Trinity 4 - Your faith has made you well

A sermon preached at St John the Baptist, Holland Road,  by Martin Carr, Sunday 1 July

Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This evening I want to focus on just one text, because I think it’s a text which, if we can really get to grips with it, can transform our faith. The text is from Mark, and is the double miracle of the healing of the haemorrhaging woman and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. We are greatly blessed that the lectionary compilers today give us the whole episode, unexpurgated, and I would recommend having it open in front of you.

Firstly I want to explore the structure of the passage and its relation to the surrounding material in the gospel. Then we shall look at the importance of faith in the passage, and finally, well, let’s keep a little surprise in store for later.

So, to the text. ‘When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him.’ In this introductory sentence two of Mark’s favourite motifs immediately appear. First, the crossing of the lake: Jesus is always on the move, and these crossings of the lake are significant. At the beginning of chapter 5 Jesus crosses the lake into Gentile territory, the country of the Gerasenes; there he performs an exorcism, casting a legion of demons into a herd of swine, animals unclean to Jews. Now he crosses again, back into Jewish territory, and yet again a crowd gathers on the shore. And in Jewish territory who does he first meet? ‘One of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came, and when he saw him, fell at his feet.’ Jairus is an important guy, a ruler of the synagogue. I suppose he’s the first century equivalent of a churchwarden or PCC secretary. But rather than stand on his dignity, he immediately falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him. ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live’. Just as, in the previous passage, the demon hoard had recognised who Jesus was, so immediately does Jairus. He has no hesitation, Jesus can save his daughter. ‘So he went with him.’

Now things get interesting. In a clever literary sandwich, another healing miracle now interrupts the story of Jairus and his daughter. If the story of Jairus is the bread, the story of the haemorrhaging woman is the jam, or the cheese, or whatever filling you prefer. Once again Jesus is on the move, the ever-present crowd are pressing in. ‘Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years.’ Now there’s an interesting detail – twelve years. Why does Mark tell us that? Another clue comes later in the passage – Jairus’ daughter, it turns out, is twelve years old. And how many disciples has Jesus called? Twelve. And how many baskets of bread will be collected after the feeding of the 5000? Yes, twelve. For Mark, numbers matter, and the number twelve I think here, as in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, references the Jewish setting of the story, ultimately echoing the twelve tribes of Israel. So this woman is, we presume, Jewish, and if so not only is her condition chronic and no doubt debilitating but also, as Leviticus chapter 15 informs us, she is ritually unclean, and, worse still, everything she comes into contact with is made unclean by her touch. So she would not only have had the discomfort of her condition to deal with, she would also have been a social outcast. We can imagine her fellow villagers recoiling in the crowd as she approached, not wanting any contact with her in case they too became defiled. Yet, like Jairus, she has complete confidence in Jesus: ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Which indeed she is. As her identity is revealed another parallel with the story of Jairus occurs, she fell down before him, in Greek it is the same verb ‘pipto’.

So as the woman falls down at Jesus’ feet in a mixture of fear and thanksgiving, we recall Jairus’ falling, and his plea on behalf of his daughter, whose story we pick up again. ‘While he was still speaking (to the woman that is), some people came from the leader’s house to say ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ Game over, they think. Okay, maybe there was a chance of healing if she were still alive, but no longer. Jairus must have been crushed. But Jesus’ response is astonishing: ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ Now the Greek word for believe, ‘pisteue’, is from the same root as the word ‘faith’ when Jesus had commended the healed woman, ‘your faith has made you well.’ But Mark is ratcheting up the tension because in the first case faith cured an illness, now Jesus demands faith at the moment when all hope seems gone, for the girl is dead.

Jesus gathers his inner circle of disciples, Peter , James and John, and they come to the house, where the mourners are in full flow. ‘The child is not dead but sleeping’ says Jesus, provoking laughter from the unbelieving onlookers. Entering her room privately he speaks in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cum’, little girl, get up’, literally, arise, and the girl rises, walks, and Jesus orders that she be given food. At this point, as I mentioned earlier, we are given her age, and, in one of the most perplexing aspects of the story, we are told that Jesus ‘strictly ordered them that no-one should know this’. What? A dead girl raised to life? It’s hardly the sort of thing that can be kept quiet, especially considering the commotion. But here again is a motif common to Mark’s gospel – that of secrecy. Jesus doesn’t want people to have faith in him just because of his amazing miracles - faith needs to come first, from the heart, before the possibility of healing and wholeness can come to fruition.

So that’s the passage. And Mark wastes not a word or phrase, everything has a deeper meaning, even the age of the girl. And, as I began by saying, perhaps the key to the passage is faith. Faith is shown by Jairus, who knows Jesus can heal his daughter; faith is shown by the woman, who knows that even just to touch Jesus’ robe will make her well. Jairus’ faith is tested when his daughter dies, but even then Jesus is quick to reassure, ‘do not be afraid, only have faith.’ Jairus, and the unnamed woman, can be models to us of the sort of faith we need to have in Jesus. Their faith is unswerving and resolute, and what’s more, their faith is rewarded. Both, by their strength of faith, get what they ask for, healing and wholeness. We would do well to compare our own faith to theirs, to have confidence that God through Jesus will hear our plea.

But I also promised you something a little extra from this passage, and it is a question of identity. We may praise Jairus and the unnamed woman for their faith, but look at who they are. Jairus, a synagogue ruler, one of the bigwigs in the town, a respected and possibly even wealthy man. And the woman, an outcast, unclean, unseen, not even named. I’m sure Mark juxtaposes their stories to make the point that Jesus ministers not to the well-to-do alone, nor just to those on the margins, but to all who know their need of God. There are so many different characters in the gospels, from the centurion, the symbol of Romam oppression, to Simon the Pharisee, the epitome of upright religious living, to the Syro-Phoenician woman, a foreigner whose persistence in faith astonishes even Jesus. If there is a message for us, as a Church, it is that all people can come within the love of God, saints and sinners, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Jesus touches an unclean woman, yet instead of becoming unclean himself, the opposite occurs, she is made clean by her faith. Jesus touches the corpse of a young girl, another act which should bring defilement, yet again it is not he who is defiled but she who is brought back from death.

Through the life of Jesus others are made alive. So for us, as a church here on Holland Road, our calling is to have the faith to bring that life, life in all its fullness, into the lives of others, from the greatest to the least. The great theologian of the early church St Irenaeus said ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’. This is the life Jesus offered to the daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler and to the woman who had suffered for so many years. This is the life Jesus offers to us too. And we are called to offer this life to others, freely and without limits, for the glory of God, who heals us and gives us new life in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.