Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 15 May

15 May 2011 at 10:00 am

The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

On Maundy Thursday each year, cathedrals across the land hold a service called the Chrism Eucharist. During this Eucharist the clergy present are invited to renew their ordination vows. However, another particularly significant part of the service involves the presentation and blessing of three receptacles of oil to be used at Baptism, for Chrism and for the Anointing of the Sick.  

Clergy then each take a small quantity these Oils back to their parish churches to be used throughout the following year. 

So if you attend a baptism service, the infant or adult being baptized will be signed with the cross using the oil of baptism, symbolising the rejection of evil and their being joined to Christ. 

At a confirmation or ordination the candidates are anointed with the oil of Chrism, the oil which is also used when a new sovereign is crowned. This captures the same symbolism as we find in the Old Testament where new kings were anointed as a symbol of being chosen and set apart by God for a special task.

The third kind of oil ~ for the anointing of the sick, is perhaps not used so often in a public setting; and it is this kind of anointing which I would like us to think about this morning.

Anointing of the Sick or Extreme Unction as it was called in the past is one of the seven sacraments of the Church, the other six being Baptism, the Eucharist, Marriage, Confession, Confirmation and Ordination.  And during this month of MAY in my sermons at Matins I am looking at five of these seven. So far we’ve looked at marriage and confession and in the weeks to come we shall look at confirmation and ordination. 

Today though I will describe briefly what is involved in anointing a sick person and why we do it. And then I’ll discuss the difficult question of whether God actually steps in to heal certain people.

In the Letter of James Ch 5: 14 he writes: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord”. 

When the sacrament of anointing is administered it is done precisely in this way. 

So for example, a person who is waiting for a serious operation may ask for anointing and the priest will come and say prayers for them, may lay hands on them following the practice of Jesus himself, and then the person will be anointed, usually on the forehead, sometimes on the palms of their hands and sometimes on other parts of their body associated with their illness. 

People may also be anointed on a regular basis if they are chronically sick, or when they are critically ill and thought to be close to death.

But why do we do this? What does it symbolise? 

What all the sacraments have in common is that they use outward and visible symbols to communicate to us God’s grace ~ his absolute and unconditional love for us. 

So when we anoint someone who is ill, we do it primary to proclaim God’s love for that suffering person. 

We are reminded over and over again in the gospels that Jesus reached out to the sick and suffering with compassion. And there are many examples of him healing the sick: Peter’s mother in law, the centurion’s servant, blind Bartimaeus, the 10 lepers, the woman suffering with haemorrhages and the man with the withered hand, to name but a few. 

In Mark 6: 13 we hear that Jesus also sent his apostles out to anoint the sick and to heal them. And after his resurrection, the Apostles continued this ministry of healing ~ St Paul himself receiving the laying on of hands when he met Ananias and had his sight restored. 

In today’s church many continue to find comfort and healing through both anointing with oil and through the laying on of hands. These actions remind them that God is close to them in their suffering; that he can bring them peace and give them courage. 

The sacrament of anointing can also inspire hope, both for the present and in looking to the life to come.

But perhaps the question which will be in all our minds as I am speaking this morning, is does God really heal through this sacrament? And what do we mean by healing anyway?

I believe that God most certainly does bring healing to people’s lives, but healing in a much broader sense than being made physically well.

In Christian literature you will find plenty of examples of people claiming miraculous healing and I think there is evidence that some people recover from serious illness in a way that doctors cannot always explain.

However, it is a more common experience that people don’t recover in an instant manner after receiving the sacrament of anointing. Many continue with their disabilities, with chronic pain, with gruelling courses of treatment and some die.

But what is often apparent in the lives of these people is that they have grown closer to God in their suffering and they experience a deep inner peace which perhaps some of us who are physically well do not experience. 

In pastoral situations I have encountered over the years, there is no doubt in my mind that it is often as people approach death with a readiness to let go of this life, that they have been truly healed. 

But coming to this position is not without its anguish and struggle. I have also known of people who have believed that their faith would make them well; holding on to the text in James Ch 5: 15, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. When they haven’t then got better, a terrible sense of guilt has been added to their suffering. 

Priests or lay people who minister to the sick have a tremendous responsibility to make sure they do not raise false expectations.  Instead they need to work with people to help them put their trust in God so that they are assured that they are held by him whatever is happening to them. 

I finish with some words from David Watson who was a well known priest of the Church of England back in the 1970s and 80s. He was involved in a tradition within the church which believed strongly that God heals, but he himself contracted cancer and died. Shortly before his death he wrote a book entitled “Fear No Evil” in which he had this to say about his own situation:

“I still do not know why God allowed my cancer, nor does it bother me. But I am beginning to hear what God is saying, and this has been enormously helpful to me. I am content to trust myself to a loving God whose control is ultimate and whose wisdom transcends my own feeble understanding”. 

Let us all pray for understanding and for an insight into the wisdom of God; but most of all for the faith to trust his purposes for us. 

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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