A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
The Roman Empire of the first century A.D. was an amazingly diverse place culturally. But there was one belief that virtually everyone in the ancient Mediterranean world shared: the conviction that illness, injury and death were as much affairs of the soul and spirit as they were of the body. Pagans had their great healing centers of Asclepius at Epidaurus in Greece and Apollo at Didima in Asia Minor. Greeks and Romans suffering from various ailments flocked to these temples by the thousands, hoping that their chosen god would have mercy on them and heal them. And the Jews of first-century Palestine shared this belief in a supernatural aspect to sickness and health as well. With the exception of the Temple in Jerusalem, for Jews no place on earth was held to display the intersection of the supernatural and the natural more clearly than the sickbed. This presupposition underpins our Scripture lessons today from 2 Kings and the Gospel according to St. Mark.
Indeed, faithful Jews could not see things otherwise in light of the first chapters of Genesis. God had created a good world, a world where suffering and death were unknown. This was the world in which you and I were meant to walk and talk with our Creator in the cool of the evening. As befits creatures that bear the image of the One “in whom all things live, and move, and have their being,” our sustenance was to have included the very fruit of Life itself.
But because of the disobedience of our first parents—a disobedience in which you and I participate every day--all of that changed. In some mysterious way the very fabric of the Universe has been altered by the rebellion of our race. In his letter to the Romans St. Paul teaches that “the creation itself is [now]… in bondage to decay.” With the Fall of Man the world begin to disintegrate, both physically and spiritually. Pain and toil entered God’s good world, the by-products of a spiritual separation from our Creator that contradicts our very nature. You and I were made to abide in God’s presence, sustained by the fount of all Being. But in turning away from Him in self-vaunting defiance, we have become vulnerable to the spiritual forces of wickedness that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. And Satan and his minions are quick to exploit our physical and psychological weaknesses for their spiritual gain. If you have ever stood at the bedside of a loved one dying from a lingering illness, you know what I mean. The presence of evil is almost tangible, but God can seem so very far away.
In striving to be like God, we have tasted the bitter fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and we shall surely now die. For fallen humanity the path to the tree of Life is now blocked by “a flaming sword that turns every way.” All of us here this morning have felt the sting of that searing blade. Every ache and pain, every graveside tear shed by the human race since a dispossessed Adam and Eve settled on the stony ground east of Eden are that fiery sword’s handiwork. The blazing steel edge of disease and death turns every way and cuts down everyone, without exception.
When Jesus entered the home of his new disciple Simon Peter, he discovered the flaming blade had struck Peter’s mother-in-law. She was burning up with fever. In the ancient world fever was greatly feared. Archeologists have recovered from the sands of Egypt hundreds of amulets designed to ward off the demons that cause fever. The Roman world did not have our knowledge of microbiology, but they did know that fever tended to spread and, if unchecked, to kill. Terrible epidemics swept through the ancient Mediterranean world every few decades. So as Jesus and his companions stood at the woman’s bedside they knew that this fever was serious, not only for her but for all of Capernaum. Vulnerability to such diseases had been the common lot of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve for countless millennia. And the demons rejoiced in it. But on that day in Capernaum things would be different, for the New Adam had finally come and a new world was dawning. The terrible defeat that ancient serpent, the Devil, had inflicted so long ago was about to be avenged.
“The Time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent,” Jesus pleads, “and believe the Good News!.” Once again God has drawn near mankind, walking among us as He had intended in the Garden of Eden. Only this time the Lord of Creation does so as one of us! And the demons that afflict the human race recognize the God-man immediately: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” they cry. The forces of darkness now understand that the best weapons in their arsenal—the despair of sickness and infirmity, the inevitability of sin and death—are powerless against the Savior.
Notice that our Lord makes a two-pronged attack—He heals both physical illness and demonic possession during His stay in Capernaum. In St. Luke’s version of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law Jesus rebukes her fever as a possessing demon, making no distinction between the bodily and the spiritual. For unlike the people of our spiritually near-sighted age, Christ understands that the demon and the fever are two sides of the same coin. Disease and death are perversions of God’s intent for the human race, as surely as are angels who forsake their duty to the Creator in order to serve His enemy. These forms of corruption have no place in the Kingdom of God. Fevers and paralysis and blindness and every other affliction the human race presently endures are destined to join the Beast and his lackeys in the Pit. With the healings and exorcisms of His earthly ministry our Lord Jesus gave them all, disease and demon alike, a foretaste of their eternal fate.
It is God’s will that His children be well and whole, free to worship Him without fear. And yet the suffering of this present age continues, even for those who have turned to Christ in faith and been baptized into His Body. I cannot tell you why we still get sick and hurt and die, or why spiritual powers of darkness still roam at large in the world. We shall have to wait for the End of Days to understand that mystery. But two things I can tell you with certainty.
First, however you or I might suffer in this present life, know that Jesus Christ has already redeemed that suffering on His cross. This is not just a cliché. Christ does in truth know our pain. As our Lord was lifted up at Calvary He carried not only the sins of the world but its wounds as well. He bore the scars of the entire human race in His own flesh. And with His Ascension He took those scars—our scars—into the Godhead Itself along with His divinized humanity. Satan is a fool to believe that he will derive any benefit from our sufferings, for God now carries them within Himself.
Secondly, I remind you that we have not been left as orphans in our suffering. Within Christ’s Holy Church we have the companionship of our fellow Christians, the consolations of Holy Scriptures, and the sacraments of unction and reconciliation. But above all, we have been given the Blessed Sacrament of the altar for our healing. The Body of Jesus, the second Adam, was broken at the Place of the Skull, once for all, so that the effects of the first Adam’s Fall might be negated. Christ’s cross and empty tomb have reopened the path to the Tree of Life. Our Lord’s eternal sacrifice of Himself will now be re-presented here in the breaking of the Bread and the prayers. We shall at last partake of a food uniquely appropriate for creatures made in the image and likeness of God. We will hold leaves from the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem on our tongues; leaves that St. John says are “given for the healing of the nations.” From the silver chalice we shall drink the Living Water that wells up to eternal life. The powers of sin and sickness and death will prove an illusion as the Source of Life Himself infuses our bodies. So mortals will eat the bread of angels, and the demons of Hell will wail as they realize that we are lost to them forever!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.