Please read Mark 6: 6b-13 and James 5: 13-20 and then pray; “Gracious and merciful Lord, anoint me with your Spirit that I may hear your word of life and receive your healing touch, in Jesus’ name, Amen. 

In 2007, I had the privilege of spending a morning with the Revd John Gunstone, a gracious and godly man who had written several excellent books on the Christian healing ministry and the work of the Holy Spirit. At one time John had served as Ecumenical Officer for Greater Manchester. He was a respected and much-loved Anglican priest, a deeply spiritual man who possessed a passion for ecumenical work, mission and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He would have fit in well at Christchurch.

In one of his books entitled “The Lord is our Healer” he tells the story of a lady he knew who had been a member of a parish Church where he had worked. This lady was very ill with a deteriorating disease in the upper part of her spine. She was in constant pain and had to wear a surgical collar. It looked like she would need an operation that could have left her paralysed from the waist down. She had attended weekly communion services for some time and regularly received prayer for healing.  Although there was no obvious healing, the deterioration in her spine did not get worse and she managed to avoid the surgery, although she still experienced a lot of pain and discomfort.

After John left the parish for another post, the lady continued to attend services and receive prayer for healing. She realised she had become quite bitter, and at one point she felt the need to confess this bitterness to the Lord and ask for grace for the future – whatever the future might hold. A short time after this, whilst receiving prayer through the laying on of hands, she felt a distinct burning sensation at the back of her neck. She was due to see the surgeon for an examination – and this is how she described her experience:

As the surgeon examined me, feeling each vertebra from the base of the spine upwards, I felt no pain, which was unusual. Usually when he touched certain vertebrae the pain was so great that I fainted. He seemed puzzled and sent me for an X-ray, marking the note “Urgent”. When the X-ray film came back, he looked at it for a long time, and then asked the orthopaedic surgeon to come and see it as well. He also examined my spine and looked at the X-ray, and he seemed puzzled too. They asked me what I had been doing recently, and rather nervously I explained that I had recently received pray for healing, and I told them about the burning sensation I had experienced. They showed me the X-ray they had been examining. On one there was fibrous tissues blurring the image of the spine, but on the other, the most recent X-ray – the vertebrae stood out quite clearly. They told me to take the collar off as I wouldn’t be needing it again, explaining that in their opinion this was nothing less than a miracle.  (The Lord is our Healer p 167-68)

I have come across many and various healing testimonies over the years of my Christian pilgrimage. I have also witnessed members of Churches in which I have served receive healing through prayer. From the standpoint of the Church of Jesus Christ, prayer for the sick started on the first mission adventure of the twelve apostles as recorded for us in Mark 6: 12-13. These disciples, who had been appointed apostles, (Mark 3:14) were sent out by Jesus with his authority and his instructions.

As you read the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, you discover many similarities in the ways these gospel writers describe these early mission and ministry trips which took place around numerous Galilean villages. The one notable difference in Mark’s account which was the first gospel to be written, was that the disciples “anointed many sick people with oil and healed them”. (6:13) The other gospel writers all write about the healing ministry of Jesus through the disciples, but only Mark mentions anointing sick people with oil. If you put all the information together, it seems that the disciples prayed for the healing of the sick in two ways – through the laying on of hands, and through anointing with oil. Words of command, rather than prayer would have been used with those troubled by evil spirits.

Anointing with oil continued as part of the future pastoral life and ministry of the Church, as did the laying on of hands. James in his letter makes this clear:

Is any of you sick? He should call upon the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.  (James 5:14-15)

As well as this teaching in James, Paul also writes about the ministry of healing and healing gifts in his first letter to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 12:9). Such gifts are given by the Holy Spirit for the strengthening and encouragement of the Church fellowship, for the common good and blessing of the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:7). Taking the New Testament witness as a whole, the Church were to go out and share the good news with all people and pray for the sick, and they were also to minister to each other within the fellowship of believers through the gifts given by the Spirit. Healing through prayer ministry was a significant part of both the pastoral life and evangelistic outreach of the Church.

Why anointing with oil? Why the laying on of hands? The laying of hands was administered in the belief that disciples of Jesus who engaged in such prayer for the healing of the sick were administering the “Lord’s healing touch”. Disciples were praying in the name of the Lord, with the authority of the Lord, and with the touch of the Lord. The Lord’s touch was being communicated through the laying on of the disciple’s hands. The sick could experience the healing power of the Lord Jesus through the Lord’s chosen servants. The Church is the “body of Christ” on earth and given the authority to share his healing touch.

With regards to anointing with oil – it was the powerful symbolism of the oil that was so important in ministry. In the Old Testament oil was used to anoint kings, priests and prophets. It symbolised the coming and equipping of the Holy Spirit with power. When the disciples anointed the sick with oil, it symbolised the coming of God’s kingdom, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The outward anointing with oil symbolised the inward filling and healing power of the Spirit. A 4th Century saint referred to the oil used in anointing as “the dear friend of the Holy Spirit” (St Ephrem).

The oil was only a symbol. The oil was not used in ministry for healing but to symbolise the anointing of the Spirit who would heal and touch a sick person with power. Oil was and still is used in many ways as a healing, soothing and comforting agent, as we can see for example in the story of the Good Samaritan, who used oil to attend to the wounds of the man who had been beaten by robbers. (Luke 10:34) But in healing ministry, oil was only a symbol for the coming, power and presence of the Spirit who heals in the name and by the mercy of the Lord Jesus. The Good News translation of Mark 6:13 is therefore misleading because it speaks about the disciples “rubbing oil” on the sick. They did not rub oil on the sick; they anointed the sick and prayed for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

The disciples encouraged all people to repent – to turn back to God, (v 12) and it is important to note that in James’s teaching the sick person is encouraged to confess their sins as part of receiving prayer for healing. In the testimony I shared at the outset of this sermon, the lady whose spine was healed had earlier confessed her bitterness to the Lord and sought God’s forgiving and enabling grace.

When seeking healing, those praying and those who are sick should be willing to:

  • Adopt a penitent spirit before the Lord. Confession of all known sin is important. Grace is freely available through the blood of Christ!
  • Adopt a humble spirit before the Lord. Humble yourself before the Lord and He will lift you up. (James 4:10) We often see in the gospels the sick coming to Jesus and kneeling before him as they reach out empty handed for healing mercy.
  • Adopt an attitude of faith, of belief that the Lord can heal, and trust that He will touch you. Place all your trust in the Lord Jesus who is merciful and compassionate. Look to Him! Place your faith in Jesus! Anointing with oil can act as a stimulus to faith. Faith can be strengthened as the anointing takes place. Where there is a lack of faith – the opportunity to experience healing is significantly affected despite Jesus’s presence. (Mark 6: 4-6) Prayer must be offered “in faith” (James 5:15) and in the name of the Lord. One man who begged Jesus to heal his son used these words; “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

We all therefore need to grow in (1) our belief in the power of prayer, (2) our trust in the mercy and compassion of Christ, and (3) our openness to receiving ministry from the Holy Spirit.

According to the Lord Jesus, the disciples needed to take next to nothing on their ministry trips. They were to rely on the provision of the Lord as they stepped out in faith and obedience. Faithful and faith-filled disciples could expect God to meet their personal needs. Jesus said they could take a staff to aid them on their journeys (6:8). God would provide the food, shelter, warmth they would need through people whose hearts He would touch and move with hospitable grace. But as well as taking their trusty staffs, they must, according to our text, have taken olive oil – ready to use for the anointing of the sick. Oil was something that could be consecrated, carried and used with ease and simplicity, but it symbolised something sacred and powerful – the anointing of the Spirit who heals in the name and for the glory of Jesus!

Our main equipment for Christian ministry is ourselves. We are the Spirit-filled channels for God’s love and grace through whom God can touch people in need. We can pray for ourselves and others whether we have oil or not; the laying on of hands is probably to the most common expression of healing prayer ministry today. When Peter and John met the lame man begging at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple – they had “nothing” – no silver or gold to give him – but they did have the Lord and his Spirit. (Acts 3:6) The man was miraculously healed. This is how God resources his people for mission and ministry. We have power from the Spirit, the presence of the Lord and his Kingdom in our lives, and the gift of prayer. What more is needed? Can you name greater resources than these?

And now unto God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we ascribe all glory and praise. Amen!

Revd Peter J Clarkson (September 19th 2021)