He Healed Many?

One of the more challenging components of Sunday’s Gospel lesson is how a preacher chooses to handle Jesus’ ministry of healing.  This issue comes up quite often, especially as it pertains to the mass healings that Jesus took part in during his earthly ministry.  These events raise real concerns for those of us who are engaged in pastoral care and believe in the power of prayer.  “Why did Jesus heal so-and-so, but let my child suffer?” is a real and honest question.  One for which there is no answer.

This is made all the more difficult as Biblical scholars make new advancements in understanding the Greek language and its idioms.  The King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, NRSV, NIV, and even NLT all translate Mark 1:34 with the English word “many.”  “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”  This translation is helpful because many doesn’t mean all.  Ergo, we see that even in these mass healing events, Jesus didn’t heal everyone.  There were, presumably, reasons for that.  We have no idea what they are, but we do know that even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again, one day.  Death is batting 1.000.  Always has.  Always will.  (Yes, I’m aware of the mythology surrounding Enoch, Elijah, and Mary.)

What happens when many doesn’t mean many?  There is a shift afoot amongst liturgical scholars to shift the language of the words of institution in the Eucharist away from many and toward all.  Unlike the soft theology around Communion without Baptism, this isn’t being done under the safe blanket of “inclusion” or “hospitality,” but rather, with Biblical scholarship in hand.  In their notes on the changes in Eucharistic Prayers in Enriching our Worship 1, the SCLM elaborates on this shift from “many” to “all.”

The use of “all”… in the institution narrative emphasize that forgives of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity. (77)

This may not be true in every usage of the word, but it seems reasonable to think it might apply in this case.  Or, if not, it at least raises the question.  If Jesus healed many, couldn’t he have healed all?  There are ways to talk about this that don’t fall into cheap platitudes like “God has a plan.”  Sometimes, it comes down to the difficult discussion of what healing actually looks like.  Isn’t death the ultimate healing?

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I don’t have the answers, but I’m happy to raise the questions.  If you are preaching about Jesus’ healing ministry, how do you plan to handle the challenges it raises?  Will you talk about the differences between many and all?  Are you prepared to engage those whom you will lose in your sermon before the Gospel is done being read?  It is a difficult Sunday to preach, dear reader, and you are in my prayers.

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The Extravagance of God

I received this birthday card from my parents this year.  That such a card exists is pretty amusing, that it came to me the week of Epiphany 2c, when we hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine, is downright awesome sauce.

We can debate the humor of this card in a post-Heather Cook Episcopal Church, but that isn’t really my point this morning.  Instead, what I find interesting in the story of Jesus’ first sign is how it points not only to the power of Jesus and solidifies his disciples understanding of who he is and what he has come to do, but that it also serves as a sacramental sign of the extravagance of God.

Preachers who have done their homework will know that wedding feasts in ancient Israel were serious affairs: often lasting days on end.  Jesus and his disciples have been enjoying the party when Mary (who goes unnamed in John’s Gospel) informs him that the wine has run out.  Having attended a few events where the line lasted longer than the food or drink, I’ve seen what kind of embarrassment this can be.  Nobody wants to be known as the party thrower who didn’t have enough to serve his guests.

At first, Jesus is reluctant to do anything.  “It’s not my time,” he says to his mother, but I suspect he’s thinking, “these powers aren’t for parlor tricks.  The Second Person of the Trinity didn’t come to do magic and keep people drunk.”  And yet, seemingly motivated by his mother’s faith in him, Jesus performs his first sign by turning upwards of 180 gallons of water into wine.  That’s roughly 908 and a half bottles of wine!  As if that wasn’t extravagant enough, Jesus didn’t turn the water into Charles Shaw’s Four Buck Chuck, but the best wine that the party goers had tasted all night.

Do you want to know how much God loves you?  908.5 bottles of the finest wine worth.  And then some.  The extravagant love of God is poured out as a never-ending stream.  In his first miracle, Jesus shows to lengths to which God will go to make that love known to us.  May you come to experience the over-flowing, over-whelming love of God.

 

Act as if…

Back when I was in college and the main motivating factor in my life was getting money and buying stuff (when I made my first million, I was going to buy a Mercedes with the vanity plate MILTKT) one of my favorite movies was Boiler Room.  This 2000 movie about the excesses of the tech bubble is very much NSFW, but it was the debaucherous days of the new millennium, and I was 20 years old.

Anyway, there is a scene in the movie when all the new sales agents are called in for a pep talk given by a senior broker played by Ben Affleck.  The five minute long, expletive heavy monologue covers everything from sales technique to Series 7 exam requirements to my favorite topic at the time, what kind of suit to buy.  I’ve always remembered that part of his rant for the line “Act as if.”  “Act as if you are the [expletive] president of this firm… Act as if, and to do that properly you have to at least look the part.”

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As we enter a very brief season after the Epiphany (I know, last Sunday was the First Sunday of the season, but the Baptism of our Lord is a Feast unto itself, so don’t bother me), we find out that Jesus’ disciples have been acting as if.  This Sunday, we’ll hear the ever familiar story of Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana.  I’ll deal with that story more later in the week, but for now, I’m interested in how it ends.

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”  Did you catch that?  Jesus’ disciples believed in him after this first sign.  The verb is in the aorist tense, it is something that begins at a moment but lasts forever.  We can reasonably assume that the beginning moment of their belief is here, after the water is turned into fine wine.  Note what has already happened, however.  Half a chapter ago, John the Baptist saw Jesus, and told his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes a way the sin of the world.”  Andrew and the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist spent the day with him.  Peter was convinced by Andrew that Jesus is the Messiah.  Philip dropped everything when Jesus said “follow me” and though his friend Nathanael took some convincing, he declares Jesus the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel.”

These are the guys who join Jesus at the wedding feast.  They’ve already come to know him, already had most of their suspicions confirmed, and yet they still seem to need to “act as if” for a little while more.  It is only once they see him perform this great miracle that they truly come to believe.

All this to say that I get that faith in Jesus can be difficult.  Sometimes, it takes a while to really get it.  Sometimes, even for the most faithful disciples, there comes a time when doubt creeps in and we only manage to go through the motions for a while.  When those times come, I encourage you to “act as if.”  Continue to engage in the habits of faith.  God has not left you even when he feels far away, but it might take you a bit of time to find him again.  Stick with it.  Act as if, and you’ll find him again.