According to scholar Jacob Needleman, most people in our churches have forgotten what religion is for. It’s as though, he said, millions of people suffering from one painful disease or another gathered together to hear someone read a textbook of medical treatment where the diagnosis and cure for their disease were carefully spelled out. And they all took great comfort from the book, quoting passages to their friends.

Meanwhile, of course, the disease worsened and eventually people were dying, and they would listen on their deathbed as someone read them yet another passage from the text. Maybe, for some, Needleman says, a troubling thought crossed their minds as they closed their eyes for the last time: “… Haven’t I forgotten actually to undergo the treatment?”

Needleman’s words say a good deal about the odd ways we often treat what we read in our scriptures—as nice thoughts, though not worth putting into action—in no area more than when we think of illness itself and our need for physical healing. We cannot read the New Testament without being struck by how central healing was to Jesus’ ministry. For four weeks in a row our gospel readings have been stories of Jesus’ healing. Nearly 1/5 of the gospel narratives are devoted to these accounts—something like 41 recorded healings.

For nearly 2,000 years, Jesus has been known as the Great Physician. Most of us, I suspect, are more inclined to think of Jesus as an ethical teacher, but the fact is, Jesus came not simply to offer new ideas but to give people access to a power that heals and saves. When people opened their lives to him and were touched by him, they came away stronger and more whole.

My sense is that most of us really don’t know what to do with these odd accounts of lepers being cured and lame people walking. Don’t most of us often think of our body as something like a machine, something that our mind uses, gives instructions to, and expects to perform? And when it breaks down we call in the mechanic, the doctor, to do some technical work to get it going again. Medicine often appears to be a matter of drugs and surgeries, charts and graphs, with little attention to the patient’s emotional or spiritual well-being.

But in recent years there has been a massive flow of testimony that reflects what the scriptures have always shown—that we are whole, integrated creatures, you and I, and the well-being of our body is profoundly affected by the well-being of our mind and spirit. In fact, our bodies are open to influences from beyond us that can only be called spiritual. If any of you saw Bill Moyers’ series called “Healing and the Mind” some years ago, you saw some fascinating things happening around the edges of medicine: the remarkable effects of acupuncture, the power of biofeedback, the ability of Chinese folk medicine to produce cures.

Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard, head of something called the Mind-Body Institute, has been writing about what he calls the “Relaxation Response,” in which he demonstrates what an impact a still and rested mind and spirit can have on our health and our general spiritual well-being. People who meditate and pray, he shows, often have lower blood pressure, healthier hearts, more energy. A whole field of study called psychoneuroimmunology has developed which examines the relationship between the central nervous system—which can be affected by behavioral factors such as stress—and the immune system—which can mean that anxious, stressed, or even grieving people get sick more easily.

Could it be possible that we have lost something essential to what healing is about? Of course, in our scientific age we see the healing work of God clearly in the analytical care that comes from the medical professions, the health work of scalpel, medication, and all the miracles of modern medicine. But the lessons we’ve been reading say there’s another dimension too. Think of the strange twists of health and illness that we notice around us.

A man who had dreaded retirement for years, who had nothing else in his life but his work, who was horrified at the thought of losing the one thing in his life that mattered, dies two months after his last day at work.

A woman, hit by a vicious cancer, is given maybe six months to live. She is a person of deep faith, and with hope, love, and prayers from those around her, she refuses to believe it’s all over. Five years later she is going strong.

Pressure builds on a professional woman at work, and even more pressure at home. The hours are long. She eats too much; she’s smoking almost nonstop, until . . . a heart attack.

A troubled mother takes her son with seriously defective eyesight in one eye to a healing service where a group prays for him. When they return to the doctor to make plans for surgery, the doctor is amazed to see that the problem has disappeared.

Of course, we know of many illnesses where there is no healing, but still the indications are everywhere that what goes on in us spiritually profoundly affects what becomes of us physically. And that is the conviction the scriptures show us time and again: body and spirit are one whole that cannot be separated.

And from all that I have gathered, that is increasingly the conviction within much of the medical community. Research indicates that 35% of patients experience consistently substantial healing with placebos, medication with no intrinsic healing properties. Hopeful expectation is a powerful part of healing. Doctors, such as Lewis Thomas, suggest that until relatively well into last century, the primary good that doctors did for patients was to care about them, to touch them, and give them the hope and expectation of getting well—and it worked! Dr. Bernie Siegel at Yale wrote about the extraordinary power for healing evident in patients who are hopeful, who are determined to get well and who believe that it is possible.

In today’s gospel, Jesus heals a paralyzed man when the man’s friends lower him down through the roof of a house to get him to Jesus. And then Jesus does two things. First, he tells the man his sins are forgiven, which is to say be begins by healing what is broken in his spirit, his distance from God. And then Jesus says, “Stand up, take your mat and go home,” and the man does just that. It’s really a double healing. Jesus cleanses the man’s spirit, as part of healing the man’s body. And then he gives him the hopeful expectation that God is holding him and at work in him.

Often in these healing stories, touch is involved. Jesus physically lays hands on someone, or lifts them up from the ground. Touch has a tremendous capacity to communicate care and strength. Flesh to flesh becomes a sacrament, the physical expression of healing power. That is why ours is a deeply sacramental faith, in which God’s love and healing are communicated through the physical. In healing services in our tradition, people come to the altar to have hands laid on them as someone prays for them, and those hands and that gathered community become channels of God’s healing love and energy. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are central channels of God’s love; in them we can touch and taste and feed physically on God’s love.

Then there are all the ordinary ways. In medicine, the healing touch of nurses is one of the profound ways God’s care comes through to us. I wonder how many of you have felt in a time of crisis the healing power that comes with the gift of a casserole or a loaf of baked bread, or when someone offers to pray with you, or hold your hand. That is the vocation of the Church—to be a healing community where people come to be touched by Christ’s love and from which they go out to be agents of Christ’s healing.

And it has to be said that the healing spirit of Christ isn’t simply for individuals. If health is God’s desire for everyone, then we who seek healing for ourselves have to insist that that care is available for everyone. Even in this country, some 45 million people have no health insurance, 20% of all African-Americans, a third of all Latino Americans. The District of Columbia, our own city, ranks 50th among the states in infant mortality, just as the U.S. ranks far behind most European nations in infant mortality.

Part of the work of the Great Physician in our time, I believe, is to push relentlessly for some form of health care for everyone. This wealthiest nation on earth can do no less.

Of course, neither in Jesus’ time nor ours did prayers for healing always produce cures. Here in this diocese and this Cathedral community there have been painful deaths in recent weeks and months. And I know that in the face of those crises, people have harangued God with their prayers. But often the ravages of disease overwhelm even God’s will. St. Paul wrote repeatedly of his own ailment, the thorn in his side, that he was never freed from. Even those of deep faith sometimes do not get well; everyone finally dies.

God does not promise us that there will always be a cure, but God does promise there can always be healing. Even as our bodies may succumb to disease, we can grow in trust and love, ready for the healing that finally awaits us beyond this life.

A priest friend described to me his experience of visiting a man suffering through the advanced stages of leukemia. The man had been a lifelong stoic, refusing to face what was happening now and unwilling to talk about what he was going through with anyone. He and his wife had a formal, distanced relationship; neither could talk of the death that was drawing more and more near.

Then one day while my friend was there, something happened. The wife for some reason reached down and touched her husband’s face, and then lay down beside him on the bed and held him. And he began to cry. He died soon after; there was no cure. But there was healing—healing for him, healing between him and his wife.

The promise of Christ is clear. If we seek healing, we will receive it. We will not always be cured. Not now; not in this life. But there can always be healing.

A prominent Episcopal laywoman named Agnes Sanford once described praying for healing to be a little like playing a game. We can hardly believe it’s true, and we have to resist powerful voices of doubt within us. But, she says, pray as if it were true. Imagine yourself or someone else bathed in a healing light. Pray down the doubtful voices in us, she said; this game is less ridiculous and far more useful than most other games we play.

These healing stories challenge us to stretch our faith, to pray through our timidity and our doubt, and to trust Jesus, the Great Physician, to be our help in time of need. If we do that, we will actually undergo the treatment Jesus offered time and again, so that we, and those we love, can be healed, and sometimes, by the grace of God, cured.