21st June 2016
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Max Champion, Pentecost 3, 5th June 2016
Lessons: Psalm 130; Romans 8: 18-23; Mark 5:21-43
The distraught man said to Jesus, ‘Come and touch my dying daughter, so that she may be made well …’ (v23). And the haemorrhaging woman said to herself, ‘If I touch his clothes I shall be made well’ (v28).
These are very touching stories. When Jesus healed the afflicted women, the hearts of the most sceptical bystanders were touched. They were used to healings done by pagan wonder-workers spruiking their powers. But they were so moved by Jesus’ compassion for sufferers that they began to see in him much more than a miracle man. In his healing touch they begin to see him as the touchstone of God's love for us.
It is often said that suffering is ‘no respecter of persons.’ This is true here. The daughter of an important named religious official and an insignificant unnamed outcast are united in their common need. Neither social position nor gender count where human means reach their limit.
* The woman is at her wits end. She had suffered continual menstrual bleeding for twelve years, lost ‘all’ her money looking for cures and become worse. Her problems are medical, social and religious. Being thought to be spiritually ‘unclean,’ she is treated as an outcast from the community of faith. Desperate to be ‘made well,’ she superstitiously touches Jesus' clothes in the hope that she might benefit from his Godlike power.
She gets more than she bargained for. He doesn't want to know ‘what’ happened, but ‘who’ touched him. His question is deeply personal. He doesn't treat her as a medical ‘case’ but as a particular woman ‘who’ is in need. The woman herself isn’t pleased by the unexpected attention. Scared and shaking, she comes forward to acknowledge her cure in front of those who know that she is untouchable. She had hoped to be touched by a medical miracle, but not to come into contact with Jesus in such a public manner.
The bleeding stops but the full extent of her healing is yet to come. Jesus is touched by her faith in him. He says ‘Your faith has saved you,’ making plain that ‘salvation’ is more, but not less, than medical healing.
She is made ‘well’ (v34) by the fact that, in a touching moment, Jesus calls her ‘daughter.’ No longer is she an insignificant, humiliated, unclean outcast, as the crowd thought, but a ‘daughter of grace’ who gets back her dignity. She is touched by the reconciling love of God embodied in Christ.
* No sooner has the unnamed woman been made ‘well’ than news arrives that the well known citizen’s daughter has died. The death of a daughter (or son) always tests faith (v23) and touches hearts. As they go toward the house, Jesus tells Jairus ‘not to be afraid but believe’ (v36). As they arrive they hear ‘weeping and wailing’ (v38). Somewhat improbably, Jesus says that ‘the child is not dead; she is fast asleep.’ (v39)
Unphased by predictable scoffing (v40), he goes into the girl's room, with her father and mother and three disciples, takes her by the hand and says to her, ‘Little girl, get up!’ (v41). To their joy and amazement, she gets up and walks around. Then, so that no-one is left in doubt about what has happened, Jesus ‘tells them to give her something to eat’ (v43). His healing touch restores her to life and confirms Jairus' faith. …
* In both situations, Jesus puts ‘untouchables’ back in touch with God. The woman and the little girl were thought to be ritually unclean – the woman because of her menstrual bleeding, the girl because she was dead. Orthodox Jews were forbidden to ‘touch’ such folk. Jesus ignores the religious law of the day. He lets the woman touch his clothes. He touches the dead girl’s hand. And what he says is very touching – calling the unnamed woman ‘daughter’ (v34) and the named man’s daughter ‘little girl’ (v41).These ‘untouchable’ women are restored to life by God's healing touch in Christ.
Here we see the true miracle of Jesus’ healing power. Through touching acts of compassion, he puts those who are at their wit's end back in touch with God and their communities. These moving stories are snapshots of God’s power over the dark forces that scar life. They show that Jesus is not simply a ‘teacher’
(v35), as they still think (4:38), but the embodied presence of God who is at work wherever faith is sorely tested because lives are touched by suffering, affliction, rejection and death.
* Such stories touch our hearts, strengthen our faith, and encourage us to become part of God’s healing presence in people’s broken lives. They have played a big part in the development of holistic medicine that seek to treat people with dignity in the whole of their physical, social and spiritual lives.
But they also touch a raw nerve in many of us!
Although we place great faith in doctors to perform miracles that we take for granted but don’t fully understand, we are sceptical about what Jesus did. It borders on the magical and superstitious.
But, at a more existential level, we may be angry that no such miracles have taken place when illness, tragedy and untimely death have touched our lives. Our ‘faith’ has not been answered. We have held the hands of our sick, distraught or dying loved-ones (with names) and witnessed the suffering of countless (unnamed) people who have been untouched by God’s healing power.
* What, then, are we to make of touching stories that also touch a raw nerve?
They show us that God’s purpose is that sick and dying bodies be healed so that sufferers may have fullness of life. Unafraid of ‘unclean’ bodies, Christ embodies God’s will for all of us. His healing touch, which gives life to two untouchable women, signifies God’s opposition to all that afflicts our bodies and God’s promise that, at last, ‘sons and daughters of grace shall experience the redemption of their bodies’ (Rom 8:23).
Now, this would be wishful-thinking if it were not for the fact that the Jesus who healed the bodies of the two untouchable women is also the crucified-and-risen One – the One who uniquely embodied the healing grace of God for all humanity. Thus, Jesus’ specific miracles mustn't be understood in isolation from the larger miracle – the Grand Miracle of his Incarnation (as CS Lewis said).
God's suffering love for our broken and sinful bodies has been uniquely embodied in the cross-and-resurrection of Christ. He who touched and healed unclean bodies knew what it was to be treated as ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the religious law. Being crucified he knew what it was to be touched by affliction, rejection and death. And being raised from the dead he showed that there is hope for all whose bodies have been touched by great suffering.
It now becomes clear why, at the end of these stories, Jesus ‘charges them to remain silent and tell nobody’ (v43a). Surely, publicity would be a good thing so that other lives could be touched? Why the reticence?
Like us, they would be tempted to have faith in Jesus the miracle-worker and miss the Grand Miracle! Unless we see the connection between these two touching incidents and Jesus’ incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended communion with God (as we affirm in the Creeds), we will miss the Good News that he is the touchstone of hope for humanity.
We still may be sceptical or angry about these miracles. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to the miracles in our own lives where physical, social and mental scars have been healed (by kindness, medical intervention, therapy etc.) in ways that we could never have imagined.
They also assure us that even when the suffering or deaths of our (named) loved ones and (unnamed) fellow human beings has not been touched by God’s healing power, we may have ‘faith’ because, in Christ, God has suffered and triumphed over affliction, evil and death. Therefore, because, in him, God has embodied the promise that, at last, all suffering shall end, we may have hope for the redemption of our bodies and the bodies of those who, in this life, did not know his healing touch.
Prayer for the Ministry of Healing, 5th century Liturgy of St Mark, Uniting in Worship page 214