In 2005 what we called “the Dream Team” was wrestling with images that would describe the kind of church we were and wanted to be. Allan Cuseo, a member of the Team, gave us one that instantly resonated: “A Healing Place for the Soul.” This was the inscription over the entrance to the ancient library at Thebes in Egypt.
To use the word “healing,” is to tread on somewhat dangerous territory. We do not want to take it to mean that we have somehow figured out exactly how God works, as if God were our possession and simply did whatever we asked of him. There are Christians who seem to talk this way—and it is easy enough for us to get caught up in this way of thinking and praying. But none of that is what we mean by healing.
There are three phrases in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans today which open up what we mean by saying “we are a healing place for souls.” Those phrases are “the spirit of adoption,” “the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and “in hope we were saved.”
I would submit to you that when we are fulfilling our mission, then all of us, and the next person who walks through the door for the first time, are experiencing these things as a reality, and not just any reality, but a transformative one.
Let us start with “the spirit of adoption.” Paul contrasts this not with “a spirit of natural birth.” He contrasts this with “a spirit of slavery,” a slavery to fear. How many of us struggle with our relationship with God, bouncing back and forth between these two poles? Is our relationship with God fundamentally formed by fear? Or is our relationship with God fundamentally formed by grace, which is another word for this phrase “spirit of adoption”?
Adoption in human terms is a matter of grace. You call one your child who is not your child. The fact that she or he is not your child becomes meaningless. And the child has done little or nothing to be treated as such.
So it is with God, with God’s acceptance of us. It is adoption. It is based on nothing we have done. It is simply God’s gracious desire. We put it this way when we baptize someone, “We receive you into the household of God…” And this reception can never be undone, as we also say, ”You are sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
Now the Bible also speaks occasionally of something called “the fear of the Lord.” I suspect Paul would not want to say that we should not fear the Lord. But what he is saying here is that any fear of the Lord comes after the spirit of adoption has taken hold of us, and it is not a kind of slavery or bondage. The fear of God and the love of God are two sides of the same coin.
A lot of us were taught differently, and a lot of people out there in the world assume that fear comes first for us. The story they think we tell is that God is first of all very angry with us and we should fear God’s wrath, God’s hatred of sin. We have to do something to change God’s mind about us. We have to “accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior,” or some other way of “getting right with God,” and once we have done that God adopts us as his children.
That is not our story, and I do not think we could tell the opposite story—that is our story—that God loves us, adopts us, first often enough. Jesus himself told this story quite plainly in John’s Gospel,
You did not choose me, but I chose you. (John 15:16)
And John in his first letter writes even more clearly
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19)
To know you are an adopted child of God no matter what the circumstances of your life, is the beginning of what we call healing.
Once we accept our own gracious acceptance, we can embrace “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” But here is the tricky part. This freedom and glory is ours today and we wait with patience for it to be revealed fully to us, sometimes with suffering, sometimes with groaning too deep for words, in which the whole creation and God’s own Spirit dwelling in us joins us and even prays on our behalf if necessary.
Paul goes so far as to say that we are not saved by some present act of God, we are saved by hope. We are saved by what we cannot yet fully see or experience, but we nevertheless believe to be true.
This is a very hard thing. Waiting. Patience. How can this be a healing place for souls if there is not an active witnessing of healing? Because of three things: faith in what God has done, love as our way of life in the present, and hope that, as Dame Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well.”
How can we believe that? How can it be that this quote from Dame Julian was my mantra over the past four months, that “all shall be well,” and here I am today and “all” is decidedly not well. My illness has not gone away despite the prayers of many, and it has resulted in a great suffering, our separation from one another as priest and people.
The answer is the gift of seeing the world sacramentally, that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and although that more remains a mystery to me, I believe the mystery ultimately loves me and loves you, and, in fact, has the ultimate purpose of all being well.
And for me at least, and I think for everyone, how I learn to see this way and believe this way and accept this way is in community. Your prayers for me did not result in my Physical or mental healing, but they very much helped drag me out of the abyss. And my experience of being back with you for these short weeks has buoyed me up even more.
This is a healing place for souls, because it is a place where, together, we discover again and again that we cannot be separated from God, despite all signs to the contrary. And in this hope we begin to discover the freedom that is the glory of the children of God.