We’ve had a bit of a break from preaching as you may have noticed. Two weeks ago we were in Rome having gone out for a conference and a short break added on to it, and last week was our annual parish pilgrimage to Walsingham. This week Mother Anne-Marie was preaching.
I expect virtually everyone of us here has been a Jairus or the women suffering from haemorrhages. I don’t mean literally but we will have sat at the bedside of a seriously ill friend or family member fervently wishing we could do something to make them well. Or we will ourselves have been ill with one of those chronic illnesses that most wear us down. The woman had been suffering for 12 years with something no physician could cure. Even in our day of medical and surgical solutions there are things doctors cannot make better. We can have hips and knees replaced but arthritis cannot be cured in the fingers or the feet and the pain wears people down. In our day the woman in the story might have been made better by a hysterectomy, but that carries with it a cost. Not everything, even today, can be put right.
One healing and one raising to life. Today’s good news from Mark is two stories. For those interested in such things it is a Marcan sandwich! Taking my favourite sandwich, the story of Jairus and his daughter is the nutty granary bread and the woman cured by touching Jesus is the BLT, the bacon lettuce and tomato filling. This might sound flippant, but it is a favourite literary device of Mark’s. One story is the filling of another. Look at the sending out of the disciples in Chapter 6 – the story is interrupted by the death of John the Baptist. As we approach the Passion in Chapter 14, the Passover is interrupted by the story of the woman with the jar of anointment at Bethany.
The break, the filling, allows the bread story to develop – there can be a passing of time. In this case the passing of time, the delay in Jesus getting there, means Jairus’s daughter dies. The prospect of a healing seems to die too, but instead there is a greater miracle and she is raised to life. And the filling, the healing of the woman, increases our faith in Jesus’ power, so we can begin to believe that he may be able to raise the dead. So the two hang together, stick together and compliment each other like a sandwich.
But that is literary device in the fast pace of Mark’s gospel. Here we are today listening to stories first written for people around the year 75AD. Mark’s gospel is the first of the four to be written and we know Luke and Matthew drew heavily on Mark’s account when they wrote their gospels. We will hear a lot of Mark between now and Advent. It is Mark’s year in our lectionary and we are now in ordinary time, relatively uninterrupted by feasts and festivals, so we will be working our way through Mark’s gospel. And because Mark’s gospel is early, some 40 to 50 years after the death of Jesus, it is thought to give us the most authentic picture of Jesus, his words and his deeds.
It is like someone now writing about Martin Luther King without the benefit of film. We have seen Martin Luther King on television, heard his “I have a dream” speech many times. But imagine there is no film record and someone is now writing down things about his life and what he said. It is close enough that there are people who remember him and met him. And so it is with Mark and the person of Jesus. So in that sense it is a very special and immediate gospel.
The way we now hear these stories may well be different from the way the people of Mark’s early Christian community heard them. The most likely setting for Mark’s community is Rome, a Christian community suffering persecution and certainly living in the shadow of the apostles Peter and Paul, both by tradition martyred in Rome in the mid 60’s AD in the time of the infamous Emperor Nero.
What did they hear in these stories? What was Mark trying to convey to them about Jesus? Well certainly there was something about Jesus’ power, about his Lordship, his control over both sickness and death. The account of the healing and the raising to life tell us of Messiahship, of the Son of God – this is who Jesus is. And if we die, then we will be raised not in this life but in the resurrected life. And there is a refrain almost through the two stories, a refrain of faith. And those early Christians would have heard that. “Just lay your hands on her and she will be made well.” “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace.” “Do not fear, only believe”. I think if you were a first century Christian, in fear for your life, this message of faith to not fear, only believe would be so meaningful. To have faith in Jesus’ power whatever the circumstances would be words of encouragement and hope.
But I am not sure we hear it now in quite the same way. “Your faith has made you well” can be quite a threatening thing to hear from Jesus if you are ill at the moment, and have prayed to be made well and are still ill. If you are at the bedside of someone you love who is dying and you are praying for them to live, again “do not fear, only believe” may not be the most comforting words. How hard have I got to believe to make this person live?
We know people don’t always get well however hard we pray. We know someone being raised from the dead is very rare indeed. So how do we hear this today?
Well the first thing I want to say is that for me it does say something about the power of Jesus and I know it is power that is still available. I know some people do get miraculously healed. I remember Mary, a doctor herself, who had had asthma quite badly all her life. At a healing service, with the laying on of hands, it went. She knew like the woman with the haemorrhage that she had been healed – she felt it. And it was born out in the months and years ahead – the asthma never returned.
And I know that people are raised from the dead. The wonderful Church Army boss Fr Jerry had when we were first married, was such a person. On August 8th 1949, Church Army Captain Edmund Wilbourne was certified dead from pleurisy following a severe illness. Two hours later he awoke in the mortuary of Crumpsall Hospital in Manchester, having undergone a most extraordinary experience which was to transform his life. He met Jesus and was turned around and sent back. His faith was so infectious. He had no fear of death – he had been there. He was a Church Army evangelist all his life but never an evangelist in the extrovert, push it down your throat way. A more gentle man you could not meet. He was raised from the dead, and at his funeral earlier this year, his second death as was pointed out at the service, those he had influenced and brought to faith spoke movingly. The funeral was an outpouring of joy and thanksgiving and the presence of God was palpable’’k. I have no doubt Edmund was raised from the dead and for a purpose.
I know there are healings but they don’t happen to everyone for whom we pray. And we know, of course, that Jesus did not heal everyone he came into contact with, and he certainly did not raise every dead person – just a few. Those miracles attest to who Jesus is. They attest to his divinity. And these miracles in Mark’s gospel are told to strengthen the faith of those early, probably pretty frightened, Christians.
We need to hear that refrain about the strength of faith not as a refrain that says believe and you too will get bette; but as a refrain that says believe in who Jesus is and whatever happens it will be alright. We might die, but there is life still because Jesus has gone before us and he suffered and he died and he came through, and so will we. And the miracles help us to believe in who Jesus is. The continuing miracles of our day help us to believe in who Jesus is. They don’t happen to everyone and it is not a lack of faith that causes a miracle not to happen. Miracles are given to strengthen our faith in Jesus, in who he is, the Son of God who died and rose from the dead. They give us a glimpse of his Kingdom and our prayer for healing often brings not a cure but hope and peace and assurance that whatever circumstance we are in everything will be well because Jesus is there and his power and his Lordship will make all things well.
The mystic Julian of Norwich knew this and I end with her words:
“And thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably, “I may make all things well. I can make all things well, and I will make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and you shall see yourself that all manner of things shall be well.” Amen.