“Healing, Evangelism, and the Kingdom of God”
Rev. Rob Hoch, PhD
26 April 2022
(Working Paper for the Kingdom Evangelism Project)
While evangelical movements often speak of “reaching the unreached” with the gospel, the stories of the Gospel, particularly in Mark, speak to the “saving health” that Jesus imparts to people who live with debilitating conditions. In fact, Mark’s narrator foregrounds Jesus’ ability to meet the most stubborn forms of human afflictions (people living with mental health challlenges:1:25; 5:1-20; 7:24-30; physical impairments: 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 7:31-37; 8:22-26; 10:46-52; people afflicted with diseases or conditions that were marginalizing: 5:21-34; people living with epileptic-like seizures: 9:14-27; and resuscitations 5:21-24, 35-43; generalized summaries of healings: 6:53-56, among others).
While we may take it for granted that Jesus heals the sick, the sheer number of sick people in the stories of Jesus might give us pause: why are there so many sick people in the Gospel of Mark? And relatedly, why does Mark so closely associate Jesus’ good news about the reign of God with the restoration of health and dignity to people who live with chronic or stigmatizing or marginalizing disease?
Have we missed the forest for the trees? In other words, does the message of Jesus speak as much to our physical well-being as it does to our spiritual? Sickness was, in the New Testament period, an indication of God’s judgment and Mark may see Jesus’ healing acts as symbolic of the coming reign of God. But does that explanation cover all its significance in Mark or its meaning for us? Could there be a sense in which Mark tells the Jesus story in an imperial context that was inimical to health and wholeness? Does Jesus’
evangel of the rule of God bring health as well as communal belonging and happiness? And could that be a model for a socially and politically powerful reappropriation of contexts and outcomes for evangelical actions in our own communities?
Consider the US context in which, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addictions have claimed nearly 92,000 lives in 2020; or the startling decline in life expectancy in the western countries, where we have grown accustomed to the idea of life spans increasing: “Across all groups [in the USA], life expectancy dropped to 76.60 years in 2021. That figure compares with 76.99 in 2020 and 78.86 in 2019. These are historically unusual drops” (The Washington Post, 7 April 2022).
Mental health issues are increasingly evident in young people, particularly boys and men but also growing among teen girls and women. Suicide has usually been seen as a male phenomenon. No more, according to recent studies: “Suicides among teenage girls and young women have almost doubled in seven years. . . . The number of women and girls between the ages of 10 and 24 recorded as having taken their own lives has increased by 94 per cent since 2012, from 81 to 159 last year – a record high for England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics” (The Independent, 1 September 2020).
Clearly, these statistical measures show more than a “blip” of concern. But what do they mean for communities that enjoy, right now, the health-giving wisdom of Christian fellowship and activities? Are we siloes of good news unto ourselves? Or can we find a witness for the gospel of Jesus’ saving health? Mark reports that people living with mental health struggles burst into the synagogue while Jesus was teaching (1:23), something urban congregations would recognize as relatively common.
What would it be like for the church to mirror Jesus’ way of making real and substantial space for people who suffer in our contemporary contexts? What, for example, would it look like for churches to sponsor and perhaps promote injection sites for people living with addictions, removing some of the shame and stigma of addiction and perhaps promoting recovery?
It seems that the thing missing from upper-case E notions of evangelism is the sense of context. If we take Jesus’ decision to be in community with people who live with mental health and/or physical impairments as a sign of the rule of God, then the next step is to form a “taste” or “foreshadowing” of that eschatologically saving social space in our own contexts.