Preaching on Illness: Healing Services (Part 2 of 2)

Emilie Bouvier, "Bandaged." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, North Shore, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Why healing services? And what makes preaching at healing services different?

Worship services addressing illness and its corollary — the desire for possible healing — are a part of many churches’ routines. Healing services are one way that the parish can show it is taking seriously the following biblical observations and injunctions:

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16)

“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)

These passages may provide rationale for holding healing services: the involvement of parish leaders in the service, the ritual action of anointing the sick with oil, the power of prayer by persons of faith, and the connection between sin and illness (which is a truly complex topic that needs discussion, given the potential for misunderstandings that exists on this subject).

Ministers seeking to introduce healing services should anticipate a number of questions:

  • Isn’t it enough simply to pray for the ill during the normally scheduled services?
  • Are healing services within God’s will for those suffering from disease and illness?
  • What if healing services yield no evidence of healing?

This latter concern raises the issue of teaching people to discern between “cure” and “healing.” The true question, however, is not if healing will happen but whether or not those in a healing service are being faithful to the ways God performs healing acts.

Healing in Scripture
In Scripture, we can find helpful responses to these questions; many passages attest to humanity’s pleas for healing and God’s varied responses to those prayers.

It is the preacher’s job to intuit and anticipate issues presented by the biblical texts to listeners, know how the texts raise new concerns, and how to help parishioners think through illness and healing theologically.

Texts featuring Jesus healing often do so in such a way that Jesus’ divinity is revealed, acknowledged by bystanders or feared by religious authorities.

Take Luke 9:37-43. Jesus’ mountaintop experience is concluded by a father who brings his son (“my only child”) to Jesus for healing. The disciples could not get rid of the spirit possessing the child — only Jesus could. He heals the boy by casting out the unclean spirit that possesses him. This narrative shows the range of Jesus’ healing work — no kind of illness (mental, physical, or spiritual) lies outside Jesus’ healing work. This can be a word of encouragement to all who suffer.

John’s Gospel urges believers to express their trust in God’s redemptive acts through prayer (see John 14:11-14). Jesus’ receptivity toward those seeking healing is depicted in many biblical stories as a call to faith for all believers.

The story in John 9 is almost humorous with the descriptions of the many participants who attempt to deny any involvement with the healed man. This raises a set of provocative questions: Why would people be afraid of this kind of power? Did Jesus’ acts of healing pose a threat to people? If so, what was the nature of the threat?

John 9 also raises another pertinent feature of many healing stories: the kinds of involvements of members of the family and the community who are pleased with Jesus’ healing powers, those who criticize it, and those who resist him.

Planning for Healing Services
Worship planners, both laity and clergy, will want to introduce such a service through different venues like Bible study, parish newsletters, and information posted on the church’s website, and should cite pertinent biblical and historical references to healing the ill (see above).

Planning worship as a vehicle for addressing illness can be a powerful experience for both those who plan and those who attend the service. Planning the components of a healing service usually includes

  • Prayer, including confession of sin
  • Scripture readings
  • Laying on of hands
  • Anointing with oil
  • Music
  • Proclamation

Scripture readings should be chosen for introducing the service and gearing it toward prayer, focused meditation, and proclamation.

The preacher’s goal in a healing service is to invite listeners to focus on a God whose will for people is wholeness. Proclamation should be scripturally based. Secondly, it should be briefer than a Sunday morning sermon. It can also take the form of what some call guided meditation. It should be focused on God’s love and loving purposes with the ill, in a way that can be shared with all those who gather.

In Part 1 of this series, Preaching on Illness: Our Shared Reality, Susan Hedahl introduced the issues related to preaching on illness.