Epiphany 7B Sermon (2003)

7th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 2:1-12;
Isa. 43:18-25; 2 Cor. 1:18-22


We’ve been talking about healing for four weeks now.(1) I’d like to begin this last message in the series by asking, What is the number one disease that has plagued humankind over the millennia? Think about it. We’ve heard many stories from history about plagues of things like small pox, or bubonic plague, killing millions upon millions. The tragedy of AIDS might top them all before we find a cure. I was glad to see President Bush pledge $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa. It’s sorely needed.

But as deadly as such plagues have been, they might be somewhat isolated instances — different diseases at different times in history, not a number one disease that has plagued us since the beginning of our history. I would like to make a suggestion this morning that the number one disease which has killed us in huge numbers throughout human history is: violence. Have you ever thought of violence in that category? As the number one killing disease of all time?

I can assure you that peoples before us have thought of violence in that way. Last week, we lifted up that the best of modern medicine is in the spirit of Jesus’ healing. We reflected on an observation that modern medicine began to pick up steam around the time that we stopped doing things like hunting down witches and burning them to death. Killing witches used to be a response to plagues. They blamed witches for the invisible evil that was killing them. When we stopped reacting to plagues in such a manner, we had to find another cure. We began to cast out and kill germs instead of people.

But let me give you another quick example of how far back this witch-hunt approach goes. We get our word pharmaceutical from the ancient Greeks, whose word for drug was pharmakon. Now, pharmaceuticals today can be another example of what is best about modern medicine. Forget about how outrageously priced they are for a moment and think about their enormous benefits. As a pastor, I’ve seen how good drugs can make a huge difference. Over the years I’ve watched as our medicines become more effective and generally with less side-effects.

But back to that Greek word pharmakon. It can be translated as both remedy and poison. That’s what a drug is, of course. To the right person in the right situation of illness and with the right dosage, a drug can be a remedy. But to most other people that same drug is a poison. That’s why we put those child-proof caps on our drugs — which, of course, only children seem to be able to open. If the pharmacist makes a prescription mix-up, it can be deadly. One person’s cure may be another person’s demise. Drugs are both remedy and poison.

Now here’s the most interesting thing about that word pharmakon: there was a closely related word pharmakos, and the pharmakos in Greek society was a person who they would ritually run out of town, and sometimes kill, during a time of crisis. In other words, the pharmakos was like the witch, during medieval days in Europe. The pharmakos was the person blamed for the evil that was befalling them. Think for a moment about how that relates to the pharmakon, the drug. Certainly, driving someone out of town and killing them is an evil, poisonous thing to do. But the instinct was that the community had to risk just the right dose of this poisonous thing in order to be cured from from an even greater outbreak of death. In short, we would say that they would risk a small dose of violence, ritually killing just one person, in order to find a remedy against the greater evil of many people dying. So the pharmakos could be used when they were attacked by a physical illness, but the pharmakos could also be used as a remedy against impending rioting and unrest, or civil war. In other words, ancient peoples generally experienced violence as in the same category as physical illness, as evils that could kill you. And so they used a dose of violence against any deadly evil that they feared. That’s why blood sacrifice is so universal across the beginnings of all human cultures. Killing a person or an animal on an altar was experienced like a drug, like a small dose of evil that was used as a remedy against wider outbreaks of evil.

This is very difficult for us to understand because modern medicine has given us a different way to look at such things. We no longer put physical illness in the same category as violence. When there is an outbreak of illness we seek to kill germs and viruses, not people. But in previous times of human history physical illness and violence were in the same categories of deadly evil, so they would use a dose of one, violence, to try to cure the other.

This is part of the amazing break-through of healing in Jesus Christ: that we would learn, first of all, that physical illness is not cured by violence of any dosage. Jesus didn’t drive out people possessed by demons; he drove out demons. Jesus didn’t expel diseased people like lepers from society, he compassionately touched them and healed them, and brought them back into society. In modern medicine we have gradually learned this way of healing with pretty spectacular results.

But there is one most important lesson about healing that I’m not sure we have learned yet. We have learned to distinguish violence from physical illness, so that we no longer use small doses of violence to ward of physical illness. But we have not yet learned the same lesson about violence itself — namely, that a small dose of violence will never be the ultimate cure for violence, either. Think about how often we still think this way. We believe that capital punishment, a small dose of violence, will help cure wider outbreaks of murder. Right now, we are thinking that just the right dosage of violence against Saddam Hussein will be part of the cure against terrorism. Isn’t that the way we are thinking? Isn’t that the same pharmakos principal? Don’t we still need to learn the lesson from Jesus about our number one human disease of violence?

Think about the cross of Jesus, for a moment. Jesus didn’t die of cancer. He didn’t die of AIDS. He died a violent death, at the hands of our very remedy, capital punishment. He was executed. So for what disease does the cross offer us healing? Violence — even those controlled doses of “good” violence that we use to try to ward off the “bad” violence.

This is very important to understand. Since the beginning of humankind, what is the most feared form of violence? The answer: vengeance. Reciprocating violence. Once we get in a cycle of escalating back-an-forth violence, it typically doesn’t end until a disastrous proportion of people lay dead — like a plague, like a flood, like a forest fire. In mythology, in fact, things like plagues and floods are symbols for run away violence. (2) Ritual blood sacrifice was the medicine for warding off this kind of violence by everyone uniting against one.

John’s Gospel gives us the most amazing glimpse of this. The Jewish council is getting worried about Jesus, that he seems to be stirring up the crowds. They are worried about a wider outbreak of reciprocating violence: Jewish people revolting and Rome putting it down, back and forth until they were destroyed (which is exactly what happened about thirty-five years after Jesus). We read in John 11:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all!You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:49-50)

Caiaphas understood the age-old remedy, so the Jewish council brought Jesus to Rome to offer as a sacrifice. But Jesus, as the innocent Lamb of God, brought into this world the true remedy against our violence: namely, forgiveness. The Risen Lord came back from the dead, not to wreak vengeance, but to unleash the healing power of forgiveness. That is the only true cure for our violence.

When the first apostles reflected on the meaning of the cross, they rather immediately put it together with the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53, a passage we still read on Good Friday. Listen, for example, to these two verses from Isaiah 53:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

By his bruises we are healed. From what disease does the cross heals us? What infirmities did he carry to the cross? Isn’t it, above all, our disease of violence? By his bruises we are healed.

Our Gospel Lesson this morning completes our series on healing with the two things we’ve talked about today almost posed against each other. Jesus is confronted by a man with a physical ailment; he can’t walk. But seemingly out of nowhere Jesus raises the issue of forgiveness, too. And he juxtaposes these two, physical healing and forgiveness, in a question: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (Mark 2:9) We would be tempted to answer the latter: ‘curing the lame man is a miracle!’ we would say. But think again in the context of what we have talked about this morning. What have we said is the most persistent disease to plague humankind since the beginning of time? Run-away violence — vengeance. We have come a long ways in being able to cure many physical ailments. We have sought out the causes and found many cures. Can we say the same thing in the case of our violence? Have we found the cause? Do we know the cure? Even when Jesus comes to show us that the cure for vengeance is forgiveness, do we use it? Or do we still resort to finding just the right dose of “good” violence to try to stop the “bad” violence?

Let’s finish this morning, then, with an example, namely, with some reflections on the impending war with Iraq. We think that we can stop terrorism with just the right dose of “good” violence against bad people like Saddam Hussein. Will this, in fact, stop the vengeance? Or will it only fuel it more? When we consider our response to the horror of terrorism that we experienced on 9/11, can we even conceive of what it would mean to live by forgiveness? Seriously, which seems easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? Don’t you see how difficult forgiveness remains for us?

Let’s say someone hurts you deeply, but then you hear that they’re sick. Which is easier for you to do, forgive them or tend to their illness? We have come a long ways in our compassion for treating physical ailments. Have we gained at all when it comes to hurting one another and healing the brokenness of relationships and community?(3) How often do we still resort to the age-old remedies when it comes to stemming violence?

“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — Jesus said to the paralytic — “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” But so that you may know that God can heal what ails you, I say to you, in the name of Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven — go your way and live in that forgiveness. Learn what it means to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.'” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, February 23, 2003

1. This sermon is the fourth in a four sermon series on healing. Link to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

2. The account of the flood is introduced in Genesis 6:11 with this observation: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”

3. Actually, I believe that we saw some rather spectacular advances in this area last century, but advances which are still underappreciated, to put it mildly. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, led large-scale political movements which were based on love of enemies and on forgiveness in the form of radical nonretaliation — no vengeance. Albert Einstein said, “It is my belief that the problem of bringing peace to the world on a supranational basis will be solved only by employing Gandhi’s method on a larger scale.” (To G. Nellhaus, March 20, 1951, Einstein Archive 60-683; from The Expanded Quotable Einstein, collected and edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, 2000, page 167.)

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