28 Jun Sermon: 4th Sunday After Trinity (Year B)
It can be tricky to know what to make of the healing miracles we read about in the Gospels. Many times at our corporate lectio sessions, I’ve expressed my discomfort and difficulty with the seemingly instant healing we see so often, compared to our lives in which healing is a much more protracted affair, and indeed is so often absent altogether. There’s also the darker issue of the relationship between faith and healing – Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well” and to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe”. I’ve encountered personally, as I’m sure others have, the awful theology that can come into play whereby if one prays for healing and is not healed, then one’s faith is lacking, i.e. it’s your fault you’re still sick. Utter, utter nonsense, and not, I believe, what these two miracle stories today are trying to teach us, about either faith, or healing, or Jesus’ work in our lives. And yet Jesus does make a link between faith and healing – so what are we to understand by this?
I think Jeffrey John gets close to it in his book The Meaning in the Miracles, where he points out that, looking at the whole range of Jesus’ healing miracles, they ‘seem to have been deliberately selected…to show Jesus healing at least every category of persons who, according to the purity laws of Jesus’ society, were specifically excluded and labelled unclean’.
It’s this issue of purity that makes the physical contact that Jesus has with both the woman and with Jairus’ daughter so important in these stories.
To touch a menstruating woman, or to be touched by her, or to touch anything she had touched while she was menstruating, was to become as ritually impure as she was during those days, and so to be in need of ritual purification. If we think that 18 months of restrictions on our physical proximity to others has been tough, consider the case of the woman with the haemorrhage. For twelve years she had been quite literally untouchable. For twelve years she had lived an incredible isolation. Whatever age we imagine her being, the consequences are dire: had she been unable to enjoy sexual relations with her husband, and thus been unable to bear children? Had this condition begun at puberty and so prevented her marriage altogether? Had she been cast off by her husband, or her family, in middle age? How had she coped with a life that had essentially been put on hold for twelve years, compounded by the pain and financial cost of so many failed treatments? And, speaking as a woman – five days a month is plenty.
In her desperation, then, Jesus was her last hope. Still, to come and touch him was an act of great daring, and it’s no wonder she was afraid. Touching Jesus, and so contaminating him was an outrageous act, which is what makes Jesus’ response equally outrageous.
The story we have doesn’t say this explicitly, but when I imagine this scene, I see Jesus crouching down to her level as she trembles before him, putting his hands under her elbows and lifting her up. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Jesus takes her “corruption” and meets it with all the love and compassion and acceptance of God. He does not reject her, or call her impure, or turn away in disgust. Whatever impurity may have attached itself to her has been burned away in her physical contact with God. The formula has been reversed: her touching of Jesus has not defiled Jesus, but has instead made her clean.
In the same way, Jairus’ daughter, once she had died, was “untouchable” and a potential source of corruption for Jesus; this may be at least part of why those who came from Jairus’ house urged him not to bother Jesus any more. Not only was the girl beyond help, why contaminate any more people than necessary? And yet Jesus reaches out and touches her, and, again, far from being defiled himself, restores her to life. He meets a cultural and religious taboo head on, and utterly negates its power, and a young woman with her life ahead of her is restored to wholeness.
Physical contact in both these miracles is a powerful sign and symbol of love, acceptance, compassion and inclusion: Jesus with his body makes possible a new world where everyone and everything can belong, beginning not with the “righteous”, or indeed with edicts to change the way that society functioned, but with individuals who were utterly outside of everything considered proper and right. And we too are invited to both participate in and help create this new world. As we come to share more and more in the life of Christ, as we are conformed to his image and likeness, we can both receive and be agents of this healing.
We receive healing as the individuals we are. We all have parts of ourselves, either past or present, that we would quite happily cast off and be done with, but Jesus is waiting with outstretched hands to touch even – to touch especially – those things that cause us deep shame, or anger, or sadness, or regret. In welcoming us, he welcomes them and so the entirety of who we are takes part in the transforming encounter with Christ, because only in Jesus can our full human potential be realised.
And from this place of healing we are sent out, to open our arms wide to the world, to enact with our very beings the welcome that we ourselves have been shown.
These miracles show us what to do, and just as importantly, how to hope. They show us how to hope for our own healing, and they show us how we are accepted so completely, it kind of feels wrong. These miracles help us to remember that what should make the Gospel offensive is not who it keeps out, but who it lets in.
And this is how faith is transformative in healing this weary world of ours, and of Gods. Faith that in Christ, another world is possible, and is not only possible, but is breaking through even now. The more we know ourselves – the whole of ourselves – to be welcomed and loved and healed by Christ, the less able we become to draw boundaries or to refuse to acknowledge anyone we meet as a child of God – as part of our family. In the Rule, Benedict does not just tell us to look at the guest from a distance and to observe the Christ in them from afar, he instructs us to wash the guests feet, and to sit and pray with them. He invites us to serve them at table, and to welcome them into what is, after all, our home.
In the words of Sara Miles, from her book Jesus Freak: Healing, Feeding, Raising the Dead: ‘Jesus calls his disciples, giving us authority to heal and sending us out. He doesn’t show us how to reliably cure every illness. He doesn’t show us how to make a blind man see, dry every tear, or even drive out all kinds of demons. But he shows us how to enter into a way of life in which the broken and sick pieces are held in love, and given meaning. In which strangers literally touch each other, and in doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone’.