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Magic Handkerchiefs?

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. Acts 19.11-12.

Back in the Sixties I was privileged to meet Godfrey and Elizabeth Dawkins, missionaries in Kenya, when they were on leave here in the UK. They came to visit our church in Bradford which was, at that time, enjoying a time of wonderful charismatic renewal. Godfrey was a man “full of the Holy Spirit” and had a powerful healing ministry. I have long lost touch with the Dawkins but Godfrey’s testimony concerning his own healing has stayed with me down through the years. He had been born with what are known as claw feet – a condition where the toes are curled under the foot – and he still had this deformity when, as a small boy, he was dispatched to boarding school in England from (I think) South Africa. But then, one day, he received a small parcel from his parents. In it was a piece of cloth that had been blessed for his healing by David du Plessis, the renowned South African Pentecostal leader. In the covering letter, Godfrey’s parents explained to him where the cloth had come from and why they had sent it to him; and they told him to go somewhere private, place it on his feet and look to God to heal him. Godfrey did as he had been instructed and as he placed the cloth on his feet, his toes slowly unfurled and became perfectly normal.

That story came back to mind most vividly as I read those verses in Acts 19 a few days ago; and I have been turning the verses and the story over in my mind ever since. What exactly was going on at Ephesus when people took to the sick the sweat rags that Paul used to mop the perspiration from his brow and the cloths he would wrap around his waist to keep his cloak clean as he carried out his trade of tent-making? More particularly, what was going on when those rags and bits of cloth were laid on crippled legs, blind eyes and so on and legs became straight and vision was restored? And likewise, what was going on when Godfrey laid the cloth on his toes and they became straight and normal?

As someone raised in the Protestant tradition, I acquired early in my life a very “low” view of all things sacramental. The bread and the wine at Holy Communion were, to me, no more than memory aids (“Do this in remembrance of me”) and the water of Baptism was, well, just water – a symbol and nothing more. But now I am asking: Have I (and many of my protestant brothers and sisters) been missing something important here? Might it not be that God – who is, after all, the creator of matter – has, from the start, chosen to use material objects – bread, wine, oil, handkerchiefs, aprons, robes and all manner of things – as actual vehicles of (i.e., means of transmitting) his life and power? Article 25 of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion calls the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism “effectual signs of grace” but are they and other lesser sacraments more than mere “signs”?

I must say that the more I look at this question, the more I am drawn to the Eastern Orthodox answer to that question, which (so far as I understand it) is that God touches mankind through whatever material means he knows will be significant to those who seek his touch – water, wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, stones, altars, icons, etc – but that how God does this is a mystery to be accepted rather than solved. Indeed, in the Eastern Orthodox church, the term “sacrament” is rarely used and even the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are “sacred mysteries”.

OK, but does it matter? Why am I bothering my head about it?

Well the more I think about it, the more I think it matters a great deal. It matters because, in our Protestant zeal to eliminate vain superstition, we are perhaps denying to ourselves and others a great many means of grace that God would gladly use to carry healing and wholeness to his people. It worries me that we may be trying to be more “spiritual” than God. I know that in my own life my faith has been at its greatest and most effective when it has been given a material focus – Mahash Chavda raising his hand and commanding my addiction to be broken in the name of Jesus (see here), for instance – but we try to tell people they should need no such material or physical focus. “Just look to Jesus,” we say. It seems clear, however, that Jesus himself had no such scruples. Not only did he use saliva (Mark 8.23) and mud (John 9.6) – you can’t get much more physical than that! – to give sight to blind eyes when just a word or a touch would have sufficed; he was perfectly happy with cloak-touching too:

“When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognised Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed” (Matthew 14.34-36).

Ah yes, we might say, but they knew that they were really touching him through the cloak. They knew that there was no power in the cloak itself. Really? What about the woman with a persistent bleeding problem in Matthew 9? “She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’ Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment” (vv 21-22).

It seems clear to me that the woman did believe that the cloak itself possessed some inherent healing power because of its contact wth Jesus, but that didn’t prevent the healing taking place. She touched the cloak believing it would heal her but in reality and unwittingly she touched Jesus and he healed her. “’Who touched me?’ Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, ‘Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.’ But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me’” (Luke 8.45-46). The fact was that Jesus was in the cloak; and it is the belief of vast numbers of our non-Protestant brothers and sisters that Jesus is likewise “in” the bread and the wine and the water and the oil and the handkerchiefs and whatever else it might be that, with the eyes of faith, they recognise as a vehicle of God’s power and grace.

Let’s not forget that, in Scripture,God even touched people through Peter’s shadow – just because they believed that he would: “People brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by” (Acts 5.15).

A shadow does, of course, have no substance at all – it is merely an image cast on the ground or some other surface by a body that is intercepting the light – but even that could briefly be charged with supernatural healing power for those who used it as a focus for their faith.

What am I saying in this post? First, that many (if not all) of us need faith-objects from time to time – something that will gather all the faith we have and concentrate it at one point present to our senses in time and space: a point at which we can determine to make contact with the power of God. As we see from Scripture, almost anything can become such a faith-object. “When his shadow reaches me …” “When I put that sweat-rag on my leg …” “When he puts the mud on my eyes …” “When I touch the tassle on his robe …”

And secondly I am suggesting that we ought not only to make use of such objects with those who come to us for healing prayer but that we should not be afraid to identify them as such. “When I anoint your forehead with this oil …” “When you light this candle …” “When you take the bread …” “When I lay my hands on you …” By doing so, we might, I believe, be greatly widening the healing ministry of God by enabling his people to focus their faith in ways that they find impossible without an object of some kind that would help them to do so.

What do you think?

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