Sermon at Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 2018
The Church mediates to all people, not least those who have been dealt the toughest cards.
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 30th September 2018 at 3.00 PM
The contaminated blood scandal inquiry, which was recently launched right next door to us in Church House is looking into the deaths of 2,400 people, after thousands were infected with HIV and hepatitis C mostly in 1970s and 80s.
Many have quite remarkably managed to hold onto their faith in God despite having been dealt the toughest cards. Its an appalling tragedy, the worst ever within the NHS, which should simply never have happened.
Gregory, now 48, who has lived with HIV and hepatitis C since the age of 14, has for over 30 years been praying for healing, and he’s struggling to survive. By the time the Inquiry concludes many further victims will have died.
For all of us who know, or care for, someone who is sick, the healing miracles of Jesus take on a particular significance.
The Gospels overflow with stories of Jesus’ healing miracles, but its important for us to remember that the scriptures reveal Christ as being truly compassionate. He heals those who believe in him, who trust him, who want to be healed.
At first sight our New Testament reading today (Matthew 9:1-8) is a very simple and straightforward story of the healing of a paralysed man, but if we look at it in more detail we find that it contains deeper meanings.
This is the only occasion in St Matthew's gospel where Jesus gives forgiveness to a specific individual, and in the previous chapter (Matthew 8:5-13), his only other account of the healing of a paralytic, doesn't even mention the forgiveness of sin in connection with the healing.
Indeed the only other account in any of the gospels making a connection between sin and healing, is in chapter 9 of St John’s gospel: ‘As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him’ (John 9:1-3). Here he makes the connection between sin and sickness in order to dismiss the idea of sin as the cause of blindness.
In our reading today, St Matthew certainly is not saying that the man's paralysis was caused by his sins. Rather he is saying that the paralysed man needed forgiveness of sins more than he needed physical healing.
I suppose we all need forgiveness of sins more than anything else, because the forgiveness of sins is the key to entry into the kingdom of God, the key to eternal life.
But given the prevailing connection between sin and healing, just imagine the impact the healing of the paralysed man would have had. Not only would it have shown the power of the word of Christ, it would have given the most powerful evidence that he really was able to forgive sins.
Although this divine power of Christ is sometimes, and rather strangely, shown in very early Christian painting with something like a magic wand in his hand, he certainly was not a magician.
We see that his miracles happen when his boundless compassion comes together, in a particular set of circumstances, and something is released and changed.
The miracle is, of course, both completely the work of God, but also the result of making room for God and being open to his presence.
It’s simply the case that we never fully know how much is altered by prayer. For prayer is essentially the movement of God to us human beings, and of us to God, the rhythm of encounter and response.
It’s important too for us to remember that Jesus’ miracles are not so much shows of power or even proofs of his divinity, as they are signs of the presence of God’s Kingdom.
Their significance in Jesus’ life and ministry is captured well in his own words: ‘If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.’ (Lk 11:20).
Such miracles never stand alone. They are always expressions of the Kingdom of God breaking into our world.
The Gospel miracles, such as the healing of the paralytic man, show us that in Jesus the Kingdom of God had come among us; that healing and salvation cannot be separated.
We long, just like those suffering from contaminated blood, for a wholeness that embraces both body and spirit. Modern medicine can relieve most physical illness, but such medicine cannot heal broken spirits and disappointed lives.
Sinful humanity bears within itself the wounds of past sin and is fearful for the future. Only in Christ do we ultimately encounter the healing, the salvation that brings wholeness and peace.
Here we understand that healing is only ultimately complete when it leads to communion with God. In our prayers of petition we bring many needs to God.
We should always remember that we are turning to a loving God who calls us first and foremost to communion with himself.
Anything that we receive from God remains incomplete, if we do not live our lives in communion with our Lord. It is entirely logical then that our healing must become our salvation, our committed sharing in the life of God and his Church.
So we find here, that St Matthew’s special interest in Jesus’ healings was not so much in the spectacular displays of power but rather in the prayerful encounter between those in great need and Jesus the powerful healer.
These stories had, of course, been handed on and reshaped in the early Church for many years before St Matthew came to write down his Gospel near the end of the first century A.D.
Those who passed them on were less interested in piling up factual details than they were in exploring the significance of these stories for their lives - and indeed our own lives.
The early Christians were not seeking to simply recount the factual details of Jesus’ great works. Rather, following the lead of Jesus himself, they found in the miracles powerful signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God and testimony to Jesus as the proclaimer and embodiment of God’s Kingdom.
Today we follow in the tradition of these early Christians ever mindful of the fact that through prayer, word, sacrament and pastoral care the Church continues to act as a channel of Christ’s healing grace.
The Church mediates to all people, not least those who have been dealt the toughest cards, that fullness of life that Christ intends for all of us.