“And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” Luke 10:11
Sometimes, people in this country forget that not everyone sees the world in the way that they do. In Africa, some Christians might see things people here would regard as being explained by science as being due to supernatural causes. Reading the Gospel today, they might 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, writes in “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles:”
“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.’“
People here might 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 people stand? There would be a 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 people lose all sense of the spiritual? Do people reduce Jesus 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 people have heard since childhood, if the stories of extraordinary events in the Sunday Gospels are not true, then what is the point of the church? If people say that the inexplicable and the supernatural did not happen, then why do they go to church? Why have a church if there is nothing mysterious, nothing transcendent, nothing heavenly? Why sing hymns, say prayers, share bread and wine, if really people 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.
The woman believed this was a divine moment, “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” This was God’s work she believed.
If people read this Gospel passage and say, “Yes, I believe this. I believe in this man who can do wonderful things, then it asks questions of them. It asks them, “what difference does this make to my life?” If people believe in the miracles, if people believe in the greatest miracle of all, that Jesus walked out of the tomb, if people believe that this Jesus is with them 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. Standing amongst them, it is certain there is no doubt for them, Jesus can do wonderful things.
Do people share their belief? If they do, they have to ask, where is their joy? Where is their commitment? Where is their faith?