Psalm 130 | Mark 5:21-43
I can’t remember many sermons from my childhood in Church. In my teenage years I regularly attended the evening service which immediately preceded the youth group I went to, and listened, as far as I can recall, attentively every week (although I do also recall that some Sundays I found myself trying to calculate the number of tiles that made up the Church roof) – I probably went to about two hundred services over four or five years. And I’m sure that I learned a huge amount. But I can only actually remember one small part of one sermon that I heard – and it was a sermon on our gospel reading today.
The curate, Roger, was preaching, I knew him fairly well – he had a son about my age, and a daughter who was a few of years younger. And he started the sermon by saying “Of all the characters in the Bible, Jairus is the one I get most. Because my daughter is twelve. And if she was sick, at the point of death, I would go anywhere, do anything, beg of anyone who I thought might be able to help.”
I don’t remember the rest of the sermon; I just remember thinking about my friend’s annoying little sister, and understanding something of the desperation that might drive a respectable leader of the synagogue to throw himself at the feet of an itinerant preacher, and beg him for help.
Because his daughter was dying.
If there is one word that summarises the gospel reading for today, it is surely this: Desperation.
Jairus was a desperate man. His daughter was sick, to the point of death. The woman who had been suffering from bleeding for twelve years, and had spent all she had on doctors who had failed to help her – and did you notice, by the way, how the woman is not named, and the daughter is not named: Jairus is, but neither of the female characters who are actually healed. But I digress – The woman who had been suffering from bleeding for twelve years, and had spent all she had on doctors who had failed to help her is desperate. Bleeding meant she was unclean; so for twelve years she had been excluded from the religious life of her community, excluded from any significant public event, excluded even from contact with any except those willing to pay the price of becoming unclean by being in contact with her.
Each of them turns, in their own way, to Jesus, desperate.
And he meets them; meets their need; saves them. Because they know they need him to.
Robert Capon has said, “Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You do not have to be smart. You do not have to be good. You do not have to be wise. You do not have to be wonderful. You do not have to be anything…you just have to be dead. That’s it.”
But the striking thing about the juxtaposition of these two stories, for me, is the totally different way that the two supplicants approach Jesus.
The woman – the unclean woman – doesn’t want to be seen. Not even by Jesus. She’s spent so long in rejection, so long in the shadows, that she dare not show her face. Her desperation is expressed in simply reaching out to touch him from behind. And she is healed – as the gospel writer tells the story – she is healed right away. Before Jesus turns to find her, she has already felt in her body that she has been healed.
But Jesus does stop (to Jairus’ despair, no doubt) to find her. Perhaps because he knows that her healing is not yet complete. That the healing of her physical symptoms is not the whole; that he knows she needs something else; she needs to be seen – even if in fear and trembling – she needs to be seen, and to be accepted, publicly, to hear Jesus say “you are well’.
Jairus, on the other hand, is a public figure; totally the opposite of the woman. She was excluded from the synagogue, he was a leader of the synagogue. She was rejected at public events; he was feted, invited, given the place of honour.
But he, in his desperation, in willing to put all that aside, and fall at Jesus’ feet to beg for help.
Two very different people, with very different problems, approaching Jesus in very different ways. But each finding what they need.
The healthy, Jesus said elsewhere, do not need a doctor. It is the sick for whom I have come. But then we need to go back, back to our Psalm, and to the deep truth in those words: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
For if we come to this gospel reading, and hear in it that those who are desperate for God’s help are those who find it, then our next breath ought to be to ask “am I desperate for God’s help? And if not, why not? Do I really believe that I am who I ought to be? Can I look myself in the mirror and say “this is the person I was created to be?”
Or do we read the gospel and say “I don’t have the desperation of Jairus, or of the woman; but I have my own unspoken need. I may come to Jesus in public, I may try to do it in secret, but I need him. I need him to heal me.”
The last thing that we want is to be desperate for help. That’s like the mark of failure, the sign of a life gone wrong.
But “The only qualification for the gift of resurrection is to be dead.”
Last week I spoke about Jesus’ challenge to the disciples to take responsibility – to not just throw their needs on Jesus and expect him to take over. That “God with us” was not an excuse to abdicate responsibility, but an encouragement to believe that with God, we can act, we can make a difference, we can be the ambassadors of the Kingdom of God that we are called to be.
And I completely stand by that. But taken to it’s extreme, that is a recipe for a sort of Christian humanism; for the belief that the teaching of Jesus is enough to enable us to change the world.
Today what we have is the flip side of that; we might have all we need to change the world; but we don’t even have what it takes to change ourselves.
In a sense these two sermons are at loggerheads with each other; pushing us to take responsibility on one hand, and to throw ourselves on the mercy of God on the other.
But I believe that the power of the Christian gospel is that we can not have either of these truths without the other. That we are called to act, to take responsibility for the power and wealth and gifts and ability that we have been given, to act in ways that make the kingdom of God a reality. And that, at the same time, we need to know that we are in desperate need of the healing, empowering, forgiving, accepting, touch of God.
The gospel is a call to arms: a challenge to stand up for justice, for reconciliation, for hope.
And at the same time, it is an offer of healing, of acceptance, of forgiveness.
It’s not one or the other. Without both, it is crippled.