Nineteen seventy: a terrible year for music. It was the year that songs by football teams took off. Not only did Chelsea FC inflict ‘Blue is the colour’ on the nation when they reached the FA Cup Final, the England team heading to Mexico to defend the World Cup assaulted our ears with ‘Back home’. Does anyone else have painful memories of those songs? (Not that as a Spurs fan I can be too superior, given the Chas and Dave songs my team put out in later years!)
Back home: Jesus is back home in this reading. He has come back from the eastern side of Lake Galilee, where people compromised Jewish faith with other influences. He’s on home territory. The fanboys are out – on this side of the lake he’s surrounded by a crowd, rather than suffering people asking him to leave as soon as possible, as happened when he cast the demons from the Gerasene demoniac into a herd of very non-Jewish pigs. Maybe you could say he is in a more pastoral than missional context here. (Although you’ll often be surprised how missionary you need to be in pastoral situations!)
Back home, people are in need and in desperation are showing the depth of their faith in Jesus. Both the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus, facing the death of his daughter, display extraordinary faith. I’d like us to explore these well-known stories with the goal of increasing our own faith in Christ, too.
On Thursday morning, we were walking the children into the school playground when Mark ran to follow Rebekah. However, he tripped up over Debbie’s foot and gashed both knees. He ended up in Injuries before he was in his classroom that morning. Although he had a plaster on for a few hours, we’ve tried as much as possible to let the air get to the wound, even though it has wept and left marks on bed blankets.
Rebekah has had her usual big-sister-cum-little-mummy concerns for her younger brother. However, we have had to tell her not to touch Mark’s knees! It’s just the latest example among many where as parents we’ve had to issue the ‘Don’t touch’ command. You can, I’m sure, think of many examples where you have had to say ‘Don’t touch’ to a child, because you are concerned about hygiene. They don’t understand about invisible germs, and you scream ‘Don’t touch’ in order to prevent the risk of infection.
Jewish faith had a strong ‘Don’t touch’ component to it, too. There were certain objects – or people with certain conditions – that you didn’t touch, for fear of spiritual infection as much as anything else. In our story, both the woman with the bleeding and the dying twelve-year-old girl fell into this category. The woman’s blood made her ritually unclean. Anyone touching her would also be unclean. The same was true of a dead body – and remember that by the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, the girl is dead. Neither should be touched. Not unless you wanted to be isolated for a period of days before having a check-up with the priest.
And what does Jesus do? He welcomes the touch of the bleeding woman, and he touches the hand of the dead girl. Jesus disregards any thought that he would become ritually contaminated, because he knows that through the touch, God has healed the woman and he will heal the girl. Jesus sees the power of God to heal as greater than any contaminating power. To Jesus, God’s power and love are not equal opposites to sin and darkness: they are greater. The ‘Don’t touch’ rules put both the woman and the girl outside the orbit of help and healing: Jesus, by embracing the need for touch, brings them within that orbit and they are made whole again.
This is good news! If there is something we feel unclean about, Jesus wants to touch it with healing. If it is something that ostracises us, or we think will ostracise us if others know about it, again Jesus wants to heal it with his touch. Perhaps there is a secret we harbour, one that we don’t feel we even dare share with friends at church, because we think it will lead to us being cut off socially from others or spiritually from God.
Obviously I have a privileged position as a minister, but it never ceases to amaze me just how many such secrets exist in congregations. Well, Jesus says, be ashamed no longer. Fear not. In his presence the risk of contamination is zero. Come to him, even if you tremble like the woman with the haemorrhage, because his touch will heal you. No longer need you struggle with shame or rejection. In the grace of God, wholeness is yours. Fear no more: Jesus’ only desire for you is healing.
This good news also creates a challenge for the church. If Jesus wants to touch untouchables with his love and healing, then we are called to be a community that accepts people. We truly need to be a safe space for folk. It might involve people who don’t know the usual social graces, or those whose background is unacceptable. It might be their appearance or some other socially unacceptable feature or condition.
By way of just one example, I read these words last Saturday in the TEAR Fund prayer diary:
Similar to many countries around the world, stigma is one of the biggest challenges for people living with HIV in Ireland. Pray for Tearfund partner ACET Ireland, who provide practical and emotional care for individuals affected by drugs. Pray that Christians in Ireland will demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ to all those affected and that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV.
Wow. What a challenge: ‘that local churches will become the safest places for people living with HIV’. But if our faith is in the healing touch of Jesus to restore those whose conditions have severed their social and spiritual links, then this is just the sort of aspiration a community centred on faith in Jesus will have.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever engaged in a practice such as Ignatian Bible Study, where you are invited to imagine yourself as one of the characters in a biblical story. Whether you’ve done that or not, perhaps you recognise that in certain stories you instinctively identify with one person.
In this story, I identify with Jairus. It’s not his position of influence and authority: it’s the fact that he is the father of a little girl. Ever since I became a parent, stories like this one tug at my heart strings much more than they used to. I can’t read about Jairus without thinking, what if it were my Rebekah? It gets me every time.
And I think that if I were Jairus, I’d be emotionally all over the shop when Jesus stopped to identify the woman who had touched him. Jesus, that’s nice but there’s no time to waste, I’d say. Every second counts if you’re to heal my daughter! Can’t you come back later and speak to this lady? Frankly, my desperation would reach warp speed.
But when the bearers of bad news come with the news that the little girl has passed away, Jesus says to Jairus, ‘Do not fear, only believe’ (verse 36). He’s got to be kidding, hasn’t he?
Except Jesus views the girl’s death in the light of what he is going to do (which is why he says she is only sleeping and why he later dismisses the mourners). And he takes Jairus on an extraordinary journey of faith. It’s one where Jairus holds together two things in tension: one is trust in Jesus, the other is that he unflinchingly stares at the darkness. His faith doesn’t lead him to ignore the darkness or pretend it isn’t there. And the darkness doesn’t extinguish his faith.
The other day, I read a piece by Michael Hyatt, the Chief Executive Officer of the American publishers Thomas Nelson. He was reflecting on the euphoria in many quarters when Barack Obama won the Presidential election last November, contrasted with the perilous economic situation the new President would inherit, typified by his election being followed by the biggest post-election decline in the American stock market. He said that the glass was both half empty and half full, and went on to say this:
In times like these, leaders must do two things simultaneously:
- Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
- Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
You see it again, just like Jairus: prevailing faith and an embrace of the darkness.
Hyatt went on to recount a story that the business guru Jim Collins tells in his famous book ‘Good To Great’. Collins refers to ‘The Stockdale Paradox’, and tells about a man called Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War.
After his release, a reporter asked Admiral Stockdale, “How in the world did you survive eight years in a prisoner of war camp?”
“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that we would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
The reporter then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Admiral Stockdale replied,
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, “We’re going to be out by Christmas.” And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, “We’re going to be out by Easter.” And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Collins then goes onto state that an attribute of truly great companies and great leaders is that they are able to embrace simultaneously these twin truths of their current reality and their ultimate triumph.
Jairus had that kind of faith in the best form: a Christ-centred form. Jairus had a desperate plight and a deep faith. Neither escapism nor despair.
Is that what we need? Often I think it is. Perhaps it is a circumstance in our own lives – our health, or troubles facing a family member. Jesus calls us both to look into the abyss and also trust him for ultimate victory.
Perhaps it is about the state of the church. Numbers keep going down. We find it harder to cover every essential task in church life. Jesus calls us to admit honestly the difficulties we are in, and at the same time to trust him that we know the final outcome, which is not the obliteration of God’s people but the final victory of Christ. It may be getting darker, but we are heading towards the dawn.
It was the same for Jesus himself. On the one hand he embraced the darkness. The Gospels tell us he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem. He warned his friends he faced betrayal, rejection, suffering and a cruel death. But he did so, knowing by faith in his Father he would prevail in the conquest of death, leaving behind an empty tomb.
Friends, we are the community of faith – faith in our crucified and risen Lord. Let us embrace that faith to receive the touch of Jesus that heals our woundedness and shame, and let us offer that touch to society’s rejects as we make church a safe space for the hurting.
And in crying out for that touch, we acknowledge we shall travel on a journey filled with tension. We shall hold in tension both the darkness and the deepest faith. It is the way Jesus himself walked. Let us have the courage to walk that way, too, knowing it is the road to his triumph.