My friend Neely Towe is a Congregationalist minister. In her retirement, she leads a very popular Bible Study and has mentored a group of priests and ministers, including taking them to the holy land in January. She told this story about their trip.
She and her colleagues were at the Church of the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem. They decided to wait in line in order to climb a series of stairs. At the top of the stairs was the rock on which they believe that Jesus was placed on the wood of the cross and the nails were hammered into his hands and feet. But one of the women in Neeley's group could not walk up the stairs. So Neely, being a good shepherd, stayed behind with this woman and watched as hundreds of pilgrims climbed the stairs to touch the rock and pray.
Neely could see everything as she stood there and waited with her friend. After a few moments, she noticed that there was a quiet man sitting on the side right near the rock. He held a hat in his hand. She looked closer and could see that a cancerous growth was emerging from the side of his face. He sat their quietly, waiting for someone to see him, to give him some money or food. But the pilgrims were so focused on getting to the rock and touching it that they did not see him. They just passed him by. They thought that the holy place was the rock and they gave it all of their attention, but some part of her wondered if maybe it was that man who could best show people about Jesus. And they just walked right by him.
We get awfully caught up in the physical. And no wonder. Our bodies are important. They ache and hurt and give us joy and pain. They demand our focus. But there is much more to life than just what we can touch.
When Jesus began his ministry, people rushed to him in crowds to be healed. Just by touching them, he could make their bodies healthy again. When he goes to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew, Peter's mother-in-law has a fever and all Jesus has to do is to take her by the hand and she is healed. She immediately gets up and serves them. Crowds swarm around him because they want to be pain-free, because he gets rid of the voices in their heads and makes their bodies well again. Jesus can't get any time alone so he sneaks away in the dark part of the night to pray. You get the sense that Jesus got lost in prayer, that he lost track of time, because he doesn't return from praying and the disciples wake up and have to hunt for him to find him.
And when they finally find him, he says that he must move on, to spread the message. And then Jesus says something very important. He says, "for that is what I came to do." In other words, Jesus did not come just to make our physically bodies feel better. That was not his purpose. It was a benefit of being close to him, that people were cured of diseases, but it was not why he came. He came to do something more permanent, more important than just curing our bodies.
When we are sick and in pain, it is very easy to become wholly focused on finding relief, on a cure. We just want to be healthy. We just want to feel better. But in our haste to seek a cure, we often walk right by our Lord. We don't listen or watch for his presence. Heal me, heal me! We pray as if our bodies can be fixed forever. But our bodies are temples, containers of our souls. They do not last forever. Even the people who were healed by Jesus himself eventually died. Physical healing is possible and real but it is only a short-term solution. And it was not why Jesus came to us.
Physical healing is a short-term solution. Jesus came for a higher goal, to heal our souls.
Ironically, nothing seems to draw the soul closer to God than illness. All of a sudden, life as we know it is changed. We find ourselves vulnerable and alone. The fear and uncertainty of physical suffering can create an opening through which God can enter. Suffering can bring us closer to Christ. And yet, at the same time, it is clear that when Jesus came into contact with someone who was suffering, he healed them. He had mercy and compassion and did not want their suffering to continue. Not once does Jesus refuse to heal a sick person. Not once. But he does run away from all their needs and problems. He could have stayed in one village and continued to heal and cure, but what good would that have done? In the immediate moment, it would have solved many problems, but we would never have known about him today. He would have spent his whole life just trying to protect one village from physical pain and death and for what?
God wants you to be well physically. God does not want you to suffer. But the physical state of our bodies is not what is most important to God. What is most important is not that we touch the rock on which Jesus body suffered, but that we stop to notice the man who sits beside the rock, asking for our help. To seek our own healing is good. To seek the healing of others is better.
Nancy Altman was told, back in the 1970's, that she had six months to live. Her lungs were compromised. She would not be able to breathe. But she prayed. And each day is a new challenge. She was just in the hospital this week for more lung and heart work. But she is still with us. Has she been healed? Yes and no, she still struggles, but she has made it this far, much farther than any doctor could have predicted, and her faith, well, now, that is as strong as I have ever seen. No matter what her situation, she is grateful--for the nurses, for her family, for her doctors, for every be labored breath that she is able to take. Nancy sees the big picture. Sure, she waits in line to find a cure, but she also sees that Jesus is right next to her along the way.
Jesus didn't come to heal your body. That was not his primary purpose. That would have been too shallow, too short-term for the Son of God. No, he came to heal your soul. He came that you might know and love him so that, no matter what happens to that precious and beautiful body that he gave you, you will never be alone.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead