Sermon for Sunday 9th October - 17th Sunday after Trinity
2 Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15
2 Timothy 2:8-15
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit of life,
'Do we still need religion?'. That was the intriguing and challenging headline to an article I came across a few months ago in the Guardian. A professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford called Robin Dunbar was asking why religions endure even as societies become better educated and more scientifically orientated. He wondered why, when we can tackle viruses like Covid by creating life-saving vaccines in a matter of months, and when we have the technology to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid the size of a football stadium 6.8 million miles away to protect ourselves against cataclysmic cosmic impacts, why do millions and millions of people still gather in churches, mosques and synagogues to worship and pray together? We can tackle illness and disease through our own ingenuity; so why do we need to hold on to stories like today's about miraculous healings? He came to an intriguing conclusion, and one that isn't a million miles removed from our readings today. Because the thing that links Robin Dunbar with Naaman commander of the army of the King of Aram with Paul in his prison cell and with the Samaritan cured of leprosy in Luke is their realisation that faith in God makes people well. And today's readings invite us to ask what it means to be well, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Robin Dunbar identified two reasons why religions persist; he found that people who attended religious services were happier, healthier, and longer lived. And secondly, that they were more likely to feel part of a community. They were depressed less frequently, more engaged with the world around them and they trusted other people more. He talks a lot about endorphins; chemicals released by our brains when we feel pleasure. All the things we do together in church, like sitting and kneeling and singing together, even, you'll be glad to hear 'listening to emotionally rousing sermons' [!] release these endorphins, and these, in his words, not only produce a sense of bliss, calmness and warmth, they also trigger the release of what he calls 'natural killer cells, part of the immune system, keeping us healthy as well'. So, if you want to stay well this winter all you need to do is come to church more!
I thought of Robin Dunbar when I saw our readings for today, but I don't think it's the release of natural killer cells that makes such a difference to Naaman, or Paul, or the Samaritan leper.
'Get up and go on your way' says Jesus to the Samaritan leper, 'your faith has made you well'. But the leper's wellness isn't just a buzz of endorphins of the sort described by Professor Dunbar. All the lepers were made clean, but Luke tells us that in Jesus's eyes there was something special and precious about the Samaritan. He's the only one of the ten who turns back to praise God and thank Jesus. In today's NRSV translation Jesus tells him
'Go on your way; your faith has made you well'. In the Greek text Jesus is reported as saying 'sesoken se', which can also be read as meaning 'your faith has saved you'. So, the same word, 'sesoken' can be translated as both 'saved' and 'healed'. Luke, I think wants us to understand that 'Wellness' in Jesus's eyes is about more than being healed of leprosy; it's about encountering and recognising God, of being saved from the despair that can accompany pain and suffering, however bleak things may seem, through being open to God and to the message of salvation embodied in the person of Jesus.
Paul helps us to understand a little more of what being made well, being 'saved' in this sense means. Paul tells Timothy that his chains aren't those of illness and disease, they're the sold iron fetters that keep him imprisoned in his cell. But Paul, like the Samaritan leper, recognises that God is with him in his suffering, and like the leper he's liberated through that relationship. 'The word of God', he says, 'is not chained.' We can all feel imprisoned like Paul; shut away in our own worries and fears, but all three of our readings show us that by being open to God we can find a new sort of freedom; a freedom which really can transform our spiritual, mental, and physical health. That's why everything we do here in this place matters; our hymn singing, our prayer, our silent times on Tuesday evenings; these things all help us discover more about what Paul means when he talks of 'the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. To be healthy and well in a spiritual sense means continually searching to discover more about the salvation which Paul describes, and we can only do that by entering a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, who alone makes all things well...
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,