A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 27 June 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: Mark 5. 21-43
We’ve just read perhaps the most vivid story in the first gospel ever written. It’s about two women: an adult who’s healed of chronic sickness, and a child who’s raised from the dead. I want to read it closely with you now. That’s an unusual thing to do, because almost no one reads it closely. Non-Christians don’t read it, because it looks like a faraway fairy story that’s got nothing to say to the twenty-first century. Liberal Christians don’t read it, because it looks like it’s saturated in a thought-world of miracles and negative assumptions about women. Conservative Christians don’t read it, because it’s not obviously about the way Jesus saves us by dying for our sins. So no one reads it. But we’re going to read it now. I want you to open your heart to this story and discover how it offers us the whole gospel in miniature, to transform the lives and imaginations of secular, liberal and conservative alike. We’re going to read it because it shows us the personal, social, political and theological transformation of the gospel, all in 23 verses.
Let’s begin with the personal. It’s a story about a girl who becomes seriously ill and is on the brink of death. Scroll back a couple of weeks. The sporting world comes to a halt when the Danish footballer Christian Eriksen collapses during Denmark’s opening game of the European Championship. The cameras don’t know where to look – roving from the distraught team-mates to the bewildered fans to the devastated wife to the stricken opponents. Everything that was so urgent moments ago – the game, the tournament, the glory and passion of international sport – has all disappeared. Only one thing matters. That’s where Jairus is when this story begins. He’s a proud man with a prestigious profile, but his life is in pieces because of his sick daughter. He’s on his knees, pleading with Jesus to come. Jesus does come – yet he makes a detour. A woman touches his garment, and he feels the power go out of him as she’s healed. Her life is changed. Then Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house and raises the girl to life. See what’s happening here on a personal level: Jesus encounters desperation (from Jairus), humiliation (from the woman), and derision (from the mourners); and he transforms all three: desperation into celebration, humiliation into restoration, derision into amazement. The story’s saying Jesus is present among the desperate, the humiliated, and the derided. It’s also asking, ‘Are you’re desperate? Are you humiliated? Are you derided? If so, that’s where Jesus is present to you.’ That’s the personal power of this story. That would be plenty. But there’s another three dimensions to this story.
Let’s turn to the social dimension. Notice the differences in the two stories. Jairus comes to Jesus through the front door: he’s named, he approaches Jesus standing, face to face, he’s from the ruling class, he has a community, the synagogue, of which he’s at the centre. The woman approaches Jesus from the back door: she doesn’t dare look straight at him, she just touches the hem of his garment, she’s from the underclass, the socially and ritually excluded; she has no community. She has four levels of exclusion: she’s had a continual flow of blood for twelve years, she’s been through the rigours of premodern medicine, she’s parted with all her money, and she’s worse than before she sought treatment. Jesus doesn’t exploit her: he brings her healing; which comes free. That healing gives her everything she’s lacked: an honoured place in society. D’you think her touching the hem of Jesus’ garment was a spontaneous act? I doubt it. I imagine her plotting for years to find an outdoor space, away from any village, with a big enough crowd to create distraction and a purposeful Jesus who couldn’t possibly notice. When all was in place, she pounced. But he did notice.
The key to understanding the whole story lies in the two words that feature in each half. The first word is ‘daughter.’ When the word daughter refers to Jairus, it’s a weak word, indicating the hole in this prominent man’s armoury: he has everything, but he’s brought to desperation by his daughter’s sickness. When the same word, ‘daughter,’ refers to the woman, it’s a word of power, dignity, and acceptance. The woman starts the story as an outcast – she ends it as a person Jesus himself calls daughter: she’s literally part of the family of God. The other key word is twelve. When it refers to Jairus’ daughter, it means puberty, being of marriageable age, entering into adulthood. When it refers to the woman, it means dejection, suffering, and years of exclusion. What the story’s saying is, Jesus is bringing a social transformation: he raises Jairus from his knees and brings the woman in from her exclusion; and there’s a place for them both in the world he’s bringing into being. That’s the social power of this story. That and the personal level would seem more than plenty. But we’re only half way through.
Let’s turn to the political dimension. Think again about the number twelve. We’ve seen that here it’s a code word for female maturity, linked to menstruation. But in the Bible as a whole, the number twelve’s a code word for Israel. Twelve sons of Jacob, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Jesus. This is a story about what Jesus has in mind for Israel. Look at Jairus, falling on Jesus’ feet, begging for mercy. It’s saying, Israel is on its knees – on its knees before God. Look at the woman, beset by a condition that makes her unclean. It’s saying, Israel has been rendered unclean by the Roman occupation. And then, what happens to the woman? She’s made whole, healthy, pure – so Jesus’ mission is to do the same for Israel. And what happens to Jairus’ daughter? She’s restored to life. And just look at the dialogue between Jesus and the mourners when he arrives at Jairus’ house: Jesus says, ‘Why are you making such a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.’ Now translate that into a political context. Jesus is saying, ‘Israel’s not dead – it’s asleep.’ Feel the power of those words, where you are right now. The church isn’t dead; it’s asleep. Your marriage, your relationship, isn’t dead; it’s asleep. Your career isn’t dead; it’s asleep. Your faith isn’t dead; it’s asleep. Jesus is saying, ‘I’ve come to resurrect Israel.’ Again, there’s two dimensions to Jesus’ ministry, brought out by the two females in the story. The story’s saying, Israel’s not dead, but asleep; Israel’s not defiled – it’s being restored. That’s the political power of this story.
Now for the fourth dimension. I want to highlight the profound theological transformation this story communicates to us. Notice how it upends notions of purity – not just in the first century, but in the twenty-first. We’re obsessed by not exposing ourselves to uncleanness – which today we identify with coronavirus. Masks, hand-sanitiser, distancing: we can’t say the first century was preoccupied with cleanliness and we’re not. See how Jesus turns all this upside down. It’s not that he catches impurity from the woman – instead, she catches purity from him. It’s purity that’s infectious, not impurity. Holiness is more infectious than the virus. Restoration is more infectious than exclusion. Jesus’ incarnation doesn’t soil the name of God by consorting with humanity: it exalts humanity by consorting with God.
Look at the way the story depicts a transformation in our standing before God. The woman at the start comes in fear and trembling. By the end she experiences peace and healing – or what the Bible more often calls shalom and salvation – in other words, perfect relationship horizontally with society and creation, and vertically with God. In between, the woman tells Jesus ‘the whole truth.’ Here’s the transformation these words disclose: when God knows the whole truth about us, God responds not with judgement but with mercy – not with condemnation and rejection but with healing and restoration. One of the churches I served some years ago was quite Anglo Catholic and I quite often used to hear confessions. The priest who taught me to hear confessions gave me a lesson I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘People are very embarrassed to bare their soul. But I’ve almost always come away respecting and admiring them more, rather than less.’ I didn’t believe him at the time – but I’ve found it to be true. What the story of the woman shows us is that God already knows the truth about us, and what comes about when our truth comes face to face with God’s truth is not judgement, but healing.
Now see how this story’s fundamentally about the same thing the gospel’s fundamentally about – and that’s the transformation of death by resurrection. The story of the woman is tucked inside the story of the girl because what the woman is going through is a kind of living death. The inside story is an honest realisation that some states, in this case permanent pain, spiralling poverty, ostracism from community, and perpetual humiliation, are like a living death. So Jesus healing the woman is a kind of this-life resurrection. But the fundamental form of resurrection is the one in the outside story, where Jesus raises the girl from death itself. The whole story’s saying to us, if you’re facing the horror of a living hell, or the grief of agonising bereavement, or the reality of your own death, Jesus is turning your story into his story, turning your oblivion into his imagination, touching you across the greatest abyss of them all and never letting you go. And then see how Jesus makes this story his story. Like the woman, he becomes the outcast, made cursed by crucifixion. Like the girl, he rises from death. Our story becomes his, and his story becomes ours. Feel the power of this personal, social, political and theological transformation. Has any story ever written said as much in just 450 words?
But there’s one more thing. And it’s not done with words. It has a technical name: intercalation. It means the way this story starts with Jairus’ daughter, breaks off to the woman, then returns to Jairus’ daughter. It’s like a sandwich. Just as the words ‘daughter’ and ‘twelve’ are the key to understanding this story, because they disclose that it’s really a story about Israel, about purity, and about restoration, so intercalation, the sandwich effect, is the key to understanding Mark’s gospel. The story of the woman and the girl is a smaller story about healing encased in a larger story about resurrection. Mark’s whole gospel is a smaller story about Israel enfolded in a larger story about God. The whole Bible is a smaller story about struggle, suffering and setback embraced by a larger story of revelation, restoration, and resurrection. Mark’s story intercalates us all between Jesus’ resurrection, at the end of the gospel, and Jesus’ return, at the end of time. Mark’s message is that in Christ, God enfolds our small story in a larger, comprehensive and eternal story.
The story of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with continual bleeding is our story, because it’s about our two perpetual questions: the smaller question of ‘How can I belong in this life?’ enfolded in the larger question, ‘What will happen when I die?’ The answers to those two questions have personal, social, political, and theological dimensions. Which is why we read this story.