Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple by American artist Benjamin West, 1815
“As you go, proclaim this message: The kingdom of heaven has come near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”
It seems like I have spent my life in a classroom. First as a student and then, for the last thirty years, a teacher. By far, the most fascinating and, at times, most challenging, classroom experience for me came at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California in the early 1980s. At the time, I was actually living in the San Joaquin Valley and serving at a large United Methodist church in a city called Visalia. Pasadena was about a three hour drive south, but I made the round trip faithfully every Monday night for a class called “Signs, Wonders and Church Growth” taught by a man named John Wimber, founding leader of a movement of charismatic churches called “The Vineyard.” Each week, Wimber would teach about the subject of healing and the miraculous from Scripture and the lives of those in the history of the Christian church known for healing ministries. During the second half of the class, we would break up into groups and actually pray for the sick in our midst. Wimber often called it, “Doing the Stuff.”
This class was fascinating because it is the only class I have ever attended where someone sat at the door and only admitted students who were enrolled in class. People who were sick, or curious, would literally line up outside of the classroom hoping to get in—probably a bit like the crowds who followed Jesus hoping to get near to the Master to be healed or to see a miracle. The class was challenging because, for much of my life, I had pigeon-holed faith healers, demon chasers, and tongues talkers as crazy people who didn’t fit neatly or comfortably in my circle of acceptable Christian associates. But God had been working on me for some time at this point, showing me that my understanding of the dimensions of the Body of Christ were narrow and a bit too Methodist.
I couldn’t argue that the instructions Jesus had given his disciples when he sent them out to minister were right there in the Bible, clear as day, just like Matthew’s version found at the beginning of this reflection. And, more importantly for contemporary disciples, Jesus’ last words before his Ascension were that the original disciples were teach future disciples to “obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20) If you take the Bible at face value, that means that we are to continue to pray for the sick, raise the dead and drive out demons.
So, I started to be intentional about praying for the sick, including one day in a Pizza Hut in Visalia. I was eating by myself, enjoying a slice covered with pepperoni and mushrooms, when I sensed a distinct impression that I was supposed to pray for a man I didn’t know across the room. The impression was that he had pain in his knee. Of course, I tried to ignore the little voice in my mind as long as I could. But what I now believe was the direction of the Holy Spirit kept nagging me. Finally, the man got up, paid his bill and left the restaurant. It was now or never for me. I got up, told the wait staff not to clear my table (I didn’t want my lunch to disappear, too) and hurried out into the parking lot. I caught up with the man, introduced myself and tentatively asked if he had a pain in his knee. He acknowledged that he did and I asked if I could pray for him. He graciously agreed (rather than calling for security) and I kneeled in that parking lot, put my hand on the offending knee and prayed. I would like to tell you the man’s knee was healed on the spot, but the pain was still present when I finished. The man got in his car and I never saw him again.
Was the origin of my little voice indigestion from some bad pizza rather than the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so. Sometimes, I think the Lord wants to put us in a position where doing what He asks us to do is more important to us than our reputation, our self-respect or our comfort zone. And expecting the miraculous and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit is definitely out of the comfort zone of most us in the western, and especially the American, church. Why was it so important to Jesus to instruct his disciples over and over again to pray for the sick? Compassion for the hurting? No doubt. But I think it was more than that.
In my history classes, I show students a lot of videos because I know that seeing what I’m teaching is more impactful to them than just hearing it. Likewise, Jesus’ message was that a new Kingdom was breaking in on the old order, a Kingdom introducing a power that would bring peace, reconciliation and healing. What better way to get people’s attention and illustrate this new Kingdom than to literally destroy the consequences of brokenness in their bodies? I’ve never heard of a person who has been healed of their physical infirmity who was not ready then to hear about how their spiritual sickness could be healed as well.
That is why we, as disciples of Jesus, must keep doing the stuff. We have to overcome our skepticism or a spectator mentality, the belief that only the “paid, professional pray-ers” are the ones who should be out on the streets, or in their homes or businesses, looking for God-given opportunities to pray for the sick. And by pray for the sick, I don’t mean muttering a quick sentence or two under my breath. I mean taking the risk of laying hands on people and showing them I believe God can heal them. We have to believe that God can still raise people from the dead (I have actually met some of them in Bulgaria and India) and that there are actually demons that still need to be driven out. The devil is real and so are his operatives. It is unwise and unbiblical to blame the demonic for everything. But it is equally unwise and unbiblical, and very dangerous, to forget that we are in a very real spiritual battle with a very real enemy.
In fact, that is the real problem. We define the success of our churches, if not out loud then at least in our minds, by the number of people in attendance or the amount of donations collected, by the quality of our worship or the popularity of our youth ministry. But success is the way to measure a business. At its core, the church is not a business. The church is engaged in a war; the Body of Christ is an army. The only meaningful goal under these circumstances is victory. Victory will come as the disciples of Jesus follow His instructions and “do the stuff.” That’s what disciples do!
Heavenly Father, we confess that, in our hearts, it is hard for us to believe in Your supernatural power, harder than we want to admit. It is ironic that we doubt that You can raise the dead when You Yourself established the church through the power of Your resurrection. Increase our faith and give us the courage to pray for the sick with the expectation that You still heal supernaturally today. We also believe that You heal through the miracle of medicines and therapeutic procedures You made possible through the minds You gave us. Help us to be ambassadors of Your kingdom as we do battle to display the victory You won on the cross. In Jesus’s Name, Amen.