Monday, June 3, 2013

Of the Elephant and Faith

The complete Lectionary readings can be read here

The Gospel reading presents one of the most often debates issues around the healing ministry of the Church in the present age. The issue is the question of the importance, or significance of faith for the manifestation of healing to occur.^1

Here's the text.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,' and he goes, and to another, `Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. (Luke 7:1-10)
So, let's just get down to brass tacks of this passage shall we?

What I mean is, there really is an elephant, not just one, but two elephants in the room. Not only do we have some sort of healing manifestation, but we also seem to hear a message that conditions the actual healing to the amount of faith that the person demonstrated.

As far as this passage goes, there is a just too much super-naturalism and fodder for bad theology for most people to take the text to heart; such a pity.

Speaking from my experience in seminary, most mainline churches don't like dealing with the healing ministry of Jesus. We live in an age of science after all, and miracles performed by faith healers are simply not the prescribed modality. In fact, the introductory Preaching Course practically outright banned the use of the healing stories or "miracle" stories of the Gospels.  To add to that, the Pastoral Care courses only emphasized development of a theology of Suffering. It felt to me that by the end of the course we had entirely neglected the concepts of developing a holistic ministry of caring and compassion that took on the troubling healing texts. Perhaps that was the best way the professor could navigate the diversity of theological traditions that sat within the room. We did conclude with a fair and liberal understanding of the vast complexity of possible issues one might encounter within the congregational setting, and tools to spot red flags of issues which should be properly referred to professionals fully trained and credentialed in therapeutic methods psychology and medicine.   

Sadly, it took me 3 years in parish ministry to begin to unpack the idea of having any form or resemblance of a healing ministry. Although the long continuous tradition of priests and pastors providing presence and support, prayer, confession, absolution and blessing for members at times of crisis and prior to death,  we simply weren't schooled in this tradition, in the more liberal framework. Sacramental  Theology did not actually fit within the framework of those pastoral care classes. We were coached and guided to place within our toolbox of intellectual material a sufficient introduction to pastoral care in a manner that most closely paralleled the counseling fields. At the same time we were strictly cautioned that we should never attempt, within the framework of pastoral ministry, to engage in anything other than "brief counseling". I have eventually come to a place within my ministry that I do indeed have a significantly broader theological framework, not just a vague and somewhat impotent theology of suffering, and death, but also a deeper and fuller theology of healing. And, rather than run for cover from a text like this gospel passage, I truly embrace it as a story that contains hope, and insight into the spiritual path available as a follower of Jesus Christ. In a very explicit sense this story helps me inwardly digest a deeper understanding of what it means to activate a  "healing" ministry in the world.

Enough about my contextual framework and back to the reading and marking of this Gospel.

When I start to really analyze a piece of scripture from the New Testament, particularly from one of the Gospels, I run through a few things in my mind because it helps me as I look for the salient message.

First; I remember the general rule of all ancient writers, the center of the book really represents a turning point. The drama usually is gradually building up steam before the middle of the book but will truly shift in the dynamics of the story after the center of the story.

Second; What came before the text is often an illuminating factor for the present text.

Third; What is the setting (location) of the story

So, just to demonstrate with this passage, the Gospel of Luke is coded into 24 chapters.
What came before this story in Chapter 7 was the teaching Jesus gives out "on a mountain" in chapter 6. Jesus has just really started becoming pretty darn popular and building a public reputation. Not so much to have yet acquired any ill will among any of the real Power Brokers. Jewish Leaders and Roman Authorities are not yet feeling any sense of antagonism from the following or teachings of the itinerant former teacher.

Present location: reflects movement, from outside of the town, where many were gathered, to within the town of Capernaum, with the disciples and possibly still some of the larger crowd following him,

I ask, finally:
Who are the characters in this cast?
The Cast of this Story
the people (close enough to hear)

Centurion **
Jewish Elders
"the crowd"
"Those who had been sent"

Well, here is what I took note of:

Notice that the Centurion, while being a person with great power and material authority, maintained an attitude of humility toward the power which Jesus represented. The Jewish rulers made the point that he was worthy, but in fact the Centurion, declines any claim of worthiness. The petition for action came never came from the person (the slave) who was to be the object of the restored health. In fact, we cannot tell how many people were actually a part of the delegation. There was communal action to bid the restoration of strength to the servant's body so that the servant could resume duties in the household of the Centurion.

So, really, we are compelled to recognize that faith in and of itself is not at all a factor in the consequent healing. What may be far more important is the role of the community coming together, interceding on behalf of the one in need.

Also, in the end, the healing which occurs serves as demonstration that the grace and mercy of God boundless and available to all. There is no outsider to the grace of God. Servant, Centurion, Jew, Gentile. No longer are the only chosen people of God those who come from the Tribes of Israel. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, God's grace is available to all. Healing is a spiritual wholeness far more than simply a physical cure. Healing is experienced by many people that may or may not acknowledge that what has occurred is the result of a series of actions performed by a variety of people on behalf of one person in need. It is the work of the Holy Spirit manifested in diverse ways which result in a communal response of thanksgiving to God.   

^1. One organization, the Order of St. Luke the Physician, requires associates to the order to complete a 25 week study on the major Gospel Healing stories to help nuance this issue, quite well.

**Art from Brooklyn Museum by  James Tissot.

Note: Are you interested in the PROCESS I employ? See the page tab PROCESS at the top of this blog to learn more. 

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