Jesus relieves Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever, and then later that evening he brings healing to all kinds of people—people with physical ailments, and people in the grip of powers we don’t always understand even today. Mind you, not everybody experienced healing, but many did. Sometimes, Mark says, Jesus healed them. And sometimes, Jesus says later, they were actually healing themselves (5:34). Either way, it’s well attested that when Jesus was around, healing happened.
Healing is certainly on our minds these days, especially this past year. The first documented COVID-19 death in the US occurred one year ago. Since then, most of us have known somebody who died from it, and some of us are recovering from it and wondering about the long-term effects. Some of us have already been vaccinated, but most people are still waiting, and all of us are wondering how long these vaccines will work, and if they can handle all those mutations. How can we not be preoccupied with issues of health and healing?
But Jesus seems preoccupied with something else.
In this week’s lesson Jesus had a golden opportunity to capitalize on his popularity as a healer. He refused to take it. He moved on. He said that his vocation was not to market his trademark in “alternative medicine,” like an ancient Deepak Chopra, but to spread a message.
He seems to have considered stopping to heal people an interruption to his vocation. Yes, he did it anyway. I’m guessing that’s because he just couldn’t help himself. He saw any illness as a symptom of an even deeper brokenness, a deeper kind of illness, that he had come to heal. He recognized that sometimes, to heal the deeper illness, you had to relieve the symptoms. But you still had to move on to address that deeper brokenness.
What is that brokenness? It’s our missing out on the deepest of all well-being that will never desert us no matter how much we suffer or how soon we die. Jesus spoke of this deepest well-being as the reign of God, the reconciling community that God-with-us simply is. He said it’s already arriving. And because it’s arriving, our most urgent need is to stop missing out on it, to wake up to it and start living into it.
Make no mistake, pain and suffering and illness are bad enough all on their own. Death is bad enough all on its own. Jesus couldn’t ignore them. He couldn’t let his message sugarcoat how devastating life always turns out to be. It made him weep (John 11:35). And he had no illusions about the suffering and death that awaited him. But he wanted everyone to know that nevertheless we’re already embraced by a deeper life that takes the sting away from pain and suffering and illness and even death itself.
He didn’t preach a faith that prevents bad things from happening. He preached a faith that refuses to let the bad things that always happen be the last word about our lives and our destiny. He certainly preached a faith that drives us to follow his example and do what we can to bring momentary healing to the suffering we see all around us. But momentary healing is just that—momentary. There’s a deeper, everlasting healing that all of us still need.
When we read these stories in the Gospels, do you ever catch yourself forgetting that none of these people who got better are around anymore? I forget that sometimes. But we know that they died, all of them. Probably they got sick again countless times, before the very last time.
But what showed up as they got better was something that couldn’t be taken away, not by later illness, not even by death. They were beginning to live into a shared life that never ends.
What they began to do back then is what we still begin to do today every time we gather—living into this shared life that never ends. Sometimes we call that endlessly shared life the Kingdom of God; sometimes we call it the Communion of Saints; sometimes we call it Eucharist; sometimes we call it God.
That’s what Jesus wanted us to glimpse every time he spoke, and every time he healed. That’s what preoccupied him and drove him to move on with his message.
Of course we’ve heard all that before. Sometimes it sounds like hollow promises of “pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by.” Hearing anything like that now probably won’t keep you, or me, from our own preoccupations with an insidiously creative virus wreaking havoc among us for over a year now. It probably won’t keep us from throwing up our hands in exasperation at our repeated inability to agree on the best way to address this crisis.
So notice: Jesus never chided anybody for that. He never shamed anybody for being preoccupied with physical well-being or for grieving the loss of those we love. Again, he couldn’t even keep himself from being interrupted, or from grieving. So don’t chide yourself if that’s where you are. It’s not like you could snap your fingers and put a stop to it anyway. Nobody’s asking you to do that.
Just remember that you don’t have to let these preoccupations define you. They’re not the last word. The last word is a shared life that never ends, already among us, before we even notice.