At this time of year we use these morning services to think about various issues that our society is grappling with. So over the past two months we have thought about parenting, gender and criminal justice among other issues. Today is the last in our series for this year and this morning we are going to try to address the issue of 'health and sickness'. Now if you come to Jesmond Parish Church regularly you will be aware that in our main Sunday services it is our normal practice to look at one fairly short section of the Bible each time but this morning we are going to do something a bit different – we are going to spend some time thinking about how the world views this issue and then we are going to look at a longer section of the Bible so that we can allow it to address our topic. In a moment we are going to look at Genesis 1-3 but to set the scene we are going to start by considering what characterises the thinking of our society when it comes to this topic of 'health and sickness'. And at the most basic level that thinking is characterised by two common mistakes.
The first mistake is what you might call the mistake of the world and it is reflected in these magazines – Men's Health and Top Santé – that I bought this week. As you read these magazines you quickly realise that the underlying assumption of everything in them is that the here and now is all there is. They have, in the truest sense of the word, a 'materialistic' worldview. To them the material/the physical is all there is and there is no room for the spiritual. And quite logically because the material is all there is they put an absolute premium on the preservation and exploitation of the material – in other words this worldview is dedicated to sustaining and enjoying good health. Consequently these magazines are dedicated to telling you how to do just that. As they do that they are not being revolutionary, they are simply reflecting the drift of our society away from the eternal and transcendent towards the material and passing. And that is the first common mistake people make when they begin to think about health and sickness, the mistake of the world.
Faced with this mistake some people, particularly people of faith, react by making the second common mistake which you could call the mistake of the church. They begin to think and teach that the material in general and the body in particular has no value at all. Now I had a good look in the newsagents but I couldn't find any magazines that reflect the mistake of the church in the same way that Top Santé or Men's Health reflect the mistake of the world. But while it is not a mistake that sells magazines it is still around, particularly among Christians. A while back I was chatting to a Christian doctor, not from this Church, who told me that he found his work frustrating and pointless because, in his words, "all I do is mend people's bodies". He though that was unimportant and the reason he thought that was because he underestimated the value God places on his material creation. He had made the mistake of the church.
Those 2 mistakes that can all two easily influence our thinking and acting in this area but neither of them adequately reflect the Bible's teaching. To discover what that is we are going to ask three questions: question number one, Why is this an issue for Christians?; question two, What principles inform the Bible's attitude towards health and sickness? and question three, How should those principles work out in practice? We will look at those in turn now.
First, WHY IS THIS AN ISSUE FOR CHRISTIANS?
There are three reasons we need to think about this.
Firstly this is a very important public policy issue. At the last general election health was the issue according to the polling numbers. The issues in the area of health are very complicated and we have not got time to go into the details now. But it is worth noting that too often members of the government, healthcare professionals and people of good will have those one or other of mistakes as their basic assumption informing their thinking. And Christians need to challenge that because wrong assumptions produce wrong actions and wrong actions in this area lead to people suffering. This is an important policy issue.
Secondly for many of us this is an important personal issue. Last week my sister told me about a conversation she had with a friend of hers whose husband died a few years ago. This friend told my sister that despite years of Church attendance she had, in her own words, lost her faith because of her husband's death. Just like that woman we will all see our loved ones face illness and death and more that that we will face them ourselves as well. So how do we explain our experience in those situations? What does the Bible tell us about why illness and death exist? As importantly what does it tell us how they can be dealt with? This is an important personal issue.
Thirdly this is a very practical issue. All around us in the papers, on the TV and radio and in magazines like these we are being told how to exercise effectively, eat healthily and live well. But how much of a priority should those things have in our lives as we seek to follow Jesus? How much time should we spend on our health? This is a practical issue.
So that is question number one: why should we think about this issue? Because it is an important policy issue, it is an important personal issue and it is a very practical issue.
Secondly, WHAT PRINCIPLES INFORM THE BIBLE'S ATTITUDE TOWARDS HEALTH AND SICKNESS?
Now at this point we are going to look at the Bible for some answers so please turn to Genesis chapter 1 on page 3 of the pew Bibles. The reason we are going to spend some time looking at Genesis 1-3 is because it is the place to find an accurate philosophy of humanity; they are the greatest explanation the world has of what it means to be a human being. And in Genesis 1-3 you find 4 basic assumptions about humanity that act as principles to inform the Bible's view of health and sickness.
The first principle, very simply and very obviously, is that we are physical creatures. Have a look at Genesis chapter 2 verse 7:
the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The earliest chapters of the Bible are clear that the fact that we have physical beings was a deliberate act on God's part, which is why that mistake of the church we thought about earlier is so unfortunate. We should not consider our bodies and our health as unimportant, secondary or evil, as some Christians have in the past and still do now, just like that Christian doctor I mentioned. The Bible is very clear that the physical does matter – it matters that it is looked after and it matters that it is used properly. So that man's work as a doctor was not pointless like he thought but very important because he was obeying one of the earliest commands God gave to humanity in Genesis 2, where the Lord gives humanity the responsibility to steward his creation and being a medic is surely a part of that.
The second principle is that we are spiritual creatures. Have a look at Genesis chapter 1 verse 27,
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Among the created order only human beings have the capacity to relate to God, which is what I mean when I say we are spiritual. The reason we have that capacity is because, unlike any other form of life on earth, we are created in the image of God. I recently came across this quotation:
"Human beings are engineered for religious faith. We are wired for God… our genetic blueprint has made believing in an Infinite Absolute part of our nature."
That is what the Bible is talking about when it says we are made in the image of God. However what makes that quotation remarkable is that is not from a Christian. It was written by a non-Christian medical professor from Harvard called Herbert Benson. His research seems to support what the Bible has said for years – we are not just physical beings we also have a spiritual dimension to our make up.
The third principle is that we are creatures who have an innate dignity. Again this flows from Genesis chapter 1 verse 27. The image of God in every human being not only means that we have the capacity to relate to God, it also means we have an innate dignity. This in turn means every human being and every human life is valuable and it is because of that Christians believe in the sanctity of human life. This has huge implications for how we view the practice of healthcare, particularly when it comes to life and death issues, which we thought about earlier in this series and for which a sermon transcript is available on the Church's web site. That aside this innate dignity means it matters that all people are treated well irrespective of who they are or what they have done – a criminal or a stripper should be treated in as good a way as a high flying lawyer or a clergyman. So if you are a doctor, nurse, paramedic, physiotherapist or involved in healthcare in any other way it is very important that you treat all people with dignity and that you do that because all human beings are uniquely dignified because they are made in the image of God.
The fourth principle is that we are fallen creatures. In Genesis chapter 1 verse 31 it says this about creation with man at its head:
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
At that point creation was very good, in fact it was perfect. But it does not take a genius to realise that between then and now something has radically changed. The roots of that change can be found in Genesis chapter 2 verses 16-17 where it says,
…the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
Our forebears quickly disobeyed that simple command and nothing has been the same since. In Genesis 3 God explains the consequences of the choice Adam and Eve made. Have a look at Genesis chapter 3 verses 16-19:
To the woman the Lord said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
Looking at those few verses you realise that two of the main consequences of the curse that came after man's disobedience were pain and death. And this is the Bible's explanation why the world is how it is – we suffer illness and die not because God does not care or does not love us, we face those things because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve all those years ago, which we continue to imitate in a thousand different ways everyday. And that begins to answer the questions raised by my sister's friend about the death of her husband. Of course much more could and should be said in response to the issues she raises but at the very least these verses do address the question of why death exists.
So those are the 4 principles from Genesis chapters 1-3 that inform the Bible's attitude towards health and sickness: we are physical creatures, we are spiritual creatures, we are creatures with an innate dignity and we are fallen creatures. Which is all very well but what does that mean in practice. That brings us onto question number three.
Thirdly, HOW SHOULD THOSE PRINCIPLES WORK OUT IN PRACTICE?
From Genesis 1-3 it is clear that our physical health matters, we ought to be concerned about it. It is also clear that our spiritual health is important but the problem we find in chapter 3 is that it is in a dangerously bad state. What is most important according to the Bible is that our spiritual health is sorted out.
But how? In Genesis chapter 3 verse 15 the Lord speaks to the serpent who precipitated the fall and makes this obscure promise:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
Those few words are significant because they are a promise that at some point God will provide a descendent of Eve's to crush the serpent and reverse the effects of the curse. The Old Testament is the story of Eve's descendents and the search for this one who will crush the devil and end the curse. But it is not until what we call the New Testament that that his identity was revealed and he was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.
Now it may be that you are here this morning but you would not call yourself a Christian. If you remember nothing else from what we have done here today please remember this – God's solution to the problem of ill health, sickness and death was the death of his Son, Jesus. When he hung on that cross on the very first Good Friday almost 2000 years ago he was suffering not only from the horrific physical pain of crucifixion but also he was suffering all the terrible effects of the curse caused by our disobedience to the Lord. This man, who had never done anything wrong, suffered all that so that people who simply trust in him can have the effects of the curse reversed in their own lives.
Now when the Bible promises that it does not mean that all Christians are immune from ill health and death. But it does mean after physical death Christians can confidently look forward to a world just like the creation in its earliest days – perfect, free from sickness and eternal.
And living in the light of that should be the number one priority of all followers of Jesus Christ, just as it was for Epaphroditus in our New Testament reading. Paul said about him that:
…he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.
Your physical health is important but however careful you are it will never last. However good spiritual health is eternal and so should be our priority, while not neglecting our bodies. The key is Biblical balance.
I had better finish. We live in a world that exalts the material and physical. And to an extent that is right – we are physical creatures and our bodies do need care and attention. But at the moment in our society that care and attention is being given while our spiritual side is being neglected. To be truly healthy we need to prioritise our spiritual health and then consider our physical health. That is the true Biblical balance in this area. I wonder of that is reflected in our way of life?