Driving up the country on Monday following our overnight ferry journey across the Channel we switched on the radio for the 10.00am news and caught the last few minutes of what seemed to be a philosophical discussion. It turns out that the program we had dropped in on was a repeat of a 15 minute edition of Nature Watch and the topic under discussion was ‘consciousness’. This sounds complicated…and it is…but the starting point for the discussion was the observation that octopuses have 9 (I think that’s correct) brains.
Anyhow, the bit I heard, highlighted the difference between the thinking of the philosopher Descartes who believed that consciousness lies in the ability to think…famously saying ‘I think, therefore I am’ and a branch of philosophy that is called ‘materialism’. Materialism (in this context) is not about getting more shopping in, but a believe that there is no such thing as a disembodied mind. Descartes (say materialists) has led us astray. The mind cannot exist apart from the body and even emotions like anger, fear and love actually have a physical dimension – raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, hairs on the back of your neck and so on.
Christians might think that materialism makes more sense than the mind/body division of Descartes but might add that it still doesn’t go far enough – it has no room for Spirit or soul or the image of God. But for today’s purposes materialism will do because if ‘I am my body and my body is me’ how do we make sense of disability or illness and the fact that Jesus is frequently seen healing those who are unwell.
We’re actually on quite tricky ground here. Most of us would probably think that the relief of suffering and pain is a good thing and warm to the fact that Jesus heals us in body, mind and spirit. But some of what we perhaps used to call disability people prefer to describe as ‘different ability’. What do I mean? Well, it came as a real shock to me that many members of the deaf community (those born deaf perhaps rather than those who lose their hearing in later life) find the whole idea of ‘being healed’ totally alien, even offensive. They don’t feel ‘disabled’ – the problems they face are for society to sort, not just them. The whole of their identity (‘I am my body and my body is me’) is and has been shaped by their deafness and they are in no way ‘less’ than anyone else.
This one example might be replicated in other spheres. There are ethical decisions to be made (for example) concerning gene therapy or treatments that might eliminate the perpetuation of Down Syndrome: is that desirable? Some of our Paralympians understandably and rightly challenge our perceptions by speaking of themselves as complete and fulfilled human beings. Putting the issue really crudely ‘in heaven does everyone have all their limbs? Do the deaf hear and the blind see? What happens with rheumatism and arthritis and the ‘wear and tear’ (putting it gently) of old age? Who am I? If ‘I am my body and my body is me’ then will I recognize myself in heaven or will the Almighty have nipped and tucked and ironed out any wrinkles and dealt with my overweight and forgetfulness?
These are difficult questions, aren’t they? …but I ask them because we have got this healing miracle to deal with and we have to work out what Jesus thought he was doing. Here, in this story it is made clear that the woman’s condition had developed over 18 years. She had not been born with this condition (though I suspect that Jesus would have healed her even if she had). Half of the account is tied up with a discussion about the Sabbath – which must be significant even if we find it rather strange and would have spent more time marveling at the healing itself. Curiously, Jesus describes the woman’s condition as being akin to bondage – in his words she is ‘a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years’.
So let’s take those observations and see what we can make of them. The Sabbath is important but our difficulty is that we don’t have a big enough or deep enough appreciation of what the Sabbath is within Judaism. In Jewish thinking, of Jesus’ day, the Sabbath was in Time what the temple was in space. The temple wasn’t just a place where you went to worship God, it was place in time and space where God and humanity met: the intersection of heaven and earth. So too the Sabbath. Once a week – every seven days – the Sabbath marked out in minutes and hours a time when God’s Presence was known: heaven and earth came closer together, even (we might say) overlapped.
Working with that understanding of the Sabbath, Jesus is clear that this day of all days is about fulfilment not prohibition. Those sat in the synagogue on that day lived (as you and I have done) with a view that this special day was more to do with what you could not do than with what you could (that was their problem with Jesus’ healing the woman). Jesus turns this around: the Sabbath bears witness to freedom, we might say the ‘freedom of the children of God. The sabbath is the day in which we are reminded (lest we forget) that we (together and in community) are made in the image of God. Anything that promotes or supports or honours that image in creation and humanity in particular is a good thing. This woman’s condition was preventing her from revealing the image of God in her life: the healing Jesus offered released that potential in her enabling her to praise God.
I believe that Jesus healed people. I believe that God’s Presence and life has been perfectly expressed in his humanity and so, in my own mind I don’t have a problem with ‘miracle’. But I also know that most of Jesus’ healings become ‘teaching’ moments: for example, the healing of physical blindness or deafness plays into the imagery of Jesus releasing us from spiritual blindness and deafness.
So for me, here, Jesus’ concern is for the image of God to be seen more fully in the woman he heals. At which point you and I are invited to share in this ministry because there is so much that binds or inhibits people from fulfilling their God-given human potential as children of God. Under this banner it is perhaps natural for us to think of and honour all those who work in the medical profession when we read these stories: it is no surprise that many Christian people are drawn to fulfilling their vocations in the caring professions (and some of you are sat in the congregation today). But we can think wider, can’t we?
For example, Toilet Twinning (promoted by Ian through this church) improves hygiene but also provides safety (especially for women and girls) and frees up communities and time for education. Sitting in the corridor at school helping children learn to read is a huge gift for any individual: lives are the poorer, prospects limited for those who cannot read – those of you who do this will enable children to access so much more in life. The Period Poverty bags in the loo in church, our gifts to Christian Aid and USPG – these things are about releasing individuals from the indignity of poverty and honouring the image of God in people: the projects we support through USPG in Tanzania and South India you might remember are especially aimed at improving the lives of women and children.
We have Safeguarding and Domestic abuse polices and posters in our church porch and hall because we believe everyone should be able to live in safety. We give to the FoodBank because poverty cripples. We make music to bring people together, combat loneliness and support people’s mental health. We engage with local charities (and politics) and community organisations as individuals and as a church because the kingdom of heaven is to be seen on earth as in heaven. Members of this congregation are on the Town Council, serve as Trustees of Charities, lead uniformed or community groups, act as School Governors and have an active concern for the environment – all of this work echoes what Jesus does in our story, releasing potential, lifting individuals and communities up, celebrating God’s love and care for humanity mind, body and soul.
‘I think therefore I am’ just doesn’t cut it in the end because we truly are embodied creatures (no, we are embodied spirits) and God’s Presence must deal with us body, mind and soul. Working this out must remain a work in progress – it’s by no means easy – but, to quote St John:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
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