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Healing, Compassion, and Kingdom Witness

The following is the first part of a study document that Bethesda Healthcare is considering to guide our long term strategic planning. Several documents of the history of Christian medical ministry will follow. [Part 2: Ancient and Medieval] [Part 3: Renaissance and Reformation] [Part 4: The Enlightenment and Modern Medicine].

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Healing is a fundamental part of the Christian mission. Jesus defined his own ministry as preaching the Gospel and healing the sick (Luke 4.18-21; 7.18-23). He sent out twelve Apostles, and a later group of seventy disciples, with instructions to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal the sick (Matt 10.8; Luke 9.2; 10.9). The Church after Pentecost continued to minister under the same commission (Acts 13.51; see Luke 9.1-6; 10.9-11).

There is, however, a clear difference between what Jesus and the Apostles did and how the Church carries out her ministry today, namely that our Lord and his Apostles wielded extraordinary authority and worked in miraculous ways. The Church does not normally heal in such spectacular fashion today. It would be a mistake, however, to think that this implies that the ministry of healing has passed from the scene and that now the Church only focuses on verbal proclamation. There are at least two key reasons why the Church continues to minister to the sick and needy as a fundamental part of her mission even in the twenty-first century.

The first is generally acknowledged, even when its fuller implications are ignored, and can be stated briefly. The same love and compassion that moved the heart of our Lord (Matt 9.36; 14.14; 15.32) should motivate us as well (Luke 10.25-37; Matt 5.43-48; 25.31-46). A desire to be like our Father in heaven will cause us to seek the good of all expecting nothing in return (Luke 6.35). Those who live in union with Jesus have the heart of Jesus, and they stand ready to demonstrate his compassion to others with something as small as a cup of cold water (Matt 10.42), or a visit to express love and sympathy, or through prayers for comfort and healing (Matt 25.34-36). This compassion, however, may also extend to more costly acts of providing lodging, food, medicine, and nursing (Luke 10.33-35). Those who belong to him will show his compassion in these and countless other ways.  The second reason, is more involved because it hinges on how we relate Jesus’ ministry to two key Biblical stories: the story of Adam and the story of Israel. It is important to recognize that Jesus’s deeds of healing were more than just demonstrations of compassion, or even power. The Gospels frequently refer to them as “signs,” suggesting that they fill a symbolic role of portraying and representing the Kingdom that was even then beginning to displace the darkness and flood the world with light.

When Jesus began his ministry he found God's people languishing under foreign domination, ravaged by demons, and afflicted with every kind of sickness and disease. These were not just random afflictions, however, they were specific curses that came upon Israel as covenant sanctions predicted many years earlier by Moses (Lev 26; Deut 28). God had demonstrated his love for Israel by choosing her out of all the nations to be his special treasure. He defeated the gods of Egypt and delivered her from bondage through many spectacular deeds and then made wonderful promises of love and faithfulness to her. At Mount Sinai he entered into a covenant with Israel whereby she became his special treasure with a very special mission. Things did not work out as we might have hoped, however. Israel repeatedly rejected her calling to be a "kingdom of priests" (Ex 19.6) and a "light to the nations" (Isa 49.1-6) and spurned the God who was her “exceedingly great reward” (Gen 15.1). Now she faced the dreadful consequences of her apostasy (see Matt 21.33-43).

This sad story of Israel, however, is just a more sharply focused version of the even sadder story of Adam and the whole human race. Adam too was called to be a king and priest in God’s new world, but before enjoying the choicest fruit of God’s creation (symbolic of full royal authority) Adam was to be tested. He first needed to show himself a faithful priest, a servant of the world that he was chosen to govern. Adam rejected the call to service by precipitously seizing the fruit. The result was disastrous for both himself and for the entire creation. By breaking covenant with God the sanctions of that covenant were enacted. The human race and all of creation were plunged into sin and misery (Gen 3.14-24).

Israel was called as a new “Adam,” to restore creation and return the world to order [note 1], but Israel acted, instead, more like an old “Adam” and ultimately faced those covenant sanctions in even more concentrated form. But from within Israel there arose one who would prove truly faithful, one who would prove to be both the true Israel and the true Adam. Indeed, in the fullness of time, “God sent his own Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the [covenant sanctions], that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4.4-5). “He redeemed us from the sanctions of the law, having become a [sanctioned one] for us . . . that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.13).

As we noted above, when our Lord began his ministry in Palestine he found Israel dominated by imperial Rome and oppressed by demons. The blind, the deaf, the lame, and the leprous flocked to him. Widows and orphans, Samaritans and outcasts, children and slaves were the objects of his compassion. Jesus’ miracles were indeed demonstrations of power, showing him to be God’s specially chosen instrument of renewal (Luke 5.17; 6.19; 7.22; 9.1; John 3.2; Acts 10.38). They were also demonstrations of compassion upon seeing the suffering of his people (Mat 14.14; 15.32; Luke 7.13-17; John 11.33-44). But the key theological point is that his mighty deeds were signs that the Kingdom of God was arriving (Luke 7.20-22; John 2.11, 23; 3.2; 4.54; 6.2, 14; 7.31; 11.47; 12.18; 20.30) and that the curses of the covenant that had been hanging over Israel and the world were being lifted. As “signs” they revealed the profound mystery that through Jesus’ approaching death and resurrection the world was being renewed according to God’s original plan.

Jesus announced this mission to his hometown synagogue (Luke 4.16-21). He chose twelve Apostles and seventy disciples to accompany him in this ministry (Luke 9.2, 6; 10.9) and then repeated the commission again before his ascension (Matt 28.18-20). In the Book of Acts we see the early church carefully following the Lord’s example (4.30; 5.16; 8.7) and carrying out the same pattern of ministry, now in a wider context (13.48-52). In the first several centuries of the Christian era, the Church rose to heights of influence and prominence previously unimaginable, precisely because she proclaimed the Lord’s message in the way that he himself did: in the context of a comprehensive ministry of mercy and compassion. It was this ministry of mercy, with its highly charged Kingdom symbolism, that gave his words unprecedented power (Mat 13.54; John 3.2; 7.46). And even when done now by the Church in less spectacular ways, it still lends great power to her proclamation. Just as the Church must forever continue the ministry of proclaiming forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Jesus’ blood, she must likewise forever accompany that proclamation with a demonstration of Jesus’ compassion for the sick by engaging in the ministry of healing.

Core Values for a Christian Ministry of Healing

We will be compassionate: In his earthly ministry Jesus healed the sick because he had compassion on them (Matt 14.14). He saw Israel “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9.36) and had compassion on them. He fed the hungry crowd because he had compassion on them (Matt 15.32). He looked out over Jerusalem, and because he knew the judgment that was to befall her, he wept compassionately over her (Luke 19.41). Jesus had many reasons for doing the things that he did: obedience, faithfulness, zeal for the Father’s glory, anger over evil and corruption, and much more. But none was more prominent than his love-soaked compassion for the weak and frail, the sick and the needy. We will constantly cultivate this same love-soaked compassion for the needy whom we encounter.

We will be holistic: Secular medical authorities have begun to give halting recognition to the fact that healing is more than a collection of techniques to be learned and applied. It is increasingly seen as a function of physical, psychological, social, and spiritual factors. What these authorities have not always appreciated, however, is the way that the ministry of Jesus relates to each of these aspects of human life: physical renewal is completed in bodily resurrection (Rom 8.19-23); psychological renewal culminates in minds and hearts enlightened by Divine wisdom (Eph 1.17-18; Heb 6.4; 10.32); social renewal is realized through inclusion in the Church as both the “family” and “city” of God (Eph 3.14-15; Rev 21.2; Ps 87; see 1 Cor 12.12-27); and spiritual renewal is brought to fruition through the intimate experience of union and communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit in Word, Sacrament, and prayer (John 6.63; 15.7; 6.53-56; Luke 11.13; Acts 4.31). Bethesda seeks to fulfill the Great Commission through a holistic approach to healing that applies Jesus and his Gospel to the complex realities of human life.

We will be Church-centered: Jesus is the ultimate source of healing because God’s life-giving Spirit flows from his resurrected body (John 7.38-39; 1 Cor 15.45) and is even now working in us to bring about a complete renewal of body and soul resulting in a similar glorious resurrection (Eph 2.5-6). The Church, which is his mystical body (1 Cor 12.13-27), is the special channel of this restorative power (John 7.38-39; Ezek 47.1-12; Rev 22.1-2; Isa 66.7-12; Eph 3.10). Though God graciously uses physicians and others to bring about some measure of healing apart from the ministry of the Church, genuine renewal of body and soul comes from Jesus through his Church. For this reason Bethesda is committed to being a faithful expression of the Church’s healing ministry in the world.

We will be missional: Bethesda is missional in the sense that she seeks to bear witness to the healing power of Jesus and his Kingdom, but she is missional in the further sense that she seeks to train and prepare physicians, dentists, nurses, and other medical professionals so that this ministry may expand and grow together with and alongside other ministries in the Church. Growth of the Church as an institution throughout Northern Peru must lead to the institutional growth of Bethesda throughout this same region.

Notes [1] There are numerous verbal and thematic links between the call of Abraham and the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1.26-28: “blessing,” “fruitfulness,” “multiplication,” “subduing,” and “ruling” from 1.26-28 are repeatedly applied to Abraham and his descendants, suggesting that this family takes on an Adam-like role in the world. See Gen 12.2f.; 17.2, 6, 8; 22.16ff; 35.11.

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