“If only you had more faith…” dangerous words?
Sermon for evensong, Sunday next before Lent, Adel Parish Church.
2 Kings 2: 1-12; Matthew 17: 1-23
Today we hear of the transfiguration of Jesus – when he is revealed as truly God – in glory that’s too much for the disciples even to look on. Jesus is God – the bedrock of our faith.
Then we come back down the mountain to be faced with one of the greatest challenges to faith…someone is ill, they are prayed for, and nothing happens.
Even worse…we have Jesus telling the disciples that they failed to cure the epileptic boy because they didn’t have enough faith.
So where does that leave us when our loved ones…or those we come across…are ill? Do we pray for their healing – knowing that in our experience, and that of those around us, miraculous healing is rare? Do we pray for their healing and then feel guilty because our faith was not enough?
Like the boy in the story, our daughter Kate has epilepsy. I’ve come across lovely, genuine Christians who have suggested praying with her for healing. I’ve fended them off.
Because I don’t have enough faith that such healing is likely? Possibly.
Because I fear she’ll end up feeling the epilepsy is somehow her fault, to do with her lack of faith? Definitely.
So what do we do with such bible passages? Mostly – I don’t really know. But for what they’re worth – here are a couple of thoughts.
There are many stories of Jesus healing people. There are stories of the disciples healing people. But neither they nor Jesus healed everyone around them. The crowds were enormous. Some will have gone away disappointed, many will never have reached Jesus or the disciples. And we know that we can’t all be healed indefinitely – death is part of life.
So I trust that these stories are not about some mechanism whereby faith reaches a certain point and healing follows. Rather they are about Jesus bringing life in all its fullness – and this first being shown in healings and other miracles.
Perhaps Jesus, the man in whom all the fullness of God dwelt – as we see at the transfiguration – could not help but heal people. Perhaps the power of God just flowed out of him.
Perhaps healings by Jesus were the only way to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God had arrived in Jesus. Perhaps healings by the disciples showed that God’s power is available to others.
It seems that when Jesus first sent the disciples out, they were amazed by their ability to heal – but with Jesus absent for a couple of days up a mountain they seem to have lost their nerve, their faith. May be Jesus’ exasperation is to do with the urgency of spreading the news of the kingdom, and the need for them to understand the power of faith.
So what about now? I know there are examples of miraculous physical healing following prayer…although I haven’t witnessed it. But on the whole it seems rather less simple.
I do pray for Kate and others who are ill. But I don’t pray expecting a miracle. I pray because I’ve found that prayers are answered in ways I don’t expect. That faith ‘as small as a mustard seed’ can somehow help me get through things I didn’t think I could cope with. That, mysteriously, receiving life in all its fullness, doesn’t mean no suffering, no illness.
Of course I could just be trying to explain away a bible passage I find difficult…but that seems better than ignoring it, or interpreting it in such a way that blames the sick for their lack of faith.
After all, Jesus didn’t tell the boy that if he’d had more faith he would have been healed. Jesus never suggested that someone’s illness was to do with their sin or lack of faith.
On balance – when I meet Jesus I would rather have to explain my lack of faith, than how I made others feel their illness was their fault.
So I pray holding together a paradox. Holding together the belief that prayer does something, with the certainty that the God who has found me wouldn’t wait for someone to have enough faith before healing them.
And I pray, with the promise those disciples had yet to discover – that whatever the mystery of suffering in this world – Jesus has conquered death. So in a way I cannot yet grasp, all will be well.