and rose again for us already. St Paul tells us: "While we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Ro 5.8) We are already forgiven, even before we confess.
We as the Church corporate have this same task, to break down perceived or real barriers between all people and God. We as the Church corporate are ordained to do these things. We are not ordained to fix the world, order people around, or tell them how to live their lives. We are not called, as was recently said to me, to proclaim a God who "has standards, which ... (we) ... presume ... (to) ... know". (thanks Maryellen :-)
We are ordained to break down barriers between God and people, and if we set out to do as God wills - to make it easy for other people and to enable them to see God in their lives - then God will be faithful in blessing what we do.
Without wishing to cast doubt on the veracity of the gospel accounts that Jesus brought about miraculous cures and asks us to do likewise, we ourselves are rarely presented with someone actually with leprosy, or someone who has just died who we might consider moved to pray for a resurrection. I mean that the ultimate healing is to die and to be with our Lord. God certainly understands our grief, but on the other side, God is surely pleased to have another child finally into the kingdom. But there are less dramatic illnesses we are presented with each and every day.
I was watching a television program recently which had a specialist in the United States curing back pain. This specialist said that some years ago there was an epidemic of ulcers which was generally recognised to be the result of modern stress. Modern therapies can now cure ulcers, and as a result the occurrence of people getting ulcers has dropped dramatically. Now people under stress get lower back pain - there is a similar epidemic of this occurring now. The cure - a three hour lecture! The specialist was a psychiatrist! How much of our illnesses are due to the stress we put ourselves and others under? How much illness might we "cure" quite easily by not putting stress on ourselves or others? The word "cure" is in quotation marks, not because it is less important a cure, but that if stress is avoided - the need for a cure is obviated.
Many inner demons are the result of rejection and abuse - in my own life I know how important my relationship to others is linked to my own self esteem. The real tragedy of unemployment among young people, is not that they might starve, but the lack of self esteem they have. We cannot but expect such people to have many inner demons, which a modicum of compassion and understanding might quickly dissipate.
Sadly many people under long term stress at work or lack of meaningful employment, and perhaps with a failed relationship become dead to the possibility of warm human relationships, and resort to the life of a recluse, either alone, or in a group of similar outcasts, like the street kids. Or else they can seek solace in a bottle, in drugs, or to end it all.
Many believe themselves to be exiled from the rest of humanity, lepers, even if not afflicted with that particular disease. How often is our first question: how did AIDS sufferers contract the disease? Of what possible relevance is this to our attitude towards them?
As Jesus was sent, and as the twelve were ordained and sent out, so we are ordained - as a Church - to do these things. And individuals are ordained bishops, priests and deacons (in our system) to do this. Clergy have no authority to do anything other than this. If lay people are effective in making things easy for others to see themselves as beloved of God, then that surely is more important than a particular form of dress, letter of authorisation, or laying on of hands. Actually the particular form of dress, the letter of authorisation and the laying on of hands is the Church's way to point people to where they can expect to find acceptance, if and when they do not find it in the world or within themselves.
We need authority to make things easy, to disregard and to overlook matters. Being prescriptive on the other hand, already carries the force of the moral or ethical principle behind the words, and "needs" no extra authority from outside anyway - even if it was God's will. Election of the ancient people of God and ordination of the Church as a whole and individuals, is all about allowing grace - allowing it to be made easy for ourselves and others, to flow.
It would be a bit silly to get into heaven and to have to say to God - "Well, Lord, I never met any lepers in my earthly existence, but if I had, I would have healed them." :-) Or to say: "Well I tried saying some prayers to get YOU to do something, but nothing happened". Should we wonder that our prayers are ineffective, when Jesus tells US to do something? Let us see the people around us as people to love, for love covers a multitude of sins, and cures a multitude of illnesses too.
We ourselves are important, and Jesus authorises us to be ourselves with others - not to drag him into the conversation all the time.
I think that I would reflect most, if not all, members of the clergy experience when I say that the occasions when I was ordained deacon and priest were very special (almost as special as the day Catherine and I were married :-) I was and am a different person because of that ordination. I personally was petrified of hospitals even after I had completed my CPE course at the Royal Perth Hospital. But a week later, after I was made a deacon, I began visiting at Flinders Medical Centre three times a week, and it was the most fulfilling part of my ministry! I have always been shy and retiring (stop laughing) and I still find public speaking outside worship horrendous. But preaching is one of my great loves.
I suppose I got over some of my shyness when one day I realised that everyone else was just as shy - but some covered it up particularly effectively with bluster. And I have come to realise my shyness is a gift that allows others space to be themselves also.
Ordination enables individuals to do things ordinarily they would not think of attempting. If we have as our first priority to make things easy for others (as we would hope others would make things easy for us) it is my consistent experience that we and all people will be blessed.
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