Set Free from the Contagion

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on March 22nd, 2020, amidst the quarantine due to the COVID-19 virus.

Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Luke 13:10–17 (NRSV)

When we hear this story, our minds make an immediate translation from the world of the 1st Century to the 21st. When we hear that this woman was oppressed by “a crippling spirit,” and we hear the description of her illness, our modern scientific brains kick into gear, wondering what this woman’s affliction could be.

It turns out, through the power of Wikipedia, that this woman had Ankylosing spondylitis. (I am extremely grateful that Wikipedia will also pronounce things for you!) It’s an arthritic condition in the spine—inflammation causes a progressive fusing of the vertebrae that causes one to hunch over.

Without that translation, this story is almost unintelligible to us. How could a “spirit” cripple this woman? In what sense can “Satan” be accused of holding her in bondage? Can you imagine going to the orthopedic doctor today and being told, “ah, I see the problem. You have a spirit that is attacking you, pushing you down, causing you to hunch over. I can’t help you, but maybe your therapist or Pastor can help set you free from that spirit.”

We would quickly seek out a second opinion. We might even report that doctor to his credentialing board!

If we take the spiritual nature of this woman’s affliction seriously, and I think we should, we’re in danger of falling into another trap. Since this story implies that this woman has a spiritual rather than a mere physical condition, we might incorrectly assume that this woman has done something wrong, something to deserve her affliction!

Some have accused this poor crippled woman of being stuck in personal sin and “lax in [her] efforts toward piety” (Cyril of Alexandria). If that were true, she wouldn’t have needed anything more than to pray, be made right with God, and be healed. If that were true, it was a personal problem, not something to deal with publicly. If her spiritual condition was caused by an error in her individual behavior, Jesus would have identified the ailment’s source as a personal transgression.

In order to avoid the complex snares of the spiritual, we think we’re better off with our modern, physical translation of the story that foregoes all the spiritual baggage. This woman simply has a medical condition, she needs a doctor, and in lieu of modern medicine, Jesus and his miraculous healing ability is her best option.

We don’t tend to believe in the “spiritual world.” Honestly, it’s because it’s hard for us to see any evidence of it. Our eyes and minds aren’t programmed to see it. We look for scientific causes and effects for everything we observe. In premodern societies, belief in God was assumed, and with that assumption came a general understanding that there was a supernatural cause behind everything. Today, our default response is to assume a physical cause for every incident.

In this congregation, we try to intentionally reprogram ourselves to remember that God is living and active in our world by sharing “God sightings.” Every week in worship, we have a brief, open time of sharing in which we are asked to share what God has been doing in our lives and where we have seen God’s hand at work.

It’s a hard thing to do, because our minds are trained to be skeptical. And so, more often than not, when someone takes a risk to share a place where they have seen God at work, someone in the congregation lets out an audible groan. It’s not the same person. Many more groan silently, it’s just that one or two slip and let it out.

“This is not what the Sabbath is for,” our inner skeptics scream in our minds. “We are here, as good Presbyterians to rest from our labors by singing, praying for our list of concerns, hearing a talk about a passage of scripture, and leaving the building no more than one hour after the start of the service!” That is why we are here. It’s simple, physical, observable, understandable.

Isn’t it ironic that right now we’re forced to change that rhythm due to the Coronavirus? Our lack of spiritual sight causes us to assume that because our physical church doors are closed, because we cannot meet in groups of 10 or more people, the “church” is therefore closed. We’re forced, instead, to remember that there is something more than our physical presence that connects us.

The problem with our obsession with the merely physical is that it leaves us without any understanding of the nature of the human condition and the condition of creation. And if we don’t know the cause of our situation, how can we possibly be delivered from it?

If the physical is all that we have, then there isn’t any true salvation for any of us. We’ll just be stuck relying on beneficial, but incomplete, physical remedies. Nothing can save us from the reality of our eventual, physical death. And if the personal is all that we have, then an individual’s condition must be a result of their own personal choices and impiety.

What could be done for this bent-over woman today in modern medicine? We like to imagine, as 21st century moderns, that we have all the answers. We see the problems and we have a solution. But this woman’s condition is just as chronic and incurable in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. To this day, we can only treat symptoms of the disease. Modern medicine has a different name for this woman’s condition, but no silver bullet, no cure.

This woman represents all of us with chronic conditions that have no complete cure. Even when their condition is well-managed, the disease hides in the background, ready to appear again. From psychological conditions such as depression to degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease, to the constant fight against cancer­­—our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends, enemies, and ourselves cry out for a cure. But many live with conditions for which there is no cure, like this woman with Ankylosing spondylitis.

So, what do we do when an individual has an infirmity that cannot be “cured” in the full, embodied sense of the word?

Or, in this time especially as the world is infected with the Coronavirus, we might ask what we should do when the world is infected by a contagion, a virus, for which there is no readily available physical inoculation.

Now we’re on to something.

Turns out, we’re as helpless today in the 21st century as the desperate and downtrodden were in first century Palestine. We are as in need of a savior to heal and save us from our infirmities.

I wish I could simply say that Jesus can offer healing of a kind light-years ahead of what medicine can currently provide, that the power of Jesus that healed this unnamed woman 2,000 years ago can cure you of arthritis, cancer, depression, or whatever else affects you today. That somehow, a sprinkling of holy water or some oil will inoculate you from the Coronavirus. 

I wish we could say one simple prayer tonight and send the Coronavirus into the pit of hell. Some people might be willing to still make those pronouncements and put on a grand spectacle and sell you some snake oil, but medical cures are way above my paygrade.

Even if there is no easy cure for our chronic condition, the message of the Gospel is that there is healing for us and a Savior who can save us. As long as we focus on our individual infirmities, we’re doomed to suffer and fail under the weight of the human condition. But our Scripture tells us clearly and decisively that there is something behind this painful chaos that kept this woman hunched over on the Sabbath day.

The Bible paints a word picture of this multifaceted reality: Sin, Death, Satan, the Powers and Principalities, the Spiritual Forces in the Heavenly Realms (Ephesians 6:12)

In the beginning of it all, the book of Genesis tells us that God’s desire for the world was a lush garden of beauty and wholeness. But because of one transgression, out of a desire for personal autonomy, that picture was shattered. Sin, a contagion, a virus with an untreated 100% fatality rate, had infected the world. And thus, as we know, husband and wife turn on one another, brother rises up against brother, human relationships are broken by transgressions, yes. But the problem is really much deeper.

Scripture tells us that individual transgressions, those sins we commit, are not the only problem. No, the whole system of being is infected. Our behaviors are caught up in a wider web of pain and suffering that we can’t control. Try making one purchase, one personal decision that doesn’t have a negative effect on another human being. You can’t do it! It’s like trying to go about your day without spreading the Coronavirus. The reality is, just like with Coronavirus, you’re spreading the infection of Sin and Death wherever you go, even if you’re not currently symptomatic.

The power of Sin has cut us off from the Tree of Life, it’s affected our DNA, it dwells within us like a virus, cutting our time short, subjecting us to suffering and pain.

With this woman, with our fragile Earth, with the entire cosmos, we groan out for redemption! We’re bent over. We’re resigned to our fate. Except that we have the hope of Paul in Romans 8 “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

It’s not that this woman has suffered because of her sin. Yes, we face the consequences of our actions on a daily basis, but God does not consign us to suffering because of them. We suffer because all creation suffers. We suffer because all of us, as Ephesians 6:12 says, struggle not against flesh and blood, but against the “spiritual forces of evil” that attack our bodies and beat us down as children of God.

As St. Augustine put it, “the whole human race, like this woman, was bent over and bowed down to the ground.” Together, we cry out against this enemy to God.

As St. Paul asks in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

On that Sabbath day 2,000 years ago, the Lord Jesus released that woman who had been crying out for 18 long years from her bondage. Yes, Jesus did have the supernatural power to cure her. But more importantly, Jesus saw her and healed her. He restored her. He gave her the freedom of the children of God from her captor.

As Romans 8:2 declares, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

The woman who was in bondage in knows the reality of the human condition and the condition of the cosmos far better than the synagogue leader does. The synagogue leaders sees this incident as a simple act of physical healing. It’s “work.” It’s what those of you who are medical professionals do at your day jobs. But Jesus sees it as something far more.

The synagogue leader doesn’t know his own brokenness, his own wounds, the way this cosmic story of Sin and death has kept him in bondage. He doesn’t know the he too is bent over to the ground. Otherwise, he’d be begging for freedom too!

The synagogue leader has become so defensive and antagonistic with Jesus because he is unwilling and unable to find healing from the spiritual wounds in his heart.

Like those who go about their days as normal right now, denying the danger of the spread of the Coronavirus, the synagogue leader adopts a deadly “everything is fine, we don’t need saving” mentality.

This moderator of the Sabbath assembly doesn’t know that he, like all of us, is deeply wounded, broken, and infected. And if he knows it, then he’s trying his best to hide it.

None of us can escape the contagion of Sin. We’re all infected. And like the bent over woman, we can all be liberated from the powers that hold us in bondage.

Now is the time for release from bondage! Now, on this Sabbath day, is the time of our healing.

The thing that keeps us from deliverance and healing from the twin powers of Sin and Death especially in the Church is that we refuse to acknowledge and take up our afflictions. And if we don’t acknowledge our common sickness, we’re certainly not going to create the space for healing.

In our minds, Church is a recue raft for those who aren’t infected by the contagion, the virus of Sin and Death. And so, sometimes we get caught up in putting on a religious show during a season like Lent! Our life isn’t hard enough, so we find ways to voluntarily suffer to show how good and religious we are. Or to earn our place as one of the good-religious-sabbath-keepers.

But as it turns out, all of our false piety has been stripped from us this Lent. There are no more Fish Fry’s left to convince us that we’re doing our religious duty by eating fried food. There are no more gatherings of people in which to adopt a sullen expression and show people how terrible our fast is making us feel!

Right now, there’s no way to deny that we are ALL infected by the contagion of Sin and Death. Look at the empty supermarket shelves, decimated by those who are hoarding supplies for themselves. Look at the fragility of our lives—we carry viruses within our bodies, without knowing, that can bring death upon those who are most vulnerable.

–––––

In this season of Lent, our local ministerium decided that “Take Up Your Cross” would be the theme of our gatherings together. Those mid-week services may be suspended by the virus, but what an opportunity we have together now to take up the crosses that are before us, to pick up our pain and suffering, to pick up the sign of Sin and Death, and to ask Jesus to take that weight from us.

Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). “Take up my burden. It is the burden of the whole world and it will be a light burden. Take up my yoke and it will prove to be an easy yoke.” (Matthew 11:30; “Following Jesus,” 79).

Reflecting on that passage, the great Christian Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen writes, “This is the mystery of the Christian life. It is not that God came to take our burden away or to take our cross away or to take our agony away.” (As I’ve been saying in this sermon, Jesus did not come to cure us of our fragile humanity.) “No. God came to invite us to connect our burden with God’s burden, to connect our suffering with God’s suffering, to connect our pain to God’s pain.” (“Following Jesus,” 80)

When we hear that we are to “take up our cross and follow Jesus,” we often believe that we need to make a cross to follow Jesus. That we somehow need to take on some external suffering on ourselves and be hard on ourselves. Nouwen reminds us, “we have a lot of problems [already]. We don’t need more.”

Church, we do not need to make a cross. We don’t need to cause ourselves pain. Our cross is already in front of us.

There is no one watching this sermon who does not, in some way, carry the suffering of Sin and Death in their bodies. The only thing that separates us is that some of us have chosen to pick up that suffering and acknowledge it, while others have tried to hide the virus that lives within them.

The bent-over woman who went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day took up her cross! She could hardly hide it! She could not have not taken up her cross. It was visible on her body for all to see.

But the synagogue leader didn’t have a visible cross, and so he felt no need to take up his suffering, his infection of Sin and Death. The synagogue leader cut himself and others off from the healing and true joy that was so desperately needed on the Sabbath day.

We don’t take up our cross to show off how much we can suffer. We take up our cross so that we will be healed and set free!

That’s exactly what the bent-over woman did. She participated in the Sabbath, the gift given to the people of Israel as they were set free from the bondage of Sin and Death in Egypt. The Sabbath reminded her and reminds us that “we were once enslaved in Egypt.” We were once infected by Sin and Death.

The thing that kept the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt is the same thing that bent over this woman. It’s Cancer. It’s Chronic Illness. It’s the Coronavirus. It’s Sin and Death. It’s what we call the “human condition.”

And we all need healing.

Today we need to ask ourselves, “what is our unique suffering? What cross do we bear?” And then, like the bent-over woman, we need to take up that cross, and follow––bring that suffering to Jesus.

Henri Nouwen writes that, “this is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross. He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein. Taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds.”

Taking up our cross means taking up our unique part of the human condition. It means taking up our unique bondage to Sin and Death and bringing it to Jesus, not for a quick cure-all, not for Jesus to take that cross from us, but for the healing that comes through dying to ourselves and being raised up with Christ.

As the Lord told the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And as Paul said in response, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

–––––

I want to end with a story about a boy who needed to take up the cross of his pain and suffering to follow Jesus. C.S. Lewis, in the Narnia story “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” writes, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Eustace was an insufferable boy, a child who bullied other children and adults alike. He was “better” than everyone else, and he knew it. He had the right opinions. He knew all about what was physically possible, and he knew that his cousins who spoke of the Land of Narnia were full of it. There was no such place and there could not be.

The boy Eustace’s cross to bear, the wound from which he was operating, was his jealousy of his cousins Edmund and Lucy and their sibling bond. It was a cross that he needed to take up, a wound that he needed Christ to heal.

Everything changes when Eustace is pulled, kicking and screaming, into Narnia––that “impossible” world that “could not” exist.

As the story continues, Eustace eventually wakes up to find he is not a boy at all. Instead, he looks down and sees the claws and scales of a dragon. The boy Eustace, in this realm of Narnia, now shows his Sin, his infection, on the outside.

Unable to hide from his pain anymore, Eustace cries out for help and Aslan, the Christ figure in Lewis’ allegory, comes to him saying, “follow me.”

In front of Aslan, Eustice tries desperately to free himself from his dragon form, this Sin, by scratching and clawing himself. He tries to shed the outside layers of his condition by inflicting pain to free himself. (How often do we do the same?)

But under the outside layer of the scales of Sin is another, and another, and another. The boy Eustace seems to be a dragon all the way down. But Aslan the lion tells him, “you will have to let me” take off those scales.

Aslan, the lion who is not-safe but good, tears into Eustace’s dragon flesh—layer upon layer of the Sin and Death that has been suffocating the boy Eustice is removed in one fell swoop. Aslan picks up the raw, healed freed-boy Eustace and drops him into the pool.

After this, those who see and interact with Eustace can’t believe their eyes. They can’t believe it’s him. Eustace was never so kind and understanding. But this freed-boy Eustace, unchained from the shackles of Sin, rescued from the mouth of the dragon of Death, healed from the virus that has infected humanity, is now more himself than he has ever been.

–––––

If we take up our suffering and share it with Christ, what pain must we endure to be healed? The pain of acknowledging our sins to a friend, relative, or our accountability group. The pain of stripping off our false self for the truth that lies beneath. The pain of removing ourselves from toxic relationships and negative influences. The pain of faith and trust, knowing that things really are uncertain and there’s no security in this life. The pain of acknowledging a chronic condition for which there is no cure. The pain of acknowledging that none of us will get out of this infected world alive.

Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve – are you suffocating inside the oppression of the dragon of Sin and Death? Come to the healer, let him cut into the lies and false self that you might be set free. 

Child of God – are you bent over from the weight of the burden you carry? Stand up. Take up your cross. Be set free to follow Jesus, that we all might rejoice in what God is doing. 

There may not be a cure for the task of cross-bearing, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory of healing through Jesus Christ, sent by the Father, and with us always through the gift of the Spirit. Amen.


As I was writing this sermon, Mockingbird posted an article in the same vein that highlights a quotation from C.S. Lewis, addressing life in the “Atomic Age” and drawing the connection to the Coronavirus.”

The problem is, we are already infected. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before [the coronavirus began to spread].” As we scramble to save ourselves from this earthly ailment, the creeping virus of sin continues to infect our hearts with greed and fear and a whole host of other strains of itself. Against this disease, quarantine won’t help — it grows even when we’re isolated, just as it can grow when we gather together, multiplying as it passes from person to person.

Kate Campbell, Mockingbird – https://mbird.com/2020/03/wash-your-hands-you-sinners/

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