“And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” Luke 10:11
I love Africa. I was in Rwanda in June last year and May of this year, but there are often moments that are baffling. Friends who are university educated sometimes forget about all that scientific education has told them and see things I would see as being explained by science as due to supernatural causes. Reading the Gospel today, they would see the woman as not having orthopaedic problems, but as being trapped by some supernatural being. In Africa, the spiritual, the supernatural, is assumed to be as much part of reality as the world we can see and touch.
Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, to whose book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” I often turn when trying to find explanations for what is going on in Africa, writes:
“Africa never went through the philosophical and social revolution of Europe in the eighteenth century which sought scientific explanations for the world and put science and spirit in separate boxes. The modern Western view of the world distinguishes between the physical world and the spiritual world, some would say ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. This view is actually quite new in Europe – only about 250 years old. Before that, most Europeans would have thought – and acted much like Africans when it came to religion. Europe has lost that sense of the numinous, the spiritual. Africa has not. Life remains one in Africa and life includes the divine and the mystical as well as the objective physical world. In Africa body and soul are one and the soul lives on.
While Christianity teaches that only humans have souls, African religions hold that all objects, animate or inanimate, can be moved by spirits. Africa senses spirits in animals, trees and rocks as well as people. So the river and the spirit of the river are one and the same. The spirit allows the substance to change, the person to become something else. A friend in Port Harcourt in Nigeria told me that one day in 2001 a noisy crowd gathered under a tree and he went to investigate. There he found a man being roughed up by the crowd. When he asked what the man had done, they claimed he had been a bird sitting in the tree and when a young boy threw a stone at it, it fell down. The bird hit the ground and turned into man. The crowd wanted to kill this witch, this skin changer. A policeman appeared and my friend assumed the man would be saved. In a way he was; the policeman stopped the crowd killing the man and arrested him instead. When my friend asked what he was being charged with, the policeman said, ‘Changing his skin.’
We smile at such a story (though the humour would have been lost by the man set upon by the crowds), yet many people outside the church (and not a few inside) would smile at the idea that Jesus might miraculously heal a woman.
If the idea of Jesus as a person in history is believed at all, there is a tendency to play down the miraculous parts of the stories, to try to give them some natural explanation. People today would try to explain the story of the woman by saying that she had some psychosomatic illness and that Jesus was a good counsellor whose words freed her from whatever it was that trapped her.
Where do we stand? We would wish to move away from the sort of superstition where a bird falls from a tree and becomes a man, but does that mean that we lose all sense of the spiritual? Do we reduce Jesus, as many people do, to being a spiritual leader, a philosopher, a reformer who was ahead of his time and ran into trouble with the authorities?
If the miracle stories are not true, if all the tales of Jesus we have heard since childhood, if the stories of extraordinary events we read in the Sunday Gospels are not true, then what is the point of the church? If we say that the inexplicable and the supernatural did not happen, then why come here on a Sunday morning? Why have a church if there is nothing mysterious, nothing transcendent, nothing heavenly? Why sing hymns, say prayers, share bread and wine, if really we believe that the story of Jesus has much that’s imaginary?
The Gospel reading this morning says, “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment”. What do you make of this man? Jesus is not being presented as a teacher or preacher or philosopher, he is being presented as being miraculous, “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing”, says Saint Luke. Either these stories are true stories about Jesus, or the whole thing is a huge deceit, the biggest deceit ever.
The woman believed this was a divine moment, “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” This was God’s work she believed.
We have two possible responses. We don’t believe the stories, or we do believe them.
If we read this Gospel passage and we say, ‘Yes, I believe this. I believe in this man who can do wonderful things, then it asks questions of us. It asks us, ‘what difference does this make to my life? If we believe in the miracles, if we believe in the greatest miracle of all, that Jesus walked out of the tomb, if we believe that this Jesus is with us now, what difference has it made? What difference is it making?
Africa is full of superstitions; it is also a place full of faith. People with nothing, people who have only the clothes in which they stand up, people who eat only once a day; people with no reason to smile about anything; these people throng to the churches on a Sunday. They sit and stand and sing for three, maybe for four hours, filled with joy. I attended a service on the first Sunday in May that lasted five and a quarter hours, half past nine until quarter to three, not once did the enthusiasm fade. People smiled constantly. Standing amongst them, it was certain there was no doubt for them, Jesus could do wonderful things.
Do we share their belief? If we do, we have to ask, where is our joy? Where is our commitment? Where is our faith?