(with a shout out to I Corinthians 13)
January 31, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This past September, the movie “Captive” was released in theaters. The movie told the true story of a woman named Ashley Smith who, ten years ago, was held hostage in her apartment at gunpoint for seven hours by Brian Nichols, an escaped prisoner who had killed four people. At the time, Ashley was a 25 year old waitress with a serious drug habit. Her husband had been murdered in a bar fight, and because of Ashley’s addiction, her aunt had taken over custody of the their five year old girl. Having lost everything dear to her, Ashley knew she had to turn her life around and had recently begun attending church but she was still using. Crystal meth was her current drug of choice, which she kept stashed in a bag under her mattress.
The night Nichols escaped from the police, Ashley went out late for a pack of cigarettes and when she returned home, Nichols jumped her as she got out of her car, forced her into her apartment at gunpoint, and tied her to a chair with masking tape and an extension cord.
Ashley calls that horrific night of ten years ago her night of redemption. Frightened for her life and suddenly recognizing that she wanted to stay alive for her daughter’s sake, she managed to survive by talking to her captor about her life, her dead husband, her drug use, and the worries she had for her daughter. She asked him about his life, found out that he had a newborn son he had never seen, and offered to read him passages from the Bible and Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, that she had found meaningful to her. When Nichols asked her for drugs, she told them where she kept them and he untied her so that she could prepare them for him. He even invited her to take some with him. She declined, deciding right then that she would never use drugs again. Eventually, she was able to establish enough of a rapport with her captor that Nichols let her go, and as soon as she was out of the apartment, she called the police. Nichols gave himself up peacefully and is serving a life sentence in prison, but Ashley is a new person.
“Drugs had been a way of life,” Ashley says, “that I had let consume me for many years before that and I had a choice, whether I was going to use them or not. It was almost as if … Jesus took the body of Brian Nichols in that one moment and said, ‘Do you want to do this, or do you want to have a different life?’”
On that stark horrible night ten years ago, Ashley encountered the healing Christ and she became a new person.
Jesus was a healer. The gospel of Mark is particularly intent on making this point: Jesus’ reputation as a healer has spread all over the region before we even leave the first chapter. By the beginning of the second chapter of Mark, there are so many people wanting to witness his healing ability that the paralyzed man who most needs to experience it can’t even get to him. Jesus heals fevers and cures leprosy and chases away demons, straightens limbs, frees minds, and makes the wounded whole once again. Jesus is a healing machine at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. And when we read these gospel accounts, we assume that like Ashley Smith, the people Jesus heals are so changed by their encounter with him that they go on to become new people. We assume that they become fervent disciples of his gospel, committing their lives to demonstrating to others the same love that he has poured out on them…
…Because we want every healing story to be the Ashley Smith story. We want to believe that when Jesus heals people’s physical ailments, their gratitude for what he has given them transforms their souls as well. Isn’t that why Jesus healed them in the first place, so that they could know salvation of the spirit as well as of the body?
But in fact, for the most part, the Bible is silent about the end of their stories. We know that Jesus heals many many people but we don’t know what they all decide to do with that gift.
Let’s think about this for a second. The gospel of Mark tells us that a paralyzed man is so desperate for healing that he gets his friends to carry him on his mat to the house where Jesus is teaching, and that those friends are so equally determined to get the man to Jesus that when they find their way blocked, they take the stairs to the roof, and pound a hole through the ceiling so that they can lower the man right down in front of Jesus. Even after the paralyzed man gets to Jesus, he still has to wait through the sudden intrusion of the scribes who interrupt the scene to engage Jesus in a theological argument over the nature of authority. Finally, to the incredible relief of the paralyzed man, all of his effort, all of his waiting is over, and Jesus utters the command that brings strength flowing back into his legs. He stands up, grabs his mat, and strides out the front door while the crowd gasps in amazement.
This is no drive-by healing; the man is determined to be healed; his friends are intentional in their efforts on his behalf, and the final result is mind boggling to the crowd. We can see the whole scene in great detail except…
What is the paralyzed man’s name?
We don’t know.
Where does he go after he leaves Jesus’ side?
We don’t know.
What does he do with his newly restored abilities?
We don’t know.
We have no idea how this man’s life was changed by his healing. Beyond the fact that he could now fetch his own olive oil from the market without having to ask his friends for help, we know nothing else about what might have changed for him. The ability to walk doesn’t make us good or bad, upright or dishonest, loving or spiteful, useful or leading a pointless existence; it just means that our legs work. We assume that Jesus’ healings transformed people’s hearts as well as their bodies but we really don’t know if this is true because most of the time, once the healing is over, people exit stage left never to be seen again. There are a few exceptions — Mary Magdalene, the blind man Bartimaeus both of whom become dedicated followers after their healings — but for the most part we have no idea whether the healing that people experienced at Jesus’ hands was anything more for them than skin deep.
And this silence of the gospels on the spiritual results of people’s healing is extremely important to our understanding of just what it was that Jesus was doing for people in these healing stories. I think that too often, we believe that what Jesus was doing was “fixing people.” You know, Jesus took a paralyzed man and he fixed his legs so they would work again. After this, of course the man is going to lead an exemplary life of faith and committed love because Jesus fixed him. But Jesus didn’t fix people as if being a person is no more than being some sort of machine that breaks down and can be bolted back together. What Jesus was doing when he healed people was he was removing the obstacles that had prevented that person from fully participating in their community as a recognized and worthwhile human being.
In modern day America, we work hard to remind people that physical disabilities, disease, and addictions do not define a person. We no longer whisper the word “cancer” as if it is something to be ashamed of, and we have mercifully rid ourselves of words like retard, cripple, lunatic, and feebleminded, words that were so dehumanizing its even hard for me to say them from the pulpit. In the first century, however, the physical and the spiritual were still seen as inseparable. In Jesus’ day, people with leprosy were more than diseased; they were considered unclean and were ostracized from the rest of the community. So too, people looked at the paralyzed man and assumed that his paralysis was caused by his sin. The man was judged by his community and found wanting. People with physical ailments lived on the fringes of society, cast off, ostracized, and disavowed. Maybe they had good hearts and deep spiritual insight, or maybe they were selfish and shallow, but few people ever got close enough to them to even find out. By removing their physical disabilities, Jesus removed the obstacles that had kept them from being full members of their community. He brought them back into fellowship with their neighbors but it was up to them to decide what to do with that opportunity. In essence, Jesus was not healing their bodies; he was healing the space in which their relationships could grow and flourish. He was opening a door that had been closed and inviting them to step through into a life of love and purpose. It was entirely up to them whether they would choose to go through.
As Paul said, “Love does not insist on its own way,” even when that way is love. Jesus offers us healing, just as he offered healing to all of those he encountered throughout his ministry. He will clear away all of the obstacles that have kept us from being fully human. He will cleanse our hearts of its guilt by forgiving us the stupidities of our past and the failings of our human flesh. He will lift us to strength when we thought we were too weak to be of any consequence. He will not judge us by the color of our skin, by our gender or sexuality, by our age or physical beauty, by the size of our paycheck or the title by our name, or by any of the other ways in which our community judges us and sometimes finds us wanting. He will create a space for us in which we are fully accepted and cherished, and in that space, we will be healed. And once we realize that there is nothing that can stand in the way of our living lives of purpose and love, he will open the door and invite us to a new way of living, but he will not shove us through that door. The freedom to accept or reject the offer of new life will always be ours.
In the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” four brothers sign up to fight in WWII, and when three of them are killed in action, the government decides to recall the fourth son, Private James Ryan in order to bring him home safely to his grieving mother. Ryan is on the front lines of the battle, and so Captain John Miller is assigned to take some troops into the heart of the war to find Ryan and evacuate him. Miller is able finally to locate Ryan but he loses many men in the effort and at the last minute, is himself mortally wounded. As Miller lies dying, his last words to Private Ryan are, “Earn this.” The camera then fades to Ryan now as an older man standing before Miller’s grave, marked by a white cross in a field of crosses. Ryan says, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge and I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me. [I hope] that I’ve led a good life…. [I hope I’m] a good man.”
Miller and his troops created the opportunity for Ryan to live a life of purpose and love but only Ryan could decide whether to step through that door and accept the gift.
Jesus heals us by freeing us from the obstacles that keep us from living lives that are small and broken, but it will always be up to us whether to accept the gift and become new people.