I found the ending of the Gospel of Mark to be a curious addition to the Lectionary for the Pastoral Care of the Sick. Sure, it offers a promise that Christian disciples “will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” But there’s a caution in presenting this reading.
First, I’m a proponent of the model that anointing of the sick is at least as much a sacrament of vocation as it is a sacrament of healing. To be sure, God and the Church always welcome the recovery of the sick. We pray for it daily, even in times not suffering a pandemic.
But more, the sick person enters a new existence. Especially if their physical condition involves the onset of old age, or a serious illness like cancer that will forever change their lives. It might be as significant a change as that of unbeliever to baptized, single person to married, lay person to religious or cleric. Disease and injury can change a person’s life. We step through a door: fit to unwell, mobile to confined, active to bedrest, whole to broken. Not unlike Jesus. In the span of our Holy Week observance he experienced transformation as well: cries of acclamation to shouts for his death, loyalty to betrayal, death to life.
Circling back to the Lord’s post-Resurrection mandate, we have a mission. This was life-changing for the people who were with Jesus during his life. They stepped over the threshold from follower to disciple. And more: listener to preacher, doubter to believer, timid to bold, homebody to globetrotter–the list goes on. How would that list be for us? Could we call ourselves disciples?
(Jesus) said to (the disciples),
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing,
it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick,
and they will recover.”
This, of course, is the Bible passage behind the fundamentalist indulgence for swallowing poisons and handling snakes.
So then the Lord Jesus,
after he spoke to them,
was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at the right hand of God.
But they went forth and preached everywhere,
while the Lord worked with them
and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.
I’m not sure how I would use this passage or how I would preach it. I might avoid it. Especially if the sick person was the victim of a venomous reptile. The passage is really more for those who consider themselves workers in the field of the whole world. One of our duties, however, is visiting and consoling the sick. Jesus was dead and is risen. He sends his messengers to peach and heal in his place, in imitation of him. I find that hopeful, and if your ill friend would find it equally uplifting, then this passage is good for the Easter season and beyond.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.