JESUS, MY WONDER DRUG
You won’t find him on the shelves of your pharmacy. But for many, Jesus serves as a super-aspirin, to be stored in a cool place until needed for aches and pains of heart, mind and body. Although Big Pharm has yet to find a way to profitably market Jesus, others have filled the vacuum. “Faith healers” are a part of American history as the revival tents toured across the land every summer. They successfully transitioned to radio and then television. Some of the more creative ones used the television set as the modern unction, advising the afflicted viewer to place his or her hands on the TV to receive healing. Almost all were clear on the need to send money. Some were sincere believers in he power of Jesus to heal. Others were bogus showmen in it for the bucks. It could be hard to tell the difference. Already a century ago, Sinclair Lewis wrote the fictional biography of one of the latter, Elmer Gantry, itself a successful novel and film. Others also featured the sham aspects of the faith healing “trade.”
Was anyone healed? Claims of success were made. Some would attribute it to the mystic power of the faith healer, others to a God willing to hear the prayer of a sick person in spite of the faith healer, others still to the power of suggestion and the ability of the mind to command the body, similar to the “placebo” effect. Clever faith healers attributed their failures to the lack of faith of the recipients (with the unintended consequence of suggesting that the faith healer was thus an unnecessary middle man, since the reverse would be that those with faith are healed without his help.) Regardless of the authenticity of the faith healing “trade,” or the actual need, this history identifies the desire for healing that many have. Many orthodox and mainline Christians have therefore seen the phenomenon and developed healing services of their own, along much the same model as the faith healers, but without the tent or the TV. While some seem to be using this as a gimmick to lure consumers, much of it appears quite sincere.
The question then becomes is it a legitimate part of church life to offer Jesus in the same way that medical help is offered, or perhaps instead of medical help. In finding the answer, the following becomes relevant:
1. Jesus responded in his earthly sojourn to requests for specific healing: the blind, deaf, lame, paralyzed, lepers and crazy, as well as chronic vaginal bleeding, and unspecified fevers and diseases, some life-threatening.
2. Jesus usually points to faith in him and his power, a sign of his messianic role, as crucial to the process.
3. As part of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the community of disciples is delegated to continue with a healing ministry.
But some points need to be noticed.
1. Jesus responds, but not with what we would see as cause and effect, i.e., the paralyzed man is brought for healing so that he can walk. Instead, he is given absolution. Only when the Pharisees scoff does Jesus provide the concrete proof of his authority by telling the man to walk. And while he comments on faith, it is the faith of the men carrying the paralytic, not that of the man himself, just as it is the faith of the centurion, not his ill daughter..
2. When Jesus receives an emergency message to come heal Lazarus, he doesn’t respond at all for several days, until Lazarus dies and is entombed. There is none of the sense of urgency which we lay on physical well-being.
3. Jesus sometimes challenges the person requesting healing, initially refusing to help.
All of which is to say that Jesus is not a wonder drug. Any healing which happens takes place in the larger context of a life of faith, as discussed last week. While healing powers are a sign of the messianic presence, their purpose is not to simply provide health care. The purpose of the Messiah is to heal creation, restoring it to its original wholeness. Physical healing without faith in the Messiah as the Savior and without absolution for your sin is just like re-arranging the deck chairs as the Titanic sank. It is ultimately pointless, even if it makes things seem more reasonable or helps us to feel better for the moment.
We are therefore back to the basics. Healing is in the cosmic context. The grace of God is what we need above everything else. To heal people of some ailment or disability when they simply continue to live as blind, and out of touch with the Lord’s earth is at best meaningless, and at worst, may distract them from their real problem. Unfortunately, the Protestant mentality, which has drifted a long ways from the theology of Martin Luther, buys into a Jesus who is here to meet our felt needs, give us all that we ask for, shower us with health and prosperity, keep us from all harm, suffering, disadvantage and inconvenience and then stay out of our lives in the “secular” arena. This is a Jesus marketed to consumers, signing them up for the advantages it will have in their lives in the context of a secular world, while giving the clergy who play the game well, bragging rights that their church is growing.
But the secular world is entirely an illusion of modern man. The earth is the Lord’s (see Psalm 24), all of it. Instead of consumers, Christians are in a vast family, entering by baptism to be children of God our Father. We live in a sacred world, made by God, and are ourselves sacred beings as his creations. He has sent his Son as Messiah, not to fix our immediate problems, but to offer free and unearnable grace so that we might be united in the family and restored to harmony with the Father and his creation. That brings healing, defines healing. At the family table, we partake of the Eucharistic meal, which the early church called the “medicine of immortality.” If you want healing, don’t look for it in the tent or on TV, look for it where grace always abounds, at the Table of the Lord. It is the medicine which will last an eternal lifetime, it “restores my soul” (Ps. 23). It is about Sacrament, grace which envelopes all of life, all the earth, all the problems I have, and transcends them, puts them in order of priority, with faith in our Father and unity with our family being paramount.
In that context, the community of Christians has always cared about each other and our respective needs. Instead of inventing some rather inadequate liturgy for healing the less important malfunctions in the wrong context, why not turn to the sacramental provisions of grace which the Church has had from the days when the apostles were passing it on to their immediate successors? The Sacrament of Unction, or Healing, may have had some bad detours in its history, particularly in western Christianity, but it has always been there, as the way the sacramental grace of God, the family remedy if you like, confronts the dysfunctions of our body, soul and mind in a sinful, painful and distorted world. It is wrong to think of it as one tool in a bag of tricks available from the institutional Church, the one designated for sick people. There are not two, three or seven sacraments, there is only Sacrament, the loving presence of Christ among us as bright and dynamic as the sun when you are standing next to it.
Unction therefore is a specific expression of Sacrament. It is designed for all of us all the time. The former attempt of the Roman Church to restrict it as a sacrament of death, a rite of passage from earthly life, has fortunately been seen as the drastic shrinkage of grace that it was. Unction is intended to heal a fallen world. As long as my sin prevents me from harmony with Creator and creation, I need the healing of unction, in all the phases and passages of my life. The use of oil as the material and visible aspect of this means of grace is older than Christianity. Oil (think olive oil, not petroleum) has always been valued for conveying a sense of healing. Christianity simply expanded that into a healing centered in God’s grace and as being all-encompassing. The soothing feel of the oil is a wonderful way to sense the reality of God’s healing.
The practical question, given all this, is when do you offer or request unction?
1. There is never a bad time for faithful Christians, or even seekers willing to trust God, to request unction.
2. Unction is Sacrament, it is of value only in the context of faith in the Triune God of creation, salvation and presence.
3. Unction is the family remedy for the baptized household of God; it is of value only for those who are willing to abide by family values (as defined by Christ, not by politicians).
4. The power of unction includes application to physical or mental illness, but as with all healing of Jesus, the goal of God may be different than the cause and effect relationship you might expect
5. It is not possible to overdose on unction
6. Sin is a chronic condition, which can be managed but not cured in this life; unction can heal and restore, but cannot permanently remove the condition.
7. Unction is equally appropriate for those with terminal illness and at the point of death; its purpose is not permanent earthly life, but harmony with God.
Finally, keep in mind that unction is the unmerited grace of God. Having received, returning to give eucharistic thanks is appreciated, as in the story of the ten lepers who were healed, and the one who gave thanks.