Some people may hear the Gospel lesson for this morning and say, “That’s nice. Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and others. Why doesn’t He heal people today?”
The answer, of course, is that He does.
In an October 25, 1999 article of The Archives of Internal Medicine, seven physicians, a hospital chaplain, a social worker, and a scholar associated with leading hospitals from around the country, presented the findings of their research on the connection between intercessory prayer—prayer offered on behalf of others--and the recovery of coronary patients. The researchers set up what’s known as a “double blind” experiment on those recovering from heart problems. There were 990 patients in the study. Prayers were said for some of them. Prayers were not offered for the others. The doctors treating the patients didn’t know who was chosen to be prayed for and the subjects of the prayers didn’t know either. But a list of first names was given to people in local churches who prayed for those on the list each day. Neither the people doing the praying, nor the people being prayed for, nor the researchers knew who had been chosen to be the target of prayer.
And what happened? Those for whom prayers were said recovered more quickly. As the researchers put it in the conclusion of their abstract (I love this), “This result suggests that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care.” (1)
Now, if this were an isolated study, it wouldn’t mean much. But in recent decades, literally hundreds of objective scientific studies, conducted at major hospitals and universities, have been done looking into the connection between things like faith, prayer, and worship attendance on the one hand and healing and health on the other. The results are stunning.
A few examples: A 1972 study of 91,909 people in Washington County, Maryland “found that those who attended church once or more a week had significantly lower death rates from…coronary-artery disease (50 percent reduction), emphysema (56 percent reduction), cirrhosis of the liver (74 percent reduction), suicide (53 percent reduction).” (2)
“A 1978 study of 355 men in Evans County, Georgia showed that those who attended church one or more times per week had significantly lower blood-pressure readings than individuals who attended church less often. The positive link between church attendance and lower blood pressure held up even if the church attenders were smokers!” (2)
Now, I know that I’m preaching to the choir here. Many of you in this sanctuary this morning would affirm that the God we know in Jesus Christ is still in the healing business. Certainly, God uses doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals to bring His healing. But, as study after study has confirmed, their efforts are enhanced by prayer.
In my years as a pastor, I’ve learned that many health care professionals know this. One surgeon I met years ago made a point of asking when I would be joining the patient he was operating on for prayer before surgery. “I want to be there when you pray,” he told me. “And would you please pray for me, too?” I was happy to do that.
That has happened several times before surgeries for members of Living Water in just the past year or so. One morning, the family and I were asked by both the surgeon and the anesthetist if we would pray with them.
God is still in the healing business. In his book, The Faith Factor, Dr. Dale A. Matthews tells the true story of Barbara, who suffered from cancer. Barbara was in worship one Sunday at the Anglican church she attended when the priest read the Gospel of Mark’s account of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Not wanting to call attention to herself, Barbara believed that if she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment as He passed, she would be healed. As Barbara prepared to go to the altar to receive Holy Communion, a thought crossed her mind: “I could be like her.”
She looked at her priest who was, she thought, “standing in” for Jesus as He presided over the Eucharist. “She decided that she would touch the priest’s robe when he gave her the communion wafer.” As Barbara tells it: “I touched his robe, and he couldn’t have known that I did, though he did know about my cancer. He did something in that moment that I had never seen him do before: he put down the paten with the communion wafers and came over to me; laying both hands on my head, he prayed for my healing.”
Barbara wasn’t healed instantly. But she knew that God was healing her. As she explains it, though at that point her healing wasn’t physical, her heart was healed. “I had complete trust in God and his love, something [God] knew I needed far more than any other kind of healing at the moment.”
Of course, you and I know that not every one for whom we pray is healed. And even more than that, Pastor Mark Dahle, a Lutheran pastor who has written and spoken about his California congregation’s healing ministry, reminds us, everybody for whom we pray will eventually die. We live in a fallen and imperfect world. Death comes, as does suffering of all kinds. Faith in Jesus is no insurance policy against the reality of living in a dying world.
So, why did Jesus heal Simon’s mother-in-law and the others our Gospel lesson tells us He healed? Why does Jesus heal today?
We get at least one answer to that question from an interchange that happens between Simon and Jesus before dawn, the day after Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law and after Jesus has just spent time in prayer.
It had been a busy Sabbath for Jesus. After worshiping and teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum—where, you’ll remember from last week’s Gospel lesson, He had cast out a demon--He’d gone to the house of Simon and Andrew for dinner, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cured many who were sick, cast out demons, and then before sun-up, prayed.
While He was praying, Simon and the others hunted Jesus down. They clearly wanted Jesus to go back to the scene of so much triumph and success. Instead, Jesus tells them, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
For Jesus, healing was never an end. It was only a means.
John’s Gospel constantly refers to Jesus’ healings and other miracles as signs. Signs point to something more significant, more meaningful than themselves. The miracles of Jesus point us to the simple, powerful fact that Jesus has power over life, death, suffering, disease, sin, the devil, our sinful selves, and every other one of our enemies.
What Jesus came to do during His time on earth was share a plain message, one that will change our lives forever if we let it. In Mark 1:15, we find the only of sermons Jesus that Mark recounts: The time has come,” he said.
Repent. Trust. That’s Jesus’ message in a nutshell. Its validity is underscored by HIs miracles, by His suffering death on our behalf, and by His resurrection.
Jesus once asked an important question. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” [Matthew 16:26] Today’s lesson, I think, asks a similar question: “What good is it to have perfect health, but not have life with God?”
Jesus Christ heals. And, by the power of His death and resurrection, the ultimate healing, the one that matters for all eternity, is the healing of our broken relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. The healing Christ brings to those who repent and believe in Him will be our joy for all eternity. It can also be our comfort, our strength, and our hope even now. Amen
(1) I had heard of this research before. But I'm grateful to the late Father Andrew Greeley for pointing to it.
(2) These are cited in a book by Dr. Dale A. Matthews, here. Dr. Larry Dossey also has spent years cataloging scientific studies specifically showing the connection between prayer and healing. Both Matthews and Dossey are physicians.