In Dancing Standing Still, author Richard Rohr states, “I am convinced that, if our preaching does not effect some level of healing, then it’s not even the Gospel. Healing is the simplest criterion of preaching the Word that I can imagine. The truth heals and expands you in its very hearing: ‘the truth will make you free’ (Jn 8:32). It allows and presses you to reconfigure the world with plenty of room for gentleness and peace for yourself, and for those around you.”
Jesus went about preaching, teaching and healing. He had a threefold ministry as we read in the Gospels: “Jesus went around all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness” (Mt 9:35). There is a clear relationship among the three. He continues to do this, through us for He said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I do, and will do greater ones than these” (Jn 14:12). Some preachers, however, would rather skip the preaching and the teaching and go to the healing. But St. Paul designated the gifts as apostles, prophets and teachers before healers (1 Cor 12:28).
If we are going to preach Jesus, we need to understand how preaching and healing are connected. Jesus healed, not because He was a better shaman or a Kathryn Kuhlman, but because He wanted the kingdom of God to come alive. Preaching proclaims the kingdom of God, and the two are interconnected. Emil Ludwig, a German-Swiss author, maintained that “Jesus consistently related His healing activity to the emergence of the kingdom of God.” Healing happens when we proclaim the kingdom of God because it counteracts all sin, evil and death. The psalmist states it well: “Bless the Lord, my soul; do not forget all the gifts of God, who pardons all your sins, heals all your ills” (103:2-3).
Jesus actively listened to people. Three respected theologians, one from Germany, one from France and one from the United States, were asked, “What is the key challenge facing the Catholic Church today?” In unison they replied, “listening to the local church.” We can bring healing by listening to our congregation, drawing on their gifts. Pope Francis has encouraged us especially through dialogue. We have to resist one-way messages that can result in gridlock. Do we reload without listening?
Jesus sent out his disciples to “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; as you go, make this proclamation: The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons” (Mt 10:6-8).
Jesus rejected the idea that sickness was the way God punished sinners. When the disciples asked Him about the blind man and who had sinned, his parents or him, Jesus responded, “Neither he or his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (Jn 9: 2-3). But there is a connection between sin and sickness because Jesus said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17).
Preaching, however, is not magic, because not every person will receive healing when we preach, nor will nations disarm and cease violence. We need to avoid abstractions or generalities and preach biblical texts, which allow the kingdom of God to pierce the darkness of sin and evil so it becomes more alive. Even though a third of the Gospels is devoted to healing, it does not concern itself with wellness in general, but with healing events that touch peoples’ lives.
Healing Without a Cure
We need to remember that healing can occur even if there is no cure. Some people come back from Lourdes without a cure, but their acceptance of whatever they had wanted cured is healing, and that might be the miracle. So we should never preach that they did not have enough faith. Patrick McDonald, a licensed clinical social worker, pointed out that this is faulty theology. Paul Tournier, known as the famous Christian physician, maintains that the popular preacher has a tendency to simplify healing by saying, “If you have enough faith, you will be healed. “ We have to remind our listeners of the possibility that their request for healing is not always granted, and ask how open they are to that reality.
When preaching, we cannot promise protection from all harm, because Jesus was subject to harmful insults, even people who wanted to kill him. We cannot promise freedom from all viruses such as Zika that plague our world. Healing has to be viewed in the context of the cross Jesus accepted, and we can challenge our listeners to take up their crosses each day and follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Francis MacNutt believes that most sermons on sickness and suffering reflect more the influence of Roman stoicism rather than Catholic doctrine. If doctors, nurses and caregivers are meant to help people in their suffering, we should encourage our listeners to remember that their sufferings cannot compare to those of Jesus, especially in His passion. Suffering will always remain a mystery, but a mystery that has to be lived rather than solved. Many expend much psychic energy trying to figure it out, rather than seeing their suffering in relation to Jesus who gives it meaning.
St. John Paul II insisted that, in our suffering, we grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life. He admitted toward the end of his life that he would lead the church with suffering. We can comfort people who are homebound, in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, praying with them and offering an appropriate Scripture passage that can soothe some of their suffering.
We have to encourage our listeners to forgive others as Jesus forgave on the cross when He said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:24). Marcel Uwineza, S.J., tells the story of a Rwandan man who came up to him, whom he recognized as the killer of his brother and sister. Marcel, who had held a grudge against this man, intended to kill him, but was astonished when the man knelt down in front of him and asked for his forgiveness. Initially confused by what was happening, he embraced and forgave him. Marcel now feels free! His wounds have been healed.
If we believe that body and soul are connected, as well as health and religion, we would use opportunities to preach, teach and offer healing to people, especially through the power of God’s Word. Hildegard von Bingen connected the health of the natural world to the health of our human bodies. Rick Warren was not afraid to show the connection between body and soul when he realized his obesity, and preached about it, reminding his congregation how St. Paul confronted the Philippians with “Their God is their stomach” (3:19). It is estimated that 800 million people go to bed hungry, and 1.7 billion are dying from too much food. He stressed how our physical health is just as important as our spiritual health. Warren challenged his congregation to lose weight, and 12,000 signed a pledge to do it.
At times, however, it is difficult to challenge our listeners to accept what God wants in their lives without alienating them. In Dancing Standing Still, Richard Rohr writes, “We agree not to tell you anything that would make you uncomfortable, and you will keep coming to our services. It is a nice deal, because once the true Gospel is preached, I doubt if churches will be filled.” Pope Francis is not afraid to challenge his listeners in his homilies.
We need to preach how sickness is an opportunity for grace to touch us, depending on our response to it. A. J. Cronin wanted to become a medical doctor, but became sick while pursuing his studies and was unable to pursue his goal. Instead, he took up writing and became a famous author of his time. Many people have turned their lives around because of sickness or tragedy.
Preaching to Comfort
Our preaching needs to help people who are in pain and not cause them more discomfort. We need to affirm those who struggle with physical and sexual violence. At times, what we preach can be more hurtful and oppressive to wounded people, especially when we bawl out people, something Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) warns us not to do. We need to be a source of healing, empowerment, encouragement and liberation for them. Pope Francis wants us to become apostles of mercy, touching and soothing their wounds, and to encourage our listeners not to remain behind closed doors because of their fears.
By our preaching we can help people who walk alone, live alone and cry alone. As we look out at the congregation, we see those who are hurting, desperate and hopeless. Some are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Recently a lady came up to me before Mass and told me that her mother had just died. The pain of loss was etched all over her face. Jesus experienced this: “At the sight of the crowds, His heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).
Jesus the Healer
We look to Jesus who was most attuned to peoples’ needs. He forgave those who needed forgiveness; He calmed their fears and healed their wounds. Jesus cleansed lepers, gave sight to the blind, healed the deaf and mute, drove out demons. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people” (Mt 4:23).
Jesus sent us the Paraclete, the consoler, and commissioned us to carry on His ministry of healing.
He often taught and preached before He healed people. He tried to increase their faith, to help them tap into His power. In Jesus’ time, people frequented synagogues because they believed some change from God would happen. While preaching in the synagogue, Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit. Is it not ironic that such a person was present there on a Sabbath? He, not the Scribes and Pharisees, recognized who Jesus was, “the Holy One of God” (Lk 4:31-37). While we will not be able to heal that way, we can bring comfort to those who are troubled in other ways because of worries and anxieties.
Four men brought a paralytic to Jesus while He was teaching in a home at Capernaum. Because of the crowd, they were unable to get near Jesus, so they came up with a bright idea, better than Ford’s, to open the roof and lower the man in front of Jesus. Jesus marveled at their faith and told the paralytic to pick up his mat and walk, and that his sins were forgiven. Undoubtedly, we will not cure a paralytic, but we can help or encourage our listeners to counteract whatever paralyzes them, especially their fear of losing their job, of not having money to pay their bills, of going to confession. We also can assure them that all their sins are forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation that brings much joy, peace and healing. Some people, who cannot let go of their past sins, live in guilt rather than having the assurance that God more readily forgives them than they forgive themselves. Jesus spent only three years in His public ministry, which can be characterized as doing good and healing people. We have more time on earth than He did, so we need to accept the challenge of inspiring and bringing people the consolation needed.
While Jesus was teaching, a woman approached Him who had a flow of blood, something common in Palestine. For 12 years, she had been considered “unclean,” an outcast of her society, isolated and rejected. The Talmud offered at least 11 different cures, and she probably tried them all. St. Luke, the physician, wrote that she spent “her whole livelihood on doctors and was unable to be cured by anyone” (8:43). In desperation she went to Jesus, thinking that, if she touched just the tassel of his cloak, she would be cured. Time stood still for her as she was cured despite breaking the religious law of not being allowed to be there. She does not have a name, and she symbolizes the marginalized, segregated and excluded in our society. We need to encourage our listeners to reach out to the outcasts of our society.
Women who have been abused, raped, harassed, or who carry the burden of this shame and guilt often suffer in silence. Tamar, a virgin, was raped by her brother, Amnon, who accused her of being the seducer. To keep peace in the family, Absalom told Tamar not to speak of the affair (2 Sm 13:1-20). Silence of those abused is a common experience today. Women need not remain silent and should be encouraged to speak out against this injustice, but many who are raped prefer not to speak out about this travesty. How many of us can say that we have preached on domestic violence?
We need to help heal women’s wounds of shame, so they can become emotionally healthy. We can offer them the balm of Gilead, encourage them to stand up for what is right and maybe use the example of the daughters of Zelphehad. When they challenged the law that did not allow women to receive the inheritance of their father’s land (Nm 27:1-11), they succeeded in having that law revoked.
Gifted women and men have often been hindered from reaching their full potential because of discouragement, opposition and fear. Through our preaching, we can provide the strength needed to counteract these obstacles, especially by encouraging them to put more trust in Jesus.
What moved Jesus to heal others? One reason was to attest that He was the Son of God “that through this belief you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:31). He showed compassion toward people because they looked helpless “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). We can show similar compassion by not ignoring people’s spiritual and physical needs. We need to challenge our listeners to carry out Jesus’ words: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:35-36).
Do we encourage others to have compassion for the poor, the homeless, the elderly, those in prison? I know a deacon who assists at all three weekend parish Masses, but one Sunday of the month he visits a nearby prison. His preaching is undoubtedly far more effective because of this ministry.
If we do not see the connection between preaching and healing and are struggling with this, we need to say with the father whose son was possessed, “I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mt 9:24). Maybe the best form of healing is to preach with a spirit of joy as Pope Francis encourages us in his Joy of the Gospel. He encourages us not to look like a sourpuss or as if we just came back from a funeral, but to preach with warmth, be unpretentious and be joyful in our gestures.
FATHER HART, a Capuchin Franciscan preacher and author who has preached worldwide resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.