Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27; 2 Corinthians 8:7–15 & Mark 5:21–43
In the sermon I gave at St Aidan’s last Sunday, I suggested that a lot of people in the world are living in a more heightened state of anxiety now than they were 18 months ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Pre-COVID, people were making plans for the future with great certainty, but now there seems to be a degree of doubt about whether the plans we make will actually come to fruition.
I also said that as human beings we tend to be much more at ease and relaxed when everything in our life is going well; when we aren’t faced with any problems or uncertainties. The reaction of the disciples of Jesus to the storm on the Sea of Galilee from last week’s Gospel reading is a perfect example of that. The disciples had been with Jesus for some time, and had obviously witnessed him perform a number of miracles, so they probably felt very calm and safe in his presence.
But when suddenly confronted by the violent windstorm that had sprung up without warning on the Sea of Galilee, they were in fear of their lives. They didn’t feel safe, even though they were with Jesus. The primal instinct of survival, which is inherent in human nature, replaced their belief and confidence in Jesus.
It can be very easy for us to feel very comfortable and confident in our faith when all is going well in our lives, but when tragedy or disaster strike, or when we are faced with fear and uncertainty, we can find ourselves feeling somewhat like the disciples in the storm. That fear and uncertainty can be stronger than our faith. But that is not something we should feel guilty or bad about – after all, that is human nature. And like the disciples, we are still on a journey of faith.
The disciples’ lack of understanding and faith is one of the key themes in the Gospel of Mark. In one sense, the Gospel is a record of the disciples’ journey of faith. It records the beginning of their journey, when they are called by Jesus to be his disciples, and it follows the “ups and downs” of their faith, before culminating in the greatest example of their lack of faith when they all desert Jesus, out of fear, at the time of his crucifixion. But of course, as we know, following his resurrection, the disciples, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, take up the mission that Jesus gave them, and begin to proclaim the Gospel everywhere they go, despite their own lives being in danger because of that.
In contrast to the story of the disciples’ lack of faith during the storm on the Sea of Galilee, today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel provides us with two positive examples of faith. The first is the case of the woman who has been menstruating continuously for 12 years. Mark specifically mentions this length of time for a reason, but I’ll come back to that later. The woman has spent all of her money on treatment from various doctors, but her condition has only worsened. After hearing about Jesus, she is convinced that if she can just touch his clothes, that will be enough for her to be healed, and of course she is. And Jesus tells the woman that it is her faith that has healed her.
The second positive example of faith is that of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue. His daughter is dying, and Jairus comes to Jesus because he believes that Jesus can save her by laying his hands on her. When members of Jairus’ household come with the news that his daughter has died, and they tell him not to bother Jesus any longer, Jesus goes with Jairus to see the girl, telling Jairus not to fear, but to believe. Jesus invites Jairus to go with him on a journey of faith.
People laugh at Jesus when he tells them the girl is not dead but sleeping, and taking Jairus and the girl’s mother into the girl’s room, Jesus commands the girl to get up, which she does. Jesus then instructs them to give her something to eat, which is proof that she is alive. At this point in the story Mark tells us that the girl is 12 years old. When we read this passage from Mark’s Gospel, we might tend to think of that point in the story as a piece of meaningless detail. However what it does is to connect the girl with the woman who had been menstruating for 12 years.
According to Jewish law, when a woman was menstruating she was considered to be “unclean”, and was required to isolate herself from others in the community for a specified period of time. In the case of this woman, she had been isolated, or excluded, from the community for 12 years. Being cured by Jesus, after her captivity to “uncleanness”, enabled the woman to return to a full life in the community. Having died, the young girl’s body was also considered ritually “unclean”, however Jesus has stretched out his hand over her and by freeing her from death – at the end of 12 years – Jesus has given the young girl the same possibility as the woman. Both are now capable of giving birth to new life.
These two stories, of the woman and the daughter of Jairus, can be a source of both comfort and confidence in the transforming power of God, the same comfort and confidence that we find in the words of this morning’s psalm, Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I have called to you O Lord: Lord hear my voice; I wait for the Lord my soul waits for him: and in his word is my hope.” (Psalm 130:1, 5)
Yes there might be times in our own lives when we will be faced with suffering and personal tragedy, and at those times we might falter in our faith. But in those times we can draw strength from the examples of the woman and young girl from today’s gospel passage. And if we need further reassurance, then we can remind ourselves of the experience of the disciples and their journey of faith. We can remember the times when they faltered and fell short of expectations, and we can remember that it was ultimately their faith that enabled them to proclaim the good news of Jesus throughout the world, despite the great threat to their own personal safety, and that it was their faith that sustained them in their darkest hours.