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Why do we pray for the sick?

A sermon for St Bartholomew’s day


Today we celebrate St Bartholomew who may be the same person as Nathaniel in John’s gospel. We don't know a lot about him but he has become linked with healing and health care. Here’s how it came about:

Rahere (died 1144) was a monk and a favourite of King Henry I. He is most famous for having founded St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1123.

Rahere Went on pilgrimage to Rome but fell sick in an epidemic there; he went for healing to the shrine of St Bartholomew on the Tiber Island in Rome. He prayed for a cure, and vowed that he would found a hospital in London for the poor and needy if he recovered. He was cured but didn't know how he could do this. Then he had a vision of St Bartholomew, who said he had chosen a place at Smithfield in London to build a church to him. So Rahere went home and asked the King for land at Smithfield for a church and hospital. Rahere had no money but the people of London were inspired by his faith and they dug the foundations; rich and poor alike worked on the hospital which he insisted was to be theirs, the people’s hospital.

Barts hospital stands about half a  mile north of St Paul’s Cathedral and just south of the Smithfield markets. The church was founded in 1123 and the hospital is the oldest surviving in Britain on its original site.

In the middle ages, the monasteries were of course the original providers of health care, before the state took on any responsibility for it.

Today, like Rahere, we both pray for the sick, and use the best medical care available to us.

Medical care is a gift from God developed through the use of our brains and is the usual way God’s healing is experienced now - together with the body's natural self healing mechanisms which are built in. We are working with God in using this. But however sophisticated our medical treatments have become, prayer for the sick is also important and useful, even if it's less easy today why. 

“I prayed for her but she still died”  is a common and sad complaint.

So why do we pray for the sick and does it work?

1. Prayer always works -  but we have to understand that it's not a slot machine, where you choose your sweeties, pop in the right coins and out comes your selection.  Prayer is a relationship, with God and with those we pray with and for. All life's joys and griefs are best handled with the support of a loving community around us. Praying for someone is a way we express our joining with them in their suffering as they are sick.

2. There is a difference between praying for healing and for a cure. A cure means they will get better and no longer be sick. Healing is about well being, wholeness, the ‘shalom’ of the Old Testament, deep peace within. Healing can take place at any time whether we are physically well or not, and even at the moment when one dies, if for example something is forgiven or someone is embraced. Of course we would prefer a cure, or we think we would. But consider, if every prayer for the sick was answered with healing, what kind of world would we have? Medicines no longer needed at all. No one would die presumably. Illness would cease to exist. The world population would grow uncontrollably. No need for care to avoid accidents,  no need for hygiene or improved sanitation, since any infection can be cured immediately by prayer. It's not the world we live in, the one God has given us and challenged us to live well in. Change, ageing, disease and death are part of this world and that's the background against which we seek and find God, and develop into his people. That’s not fatalistic, as I have explained that medical research is good and it's our duty to improve health care as much as we can, and to extend it to as many people as possible, like Rahere did.

3. Prayer expresses our love and concern. It makes that person feel supported and cared for, people often have a sense of being upheld by prayer. Prayer helps a person relax and trust the healing process, which makes it more likely to work for them. Prayer supports hope and faith, encourages a positive and thankful attitude to all that life brings, and that too is a strong element of getting better. Prayer reminds us of our dependence on God which is total all the time, our best efforts with drugs and treatments should not blind us to this simple fact. Prayer also helps us prepare for death, which we know will come to each of us at some time. As we place ourselves and our loved ones into God’s hands, trusting God whether we live or die, our passing will be all the more peaceful and free from anxiety; and our grieving for those we love will in turn be a healthy grief, as we feel our loss deeply but we trust God for the well being of our loved one now.

4. Ultimately, we should pray simply because we have been told to, God wants us to pray, and the big searching questions of how our prayer fits in with God’s action, our free will, his foreknowledge and so on, are questions that we can't answer, we just have to live with them and get on with praying, whether it seems to us that it does any good or not.   When people are in need, whatever their beliefs, their instinct is often to pray or to ask for prayer, as we see from the prayer requests that we get in church.

5. Bartholomew reminds us that healing has always been a part of the ministry of the church, and always surrounded in prayer. There is no competition or contradiction between  modern medical treatments and prayer for the sick, we need both, just as we need both the food of the Eucharist and our Sunday lunch.  Today with modern quantum physics telling us that the universe is not closed but open, not determined but free, there is all the more reason to pray and to trust that our prayers have an effect on what happens and how.