30 September, 2012

Epistle James 5.13-20    Gospel: Mk 9.38-50

ĎNow Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the peopleí.  Matthew 4.23.

Every year at Easter time about a million members of the Zion Christian Church camp on the veld for several days at a place called Moria north of Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg) in South Africa . This influential Zionist church has between three and four million members. If you ask a member of a Zionist church why they joined, you are likely to be told, ĎI was ill. They prayed for me. Now I am well.í

Healing is a powerful motive for conversion. So it has ever been. In the Gospels there are many stories about Jesus healing people, even bringing the dead back to life. I imagine those who were healed became disciples and, after the resurrection of Jesus, became Christians. Not all did, as the story of the healing of the ten lepers indicates, for only one returned to give thanks when he realised that he had been healed. Amazing though the stories are, they are trustworthy.

Jesus sent the apostles out to tell people that Godís kingdom was imminent and to heal the sick, anointing them with oil. Healing was an indicator of Godís triumphant presence. So it still is. After Pentecost, the apostles continued to heal people and even raise the dead.   They, in turn, as we heard in the Letter of James, authorised the elders, the presbyters and bishops, whom they appointed, to visit the sick members of their ecclesia and pray over them, anointing them with oil so that they might be healed. This is what we might call a covenanted ministry of healing.

The Church also recognises that the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of healing and, of course, all Godís children can and should intercede for the sick, confident that the Lord hears their prayers. St James says, ĎThe effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails muchí. So it isnít surprising that we ask our Lady and the saints to pray for the sick that God will heal them.

The Reformers discontinued the sacrament of Unction partly because from the ninth century it had been regarded solely as a preparation for death and because the Reformers regarded the use of oil as superstitious. The Book of Common Prayer has a service for the Visitation of the Sick.   It instructs the minister   to urge the sick person to make a will and disclose the debts he owes and those owed to him.   After that he should confirm the sick person in a right faith in God, helping him to repent and to confess his sins purposing amendment. 

Regrettably the Prayer Book service doesnít pray confidently for healing but rather for grace to bear the sickness. Only in the last century did the Church of England provide a proper healing ministry. Those who have the cure of souls should give it the highest priority. Do not delay to respond to a request for this ministry or you may find it is too late.

We should also look at the Churchís provision for the ministry to the Sick from the point of view of those who either need it now or almost certainly will need it in the course of their life. When we are sick we should ask the priests to visit us. We should, as St James says, confess our sins to one another. We should ask for Holy Communion. In sickness we need the comfort of Christ the Healer.

Happily, now, the Church of England has recovered the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Itís for healing of body and soul and is administered by a bishop or priest to those who are gravely ill, though not necessarily in danger of death. It is also available for Christians on the point of death. Usually itís preceded by the laying on of hands with prayer for healing. If possible, the sick person makes sacramental confession or makes some sign of contrition before being anointed and afterwards receives Holy Communion.  

Many will remember the dramatic moment in the film Brideshead Revisited when after the almost unconscious Lord Marchmain is anointed on his death bed he slowly and deliberately makes the sign of the cross showing that he accepted forgiveness and reconciliation with God and the Catholic Church. 

Itís important to understand that this sacrament isnít like so-called faith healing. Itís a prayer to God made in simple trust in his power to heal but its effect doesnít depend on the quality or quantity of belief either of the priest or the patient.

In my limited experience, the sacrament of holy unction gives blessings more than we ask or conceive to be possible. Such is the mercy and compassion of our Lord and God to whom be thanksgiving, honour and praise now and for ever.

Crispin Harrison CR