This morning I would like to take you on a journey to a small town called Elounda, which is a pretty fishing village on the Eastern coast of Crete. As you stand on the waterfront you can see an island which is called Spinalonga, nicknamed the island of the living dead. The reason for this nickname was that it was the Island of the Lepers in Crete from 1903 until 1957 and was one of the last active leper colonies in Europe. It is recognised as the second most visited archaeological site of Crete after Knossos
I visited Spinalonga during a holiday to Elounda and as I read the passage from the Gospel of Mark, about a man with leprosy, it brought back vivid memories of the many emotions I experienced from my visit, even if it was about sixteen years ago. As you walk through the streets you cannot escape the feeling of great sadness and sorrow and the cries that echo through the walls of the derelict houses. There is a message written by a young man who lived on the island which says “let the tears drip from your eyes and you will witness the shimmer of the millions of tears that have watered this road before you.”
The passage this morning tells the story of the man who has leprosy which symbolises suffering and of Jesus who symbolises compassion and the power of healing.
We need to remember that the man in the bible passage was not only suffering from a terrible debilitating physical disease with no hope for a cure, but many saw it as God afflicting people with leprosy as a punishment for their sins. There are many references to this throughout the Old Testament, one quoted in the second book of Kings Chapter 15 verse 5, “The Lord afflicted the King with leprosy, until the day he died.” He was forced to live away from his family in a leper colony just like those suffering leprosy in Crete. The hollow cave he lived in was a symbol of his isolation. His life was one of separation, not only from his family but also from God. He lived in a world devoid of love, hope and any physical acts of comfort. This is a symbol of his loneliness.
This is not just a physical disease but encompasses the religious, social and financial implications which affects all aspects of holistic wellbeing, which is necessary to live life to its full potential.
The man hears the news that Jesus was in town, the one who can heal the sick, make the lame walk and the blind see. I cannot begin to imagine the bravery this man showed, a man whose whole life had been one of being shunned and yet he dared to venture amongst the crowds to get close to Jesus. I can only imagine the reaction of the crowd as they hastily distanced themselves from the man, a man with this terrible illness who had to call out “unclean, unclean” to those he passed on his way.
Jesus sees this man, with the terrible scars of his disease approach him, but He sees beyond this. He sees a man reaching out to Him with the words, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” By asking if Jesus is willing he is acknowledging that Jesus has the power but is also hesitant that Jesus will use his power for him, a man living in social and religious exclusion.
The man does not ask to be healed from his physical disease but rather to be made clean spiritually as the Jewish people of that day equated cleanliness with holiness. His request for cleansing rather than healing shows that he is desperate for his spiritual and social status to be renewed but he cannot be made clean without also being cured of the leprosy. Jesus responds by touching the man. Can you imagine the gasps of the crowd and the disbelief in the eyes of the man who had forgotten such kindness, expressed in touch or word? Then Jesus says “I am willing, be clean.”
I can only imagine how overwhelmed the man would have been when he realised he had been instantly healed and ready to be reunited back into society. I am always amazed that when I read a passage in the bible it always triggers so many thoughts and the passage this morning made me think how difficult it is to comprehend that the story of this man’s suffering is still as relevant to our society in 2021.
There are so many who are also experiencing this same suffering due to feeling marginalised, abandoned and rejected. Perhaps not due to a physical illness but due to mental health and addiction problems which compromise their life circumstances and life choices which they no longer have any control over. They may not be living in a cave but they are living in cardboard boxes and shop doorways which results in feelings of low self-worth and esteem making it impossible to make even the smallest changes in their lifestyle.
I have just finished reading a true story in a book called A Street Cat Named Bob, which I thoroughly recommend. It is about a young man who has been homeless for most of his adult life and how this changed when he befriended a stray cat called Bob. It brings alive the true suffering of people who are homeless and living on the street and the extreme difficulties they face every day resulting in despair and hopelessness. A loving and compassionate Lord is ready to touch their lives and answer their call for healing just as He answered the call of the man with leprosy.
I have always struggled with the concept of suffering and these challenges were very real to me in my work as a nurse and midwife and more recently in my time as a volunteer with the Chaplaincy Team at the MRI. As Christians we have difficulties in comprehending the presence of suffering and many times challenge the reason why it happens and why some people’s lives appear to be defined by suffering.
To help me try to answer this question and guide me in my contact with patients in my role of volunteer, I read a chapter entitled the ‘Mystery of Suffering’ in a book ‘Health and Healing – A Ministry of Wholeness’. The title of the chapter in a way answers the question, “Why is there suffering?”
It may be difficult but we have to accept that it is one of the mysteries of life which we may never understand and have to accept that we see “in part only” and not in terms of the full picture as God sees it. I have always focused on the compassionate Lord, the Lord of healing. In my personal prayers and my prayers with others. I have asked directly, rather than to ask if the Lord is willing, to reach out to touch me, with his healing powers. Always accepting that the healing may take different forms, not always the physical healing which we may hope for, but the spiritual healing which gives us the strength to face whatever the future holds and perhaps to make the decision to walk in a new direction, a different direction.
As we call out to be healed we are assured that the Lord is not only willing to heal us but is always present in our lives to answer our call for healing.
We must remember that Jesus the healer is an important part of His ministry but always remember it is in the context of His teaching ministry which we sometimes forget to acknowledge.
The leper is told not to tell anyone about his healing, but he cannot help himself as he was probably so overcome with joy, gratitude and disbelief, that it had happened, that he just wanted to share the good news with everyone he met.
To conclude my words of wisdom I have used part of the reflection from one of the January URC Daily Devotions on this passage from the Gospel of Mark.
The Good News embodied in Jesus is unstoppable; people are drawn to Jesus from all quarters. Where there is prayer and preaching, proclamation of God’s love and grace, healing and service of those most in need, the world will notice. Where God’s love is known, fear and uncertainty can be conquered. Whatever 2021 holds in store, God the Father is with us, Jesus shows us the way, and the Spirit fills us with the ability to be servants of God’s kingdom.