Sermon - 13th January 2019
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In our world of modern science, and with huge advances in medical knowledge, we tend to have a problem with miracles. It's not easy to find a place for them in our 21st century modern understanding of the laws of physics and the start and end of life.
We look back at the miracles recounted in Scripture and we say: 'she wasn't really dead; it was some sort of coma'. Or, 'it wasn't possession by demons; the physical condition must have been epilepsy, and the mental state was probably schizophrenia'. Or, 'the visions were probably caused by illness, or malnutrition, or by personal trauma.'
And in many cases we're probably right.
The gospel writers offered their own descriptions and commentaries on events within their own stories. And these commentaries reflected the culture and scientific knowledge of their own time. The gospel writers were also promoting to their potential readers the unique power of Jesus. It served their purpose much better if the story could be, in some way, supernatural and involve superhuman gifts, because that was the culture of their time and the language of their beliefs.
In today's reading from the gospel of Mark, we have two stories of miraculous healings, one inside the other: one voluntary, one almost involuntary.
We hear how a woman reached such a point of desperation about her condition, which had caused her to suffer from haemorrhages for 12 years, that she resorted to the superstition of the time. It was a common belief that you would attract good fortune if you touched the garments of a holy person.
So, she followed her instincts, positioned herself in the crowd who were jostling Jesus, and managed to touch his robe. Mark tells us that she was immediately healed of her condition.
The crowd were only there in the first place because Jesus was in conversation with the President of the Elders of the local synagogue, a famous and powerful local official. He was called Jairus and had approached Jesus and begged him to come to his house to lay hands on his 12-year old daughter who was near to death.
Jairus was convinced that Jesus could save her life. And it was during the walk to Jairus's home that the woman in the crowd seized her chance to touch his garment.
News arrives before they reach the house that Jairus's daughter has died. But Jesus continues to the house and, behind closed doors, with only a few immediate witnesses, he speaks to the girl and tells her to stand up - which she does, to everyone's astonishment.
Now, this is where we can either look at the miracle itself, or we can look at what Mark wants us to learn from the story.
Mark wants us to understand that both these acts of healing came about through personal faith in Jesus and faith in the One who sent him. He steers us away from seeing them as random acts of supernatural power: they are to be seen as responses to prayer and the results of faith in God.
We hear that the woman who suffered from prolonged bleeding tried to avoid dealing openly with Jesus. Her actions were prompted by superstition: she wanted a quick-fix result, but Jesus was determined to deal fully and openly with what had happened.
By doing so, he affirmed that she had been cured, he called her his daughter, he praised her faith, and he washed away all the alienation and exclusion from God which she must have felt, having been pronounced ritually unclean for 12 years because of her condition.
Society of the time had thrown her on the scrap-heap; whoever she touched also became ritually unclean; even the gospel-writer does not trouble to tell us her name; yet Jesus made this non-person his daughter.
In contrast to that excluded non-person, Jairus was a local celebrity, a man of standing and authority, a pillar of society. Yet Mark takes care to tell us that Jairus threw himself before Jesus and begged for help.
When news reaches them during the journey that the girl has died, Jairus clings on to some vestige of hope as Jesus tells him: 'Do not fear; only believe'. And before long, the girl is standing up, alive and well, and Jairus's faith in Jesus is shown to be justified and rewarded.
So the message behind the stories, which Mark was trying to get across to his readers, is that faith in Jesus can transform lives, and offers victory over death - whatever we may mean by that word.
But miracles today don't look like those supernatural events which surrounded the ministry of Jesus in apostolic times. As our understanding of what is natural and what is supernatural changes and constantly develops, we run the risk of placing the gospel events into a neat pile labelled 'out of date' or 'no longer valid', and so failing to see that Jesus still transforms lives and offers victory over death.
All that has changed are the time, the place, and our perceptions.
When Jesus commissioned his disciples, one of the few things he specifically told them to do was to heal people. If we are to be his disciples today, perhaps we need to move our responsibility to offer healing higher up our list of priorities. In fact, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice: in all our relationships with other people our only choice must always be to heal pain and conflict rather than to add to them.
But what does healing look like in the challenges and complexities of life today?
We limit ourselves, and God, if we only think of healing in terms of medical or physical conditions. A doctor can bring the latest medical science to bear on clinical depression, or persistent pain, or a viral infection. A disciple of Jesus may also see the need for love, for prayer, and for the affirmation of self-worth in someone who has been abandoned, or excluded, or thrown away by society. Both types of healing will save many lives.
When the woman in the crowd touched Jesus, his response put an end to her exclusion and restored her dignity and inner health, as well as curing her external condition.
No-one knows better than our own diverse congregation that, by offering the love of God in Jesus to those who have been excluded and abandoned through prejudice and ignorance, we perform a transforming ministry of healing.
And this is something that we all do, individually or together. Our challenge is to recognise those gifts and opportunities we receive to become healing disciples.
- Every kind word in place of a harsh one;
- every time we stop and help, instead of passing by on the other side;
- every minute we spend as a listening friend when we could be doing something else;
- every greeting we offer to a newcomer or stranger;
- every supportive telephone call or message to see how someone is keeping;
- every disagreement resolved;
- and every past hurt truly forgiven and put behind us -
these are all signs of Christian love which heal.
They heal us as much as they heal others, because they may just prevent us from diving headlong into the next unkind comment, needless disagreement or selfish act.
- when we gather here on Sundays,
- or socialise together at other times,
- when we set time aside to build relationships,
- when we walk alongside someone in their difficulties,
- when we set time aside for God to speak to us,
- through our prayers, our worship, our discussions and sharing of ideas,
- and as we uncover our own spiritual gifts, and apply them in our daily lives, -
we are all constantly learning to become disciples of Jesus.
And every disciple of Jesus can, do, and must heal - it comes with the gospel of love.
Discipleship only comes to life when we touch the lives of others; when we include rather than exclude; when we remove barriers which segregate and separate; when we respond to the equal humanity of all people rather than defining them by sexuality, gender identity, disability, age, background, culture, race, colour, wealth, power or status. As one of our songs says, “Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face” (Marty Haugen - Let us build a house).
And when we do touch the lives of others, sometimes we will be credited with having performed a modern miracle. Because all of this is as much a part of our commission today as it was when Jesus demonstrated it to those whose lives he touched some 2000 years ago.