(Romans 8. 26-39)
Many, if not all of us will have been watching the unfolding story of baby Charlie Gard over the last few weeks - a story which came to its earthly climax on Friday. Charlie’s story was tragic, on so many levels. There is much to reflect on about Charlie’s case – not least the way that the general public has so quickly formed an opinion about a medical matter they cannot possibly understand. But the great issue that many people are probing is this: where has God been for Charlie Gard? And even more pointedly – why hasn’t God healed him?
The concept of supernatural healing is one of the most endlessly fascinating topics for religious people today. From those who trek to Lourdes, or who seek the healing properties of certain stones, or holy places, so many of us seek physical healing. We look to the stories of Jesus and the Apostles, and say to ourselves that if it was true then, it must be true now – for Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Isn’t he?
Further still, we all know stories of people we know, who have experienced dramatic, supernatural healing. Or at least we know people who know other people who tell us that they’ve experienced it. And we all wonder, when our friends for whom we have been praying recover – how much of their recovery was down to prayer? And how much to medical science?
I could easily stand here as a preacher, and say to you as thousands of preachers have done before that all you need is faith! But if I did so, I would be dishonest with you. I am a preacher – but first and foremost I’m a pastor. I know how many people I have sat with, prayed with, cried with who despite mountains of faith have still died, or continued to live with awful health conditions. I know how many poor people, in poor nations, have died of disease not because of God’s lack of care, or the dying person’s lack of faith, but because of human selfishness and greed.
Our confusion on this issue is driven by some very important mis-understandings. Let me list them for you, briefly.
First, we tend to forget that all life is temporary. It used to be said that the only things you can’t avoid are death and taxes – but some international companies and powerful elites have demonstrated that even taxes can be avoided! Death, however, remains the one universal experience. Even the wealthiest billionaire won’t avoid that!
Secondly, we tend to forget what life is for. We do not have a divine promise that life will be pain-free, and devoid of difficulty. In fact, if anything, the opposite is true. The Scriptures show us time and time again that it is through the trial of sickness, or other disasters, that the human spirit grows. It was necessary for Jesus himself to walk the road of pain to fulfil his destiny.
Life is an opportunity for us to grow – to become all that God intends us to be. As metal is refined by fire, so we are refined by trial. Each person’s journey will be different. The challenge we face is not a question of how happy we will be, or how healthy – but how much deeper, and how much closer to the purpose of God for our lives. The challenge is not to die owning the most toys, or to live the most number of years – but to have become holier – more like God - as a result of the lives we have led – however long or short.
Just now, in our New Testament reading we heard these words from St Paul: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”. That is a statement of faith – far greater than the kind of TV Evangelists’ faith in divine healing. Rather it is a bold statement of trust - that in every circumstance of life – the good times and the bad - God is working for good. Paul’s letter to the Romans finishes with that great statement of faith, still read at every Christian funeral service: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, not powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God…”
Thirdly, and finally, we forget that the healing of our bodies is actually of secondary concern to God. The healing of our souls and spirits is God’s primary interest. Scholars tell us that the oldest text in the Bible is the book of Job. In it, God permits Satan to deprive Job of everything, his family, his land, his possessions and yes, even his health. This is all so that Job will come to a deeper understanding of who God is, and of the person God desires Job to be. “All things work together for good for those who love God”. It is Job’s good that God seeks – his eternal, existential good. Job’s health is of secondary importance to the achievement of that good.
So for each of us, whatever state of health we find ourselves in, the question is this: what are we learning about ourselves through the condition of our bodies? How does our health – and the way we handle it – impact on those around us. Are there new opportunities for love to be shown and love to be given, because of our health? What is God teaching us about the fragility of human existence? How much are we being reminded that all life is temporary – except the eternal life for which we are preparing? How much grace is growing inside of us as we learn to live with our own particular health condition? Are we growing in grace, or growing in grumpiness towards a world of healthy people whom we resent?
I’m reminded of the story of a Bishop who was about to confirm a young man who suffered with motor neurone disease. The bishop leant over the boy’s wheelchair and asked him ‘how can you want to be confirmed, when God has left you in this condition?’. The boy looked back at the bishop and said ‘God has the whole of eternity to make it up to me!’. The boy, of course, was teaching the bishop. He was reminding the bishop that eternity is our destination – and that the healing of our bodies is secondary to the healing of our souls.
As David told us last week, we are about to re-introduce the practice of prayers for healing during the Eucharist, and the opportunity for accompanied prayer at the end of our services. I sincerely hope that we will all embrace the opportunity to deepen our connection with God through the ministry that our Prayer Teams will be offering. Each first and third Sunday of the month, we will offer the opportunity for the laying on of hands – seeking God’s healing of our bodies, yes, but also and most crucially of our spirits, our souls, our minds, our emotions, and our attitudes. You don’t have to be physically sick to experience the ministry of healing. We all need God’s healing – in every part of who we are.
And what about Charlie Gard? Who can say precisely how God has been at work in Charlie’s tragic circumstances? But if God truly is working for good in all things, we can be confident that he has indeed been at work in and through Charlie. How many relationships have been deepened through Charlie’s suffering? How much love has been shared and poured out around his bedside? How much new understanding of the fragility of life has been communicated? How much knowledge has been gained? How many wrong attitudes have been challenged and honed? We cannot know…for we are not God. But we can trust that nothing separates us – and Charlie – from the love of God. And that Charlie now dwells in the very heart of that love. His short, temporary sojourn on earth is over – just as ours will one day be. And he now dwells, eternally, completely healed with his loving heavenly father.