Mark 8:22-26 – A Ministry of Touch

“Healing” by Ivan Filichev

They [Jesus and his disciples] came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.” (New International Version)

Spirituality is, of course, a matter of the spirit. It is also a matter of the body. It may be lost on us that the way our spirituality is expressed is through our very real physical selves. A disembodied spirituality is really no spirituality, at all.

Christianity is profoundly physical. A core doctrine of the Church is the incarnation of Christ, God becoming man. Jesus has a real flesh and blood body. His physical body was the vehicle by which he did the will of God. Christ’s earthly ministry directed attention to people’s holistic needs – including the physical body.

So, perhaps it ought not surprise us when Jesus intentionally and literally touches people. From one person to another, Jesus was attentive to the power of compassionate and healing physical touch. For healing does not happen from afar; it is close enough to be personal, touching the spirit, the emotions, the mind, and the body.

In today’s Gospel lesson, some folks came to Jesus with a blind man in tow. They were evidently concerned and close enough to the man to beg Jesus to touch him. Yes, touch him. The small group of people were looking for a tangible reach from Jesus.

Just the other day, I visited a dear lady in the hospital for which I’m a Chaplain. As I began to speak with her, she reached out her hand, and I took it. I then realized that she was blind. This patient, in the dark because of her eyes, and in a strange unfamiliar place, needed more than a verbalized healing prayer from me. She needed a very real physical connection. The ability to compassionately touch another person has tremendous power.

“To touch is to give life.”

Michelangelo

Skin-to-skin contact is vital for our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Sensory deprivation is a real thing, and it’s a pervasive problem, especially during a pandemic.

We now know that whenever we feel unusual stress and pressure in our lives that the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. One of the biggest things actual physical touch can do is reduce the abnormal stress, allowing the immune system to work the way it should. What’s more, touch helps calm our heart rate and blood pressure, enabling us to have a more regulated way of life.

Jesus took the blind man by the hand and walked him outside the village. Let’s pause on that factoid for a moment. There was a man who literally walked with Jesus, hand-in-hand, for perhaps a few miles. I wonder what he experienced, just in that walk. What seems clear to me is that this event of walking was part of the man’s healing. He quite simply needed this bodily experience with Jesus.

I find it a bit humorous that some commentators struggle with the process of Christ’s healing the blind man, as if Jesus himself was struggling with trying to heal the guy. However, by taking the approach of an embodied spirituality, we can discern that this man required a great deal of touch from Jesus. The spitting, the putting the hands on the eyes, and then doing it again, was all deliberately tactile and just what the man needed for his healing of both body and soul.

Christ’s physical body was an instrument of grace. And our own bodies are meant to bless others with appropriate and compassionate touch. I realize this gets complicated with social distancing practices and concerns with health during a pandemic, yet we can still be agents of healing through simple acts of touch, including the following:

  1. Hug others. Hugs are healthy. I completely understand that some people aren’t huggers, and we ought to be guarded hugging others we don’t know very well. I usually ask before I hug someone outside of my family or church. Unfortunately, many people have had bad experiences being touched, and my heart goes out to them. Yet, the need for meaningful and positive touch still remains both for us and for others.
  2. Pet the dog. My wife’s little dog is a prima donna. He drives me nuts sometimes (maybe most of the time). Yet, because of his disposition, he is the perfect little gentleman when in a care facility or in public. He likes the attention. If you have a pet, let other folks pet them. I’m a busy guy, but when it comes to taking time for neighborhood kids to pet the dog while I’m walking him, I’m all in. It is a simple ministry that anyone can do.
  3. Hold hands or offer light touch. This can and perhaps should be a liberal activity within most families. It can also be done with others. It’s not weird to do this, even in some contexts with strangers. For example, when leading someone in the hospital to their appointed place, depending on the circumstance, I place a light hand on the back or shoulder. Hospitals aren’t exactly destination vacation spots, so folks can be nervous when in them. Simple ways of appropriate touch help calm the anxiety.
  4. Fist pumps and elbow bumps have replaced handshakes, and that’s a good thing. Fist and elbows just aren’t the same thing as a good old fashioned tight handshake, yet it is still an opportunity to touch. Some touch is better than no touch. Don’t give up on practicing ways to physically connect, even if those ways aren’t ideal.
  5. Use your eyes. There are just going to be some circumstances and places where you cannot offer an actual physical ministry of touch. So, use your eyes. Imagine in your mind offering a hug or a handshake to the person and intentionally focus that picture to your eyes. Since our physical eyes communicate a lot, the other person will pick it up.

Every day is an opportunity, for the believer, to walk with Jesus along our life’s journey. As we allow Christ to touch our lives, we, in turn, are able to touch others both spiritually and sometimes even physically through compassionate ministry.

May you know the grace of being touched by Jesus, and the blessing of touching others with the love of God.

Matthew 17:14-21 – Use Your Faith

At the foot of the mountain, a large crowd was waiting for them. A man came and knelt before Jesus and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. So, I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”

Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy, and it left him. From that moment the boy was well.

Afterward the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast out that demon?”

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (New Living Translation)

As we reflect on today’s Gospel lesson, let’s keep in mind that any time we see Jesus exorcising demons, we need to resist the idea that anyone having similar symptoms today is demonic in origin. Any chronic health condition a person experiences, without seeing any healing take place, does not necessarily mean the condition is due to the person’s lack of faith.

Conversely, it is also possible to relegate such healing accounts to a different time and place. My own view of Scripture, along with personal experience, informs me that demonization is real. We may underestimate how influential and widespread demonization occurs in this modern time and place.

The nature of faith is not located in its amount or intensity but in its object. All of life requires some faith. Even sitting in a chair. When I sit, the amount or intensity of my faith isn’t the issue – the object, the chair, is the issue. If a leg on the chair breaks and I flop to the floor, its not reasonable for me to conclude that it happened because of my lack of faith.

The disciples’ inability to heal the boy.

I’m not sure what is more difficult: to be the person suffering, or to observe a loved one suffering. The father is desperate and hurting, watching his son suffer with seizures. The man is utterly discouraged because Christ’s disciples were not able to help.

So, the desperate father approached Jesus and knelt, begging him to have mercy and help his son.

Our Lord’s response, I admit, is not likely what my response would be. I would be more like, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. This is terrible. Let’s take care of this.” Jesus did honor the father’s request and healed the boy, but not before he had some words.

Jesus was exasperated, and he let everyone know about it. Why was he so disappointed?

Because his disciples knew better. The disciples were not ignorant or unable. They had what they needed to deal with the boy and his father. Jesus already equipped them to do this kind of ministry: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples together and gave them authority to cast out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and illness… “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!” (Matthew 10:1, 8, NLT)

The reason for the disciples’ inability to heal was their lack of faith.

Jesus was perturbed with his disciples because they were not utilizing faith.

Jesus is bothered when believers don’t believe.

Up until this encounter, the disciples were healing people and doing the work Jesus gave them to do. Yet now they cannot. What changed? They relied on their own power, abilities, and experience, instead of relying on the power of God to heal. 

The Gospel of Mark includes Jesus saying that this kind of demon can only be dislodged through prayer (Mark 9:14-29). In short, the disciples didn’t pray. They didn’t tap into God’s power. They didn’t use the authority Jesus gave them. Rather, the disciples rested on their own laurels.

Their lack of prayer translated into a lack of power. 

If we are unable to do the work God has called us to do, it isn’t because we lack the authority or ability. It is a lack of faith.

Effective ministry happens because of faith.

The power of faith is in the person to whom it is directed. If we trust solely in ourselves, we will fail. However, if we trust in Jesus, then even the tiniest of faith will be able to do the impossible.

The power is not in particular words, or in a certain formula – the power is in faith rightly directed toward Jesus. Most demonic manifestations are much more subtle – such as thoughts of how I am not enough, how I have no right to try and help another, and how unable I am to do the will of God.

Conclusion

Here is a simple observation of Christ’s words: We are not told that if we have faith as big as a mountain that we can move one. Instead, Jesus tells us that if we have any faith at all, even as small as a tiny seed, directed toward God and not ourselves, the sky is the limit – we will have all the ability we need to do the will of God.

So, what is that impossible thing that could be done in your life with properly directed faith? 

What miracle, healing, or resistance to a bad spirit needs to take place around us? 

Discouragement is the most common tool of the devil in keeping us from realizing genuine manifestations of faith. Jesus has already accomplished victory over sin, death, and Satan. We must, then, claim all the will of God for today.

Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7). Step out in faith and do the will of God. The first step is always one of prayer….

High and Holy One, because your mercy is everlasting and your truth endures from generation to generation, show mercy to the sick and infirmed of either body or soul. Grant them deliverance from mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical illness. Blessed Lord, keep them under your care, for only in you can we live in safety and wellbeing. Visit them with your saving health. Do not let their hope be taken away, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

1 Timothy 4:6-16 – Build Your Faith Muscle

If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (New International Version)

There are several metaphors throughout the New Testament illustrating the nature of the Christian life and Christian community.

God’s people are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the house where the Lord dwells; the Body of Christ, a group working together and strengthening one another in faith; the army of the Lord, advancing with the shared purpose of proclaiming good news and extending God’s benevolent rule – just to name a few.

All the metaphors are embedded with the need for training, for spiritual disciplines and practices which strengthen faith and promote spiritual health.

Just as an army of recruits needs intense basic training and ongoing discipline; and just as the body needs hourly movement and daily exercise of its muscles; so, Christian communities require spiritual development with a variety of forms and functions to elicit and establish a solid godly life.

The curriculum in the school of faith, the liturgy within the spiritual temple, the boot camp for the Lord’s soldier, and the sets and repetitions for Christ’s Body are reading and listening to Scripture with a life rhythm of personal and corporate integrity, confident faith, steadfast love, encouraging words, and virtuous behavior.

If we dedicate ourselves to these things, there will be no room for entertaining wacky stories which have no basis in truth. Instead, there will be lush spiritual growth, teachable spirits, humble service, supportive beliefs, compassionate ministry, and open fellowship.

The high values of our faith need to be both used and guarded. Our treasured possessions, whatever they may be, are handled appropriately and carefully – being kept in a secure place when not used – and being used with care when out.

Our faith, our life and doctrine, is both a precious possession, as well as a necessary muscle to do the will of God. Like our own physical muscles, faith needs to be stretched, exercised, rested, and supplied with plenty of protein and necessary nutrients. Overtaxed muscles will fatigue and can be damaged through too much exertion. And underused muscles will wither and atrophy, unable to handle even the smallest of strain when we need them.

So, it is best to have proper spiritual hygiene and exercise through a regimen of tried and true practices designed to improve and maintain healthy faith. If you want to build your faith, consider the following 10 ways:

  1. Increase your amount of reading. There is no substitute for daily repetitions of reading the Bible. Supporting a growing faith will require more voluminous reading.
  2. Focus on listening to the biblical text. Reading is only as good as our listening skills. For the Christian, paying attention to the Holy Spirit’s gentle whispers is a must.
  3. Decrease your media time. For all the good stuff out there, a lot of media information is based in myth, half-truths, and opinions masked as facts – not to mention all the hack and huckster preachers.
  4. Pray more. In fact, pray continually.
  5. Practice gratitude – not complaining. Need I say more?
  6. Snack on good spiritual reading. Consuming a good book before bed keeps the faith muscle fed longer.
  7. Rest! When God created and instituted seven days, the first day was a day of rest; the workdays came after. Don’t flip-flop the divine order.
  8. Supplement with good spiritual conversation. Half-baked theological ideas come from remaining in one’s own cave-like head. Consultation, collaboration, and fellowship help create a rich and full faith.
  9. Don’t overtrain. Good idea: Read the Bible in a year. Bad idea: Read the Bible in a month. Good idea: Digest the contents of ecumenical Creeds and church Confessions. Bad idea: Stuff a bunch of knowledge down your gullet without any love to wash it down. Savor the meal. Don’t be a pig.
  10. Don’t lift too heavy for your faith muscle. The ancient desert fathers spent years developing their faith and could do incredible feats of spiritual strength. Christianity isn’t a competition of keeping up with the Francis of Assisi’s and Martin Luther’s of history. Use the measure of faith given to you and focus on those small daily decisions of trust.

Christianity is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. We persevere to the end, not flame out after taxing ourselves with expectations and responsibilities God never gave us.

Be safe. Be strong. Be smart. Be spiritual. We are all in this together.

Gracious God, fill your Church with truth, the truth with peace, and the peace with love. Where our faith is weak, make it strong; where it is misguided and in error, correct and direct it; where it is amiss, reform it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.

John 15:16-25 – On Facing Hatred

 The Face of the Savior by Noehani Harsono

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” (New International Version)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus suffered on this earth. He was hated, persecuted, and killed. Although Christians readily recognize this, somehow we still seem surprised when, following Jesus, there are people who downright dislike us. 

Yet, Jesus clearly and unequivocally stated that we ought to expect persecution. Emotional, psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse can and does occur against God’s people who seek to follow the words and ways of Jesus. 

There was a time in the first few centuries of the church that becoming a martyr for one’s faith was welcomed. It was considered a privilege to imitate Christ in his suffering and death.  Even many modern day Christian martyrs around the globe have estimated martyrdom as an opportunity to experience solidarity with their Savior.

God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. (Philippians 1:29, CEB)

This kind of thinking may sound quite strange to Westerners who tend toward the notion that, if we do everything with excellence and effectiveness, then there will be no reason for persecution and suffering. 

However, the Christian reality is that Jesus promised his devout followers that there will indeed be those who seethe with hatred toward us. We are not above our Master. If he suffered, we will, as well.

So, the question is not whether we can or ought to avoid suffering. Rather, our consideration needs to be how we will respond to the inevitable persecution of verbal violence, physical violence, or both – not to mention the various forms of discrimination, abuse, and oppression we might face.

“They gave our Master a crown of thorns. Why do we hope for a crown of roses?”

Martin Luther

First off, there is no honor for any Christian suffering because of one’s own stupidity or obnoxiousness. If we face persecution because we have initially made others suffer through our bullhorn presentations of the gospel, or metaphorically clubbing groups of people with oversized King James Version Bibles, then whatever consequences come are of our own making and have nothing to do with being united with Christ.

And second, paying no attention to the real human needs of people locked in poverty or dismissing the body as secondary to the soul is a gross misrepresentation of Christ – not to mention the sheer ignoring of multiple books in Holy Scripture which point to caring about such things.

If, however, we endure abuse because of being humble, merciful, gentle, pure in heart, and an unflinching peacemaker amid conflict, then we can enjoy the smile of heaven. If we communicate good news with grace and compassion, seeking love-laced words of truth, along with genuine acts of mercy – and then are repaid with unmerciful oppression from prideful persons – then we understand the type of hate Jesus faced.

We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope. (Romans 5:3-4, CEV)

The genuine article withstands the test of adversity. It doesn’t fall apart in the vigorous agitation of the first washing. People who oppose Christians with persecuting words and actions need to discover an authentic believer who is ready and willing to absorb the hatred, repackage it as love, and along with the gospel of grace, gift it back to the persecutors as an offering to God.

Experiencing the hatred of others is not the worst thing which could ever happen. Knowing Jesus better is of utmost value – even if, at times, comes through the worst of circumstances.

God, who shows you his kindness and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. (1 Peter 5:10, GW)

Almighty God, thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, on my behalf.  Just as he suffered for me, I willingly suffer for him, since his infinite grace has delivered me from sin, death, and hell.  I only ask to be found faithful at the end of the age when he returns to judge the living and the dead.  Amen.