Faith in Power, or Power in Faith?

Sermon,  July 1, 2018 –  Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Mark 5:21-43

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Today’s gospel reading brings into focus two concepts – power and faith.  As I thought about these two things during the course of this week, I watched the news unfold.  I realize what a stark contrast exists between our human view of power and our shallow faith in such power, and the Gospel’s description of God’s power, and the critical importance of our faith in Jesus.

This week, an elderly man who has a connection to the law school where I work decided to retire.  That makes it sound rather ordinary, right?  Well, this elderly man was Justice Anthony Kennedy and he decided to retire from the United States Supreme Court.  Many people are declaring that this is the most significant event in our generation.  It has dominated the news and social media cycles for the rest of the week.  And if you paid attention to everything that was said, you would see the human view of power is on stark display.

Many commentators said that Justice Kennedy was the second most powerful man in the United States after the President.  He was the swing vote on the Supreme Court, which many argue has become too powerful for the good of the nation.  The Supreme Court can tell people and governments what they can and can’t do, and sometimes what they must do.  The court is powerful because it can permit government to force others or forbid them from forcing others to do things.

We see the secular view of power in other aspects of this development.  The Republicans are happy because they have the power to choose Justice Kennedy’s replacement.  The Democrats are very angry and upset because they lost that power when they lost the last election.  In all these examples, the secular view of power has to do with control and coercion over others.  It’s the same view of power that Satan tempted Jesus with at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  If only Jesus would bow before Satan, Satan would give him power over the earth.

We also can see the secular view of faith in this event.  Republicans have faith that with a newly minted conservative majority on the Court, their valued rights will be protected for the next generation and all will be well.  In contrast, Democrats are in despair, with many feeling that all their political hopes depended on having a friendly Supreme Court majority.  Without that, they believe the country will devolve into dystopia.  One individual tweeted: “Literally in tears. Haven’t felt this hopeless in a long time.”

This is secular faith in secular power.  In his masterpiece trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien addressed this issue of secular faith and power.  In this story, there was a Ring of Power, which could be used to control others and bend their wills to the service of whoever held the ring.  This Ring symbolized secular power, and Tolkien wrote about it as follows “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

For those of you who do not know the book, the basic plot is that the forces of good find the magic ring, while the Dark Lord seeks to take it away from them.  Part of the plot revolves around a disagreement within the forces of good, with some arguing that the leaders of the forces of good should take the ring and use its power to bring about good.  But their wise leader, Gandalf the Wizard, knows that such power will always corrupt those who would wield it.

And so both Republicans and Democrats thirst for the Ring of Power, convinced that they need it in order to create the society they desire.  But faith in secular power is a dangerous thing.  It will never bring about lasting justice or peace, but it always threatens to corrupt those who wield it.

In today’s Gospel passage, we learn some important lessons about God’s power, and where we as Christians ought to place our faith.  In our story, Jesus is approached by Jairus, a local religious leader who asked him to come and heal his daughter.  Jesus agrees and begins to walk to Jairus’ house.  He is surrounded by a crowd and on the way, a sick woman reaches out to touch him.  Jesus feels power flowing out of him and he seeks out the woman who touched him.  But then, messengers from Jairus’ house come to report that his daughter has died.  Nevertheless, Jesus presses on and raises the little girl back to life.

We have one story of a healing, embedded within another.  I learned in my sermon preparation that embedding one story within another is common in the Gospel of Mark, and is sometimes referred to as a Markan sandwich.  One story sandwiched within another.  In any case, both of these stories tell us about the power of Jesus and faith in him.

Both Jairus and the sick woman had heard about the healing power of Jesus and made the decision to reach out to him to gain access to it.  Jairus came up and asked Jesus to come and heal his daughter, while the woman simply got close enough to touch him.  The power of Jesus was well known and apparently with good reason.  At the end of the day, both the little girl and the sick woman had been healed.

Let’s think a little bit more about the power of Jesus.  It wasn’t used to control anyone, to coerce anyone, or to boss anyone.  It was not wielded against anyone; it did not have a selfish agenda.  The power of Jesus was used to heal.  It healed a woman who had a long-standing blood disease, and it raised a little girl from a premature death.  Jesus turned down secular power when the Devil tempted him with it in the wilderness.  But Jesus still had God’s power.  And he wielded that power for healing.  Last week, we heard in the Gospel reading the story when Jesus used his power to calm a storm that was threatening to drown the disciples on a boat.

And on Good Friday, and then Easter morning, God used his power to raise Jesus Christ from the dead, to free us from our sins, and guarantee us that we will all be resurrected at the end of time.  God’s power is not used to advance a partisan or selfish agenda.  It is not used to manipulate or to gain an advantage.  God’s power is used to heal, to calm a storm, and to raise the dead to new life.

This is power to have faith in.  And both Jairus and the woman had faith.  Let’s look at the woman to begin with.  I think that she responds in faith, twice over.  First, despite her illness, she braves the crowd and jostles through the people so that she can touch Jesus.  She knew that if she could only touch Jesus, she would be healed.  And she was healed.  But it didn’t end there.  Jesus knew that he was touched and so he stopped and asked who touched him.

Here is where it gets interesting.  You see, the woman had a blood disease.  Biblical scholars believe that the disease was almost certainly a constant menstrual bleeding, which would have made her ritually unclean.  Because she was ritually unclean, she should not be out in a crowd, and anyone she touched would also be rendered ritually unclean.  And so, she wasn’t just touching Jesus, but she was touching him in a way that would have been seriously frowned upon.  Think of it this way – suppose I came to church with a bad head cold, and just as we were passing the peace, I sneezed all over my hand.  Then without washing it off, I held it out to you to shake.  Gross, right?  Well, what this woman did was ten times worse than that.

And so, when Jesus turned around and said “Who touched me?” this woman had a legitimate reason to panic.  She could have been in serious trouble.  And so she took her biggest step of faith in the story.  She “came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.”  This woman trusted Jesus.  She had faith that she could tell him what she had done.  How many of us would have had the courage or faith to do such a thing?  She trusted that the power of God was power for healing.  She had reached out for physical healing, and now she reached out for spiritual healing.  And Jesus told her “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

We also learn about faith from Jairus and his story.  Jairus approached Jesus openly and asked him to come heal his daughter.  He told Jesus that his daughter was at the point of death.  You know that his summons to Jesus was an urgent one.  And yet, as Jesus was on his way, they were delayed by the sick woman.  And, sure enough, no sooner had Jesus dealt with her, than messengers came from the home where Jairus’ daughter was, with word that she had died.

The servants of Jairus told him that it was too late, and to forget about Jesus coming to heal his daughter.  But Jesus said to Jairus “Do not fear, only believe.”  And although it is not stated, Jairus must have listened to Jesus, as they continued on to his home where his daughter lay.  Once they got to the home, Jesus told the crowd that the girl was not dead, but they laughed at him.  They did not believe him and so he sent them out.  Jairus and his wife had faith in Jesus, and Jesus brought them in to where their daughter lay.  Jesus raised their daughter from her apparent death.  Jairus and his wife had faith in Jesus in the midst of others’ disbelief.  And their faith was proved well founded.

While Jesus did do many healings when he was on earth, he did not heal everyone.  His healings and miracles were done to show people what his mission was all about.  Jesus was demonstrating that the Kingdom of God was being revealed through him.  He was giving us a foretaste of God’s kingdom and what the power of God could do in the world.  The Gospel stories tell us how people joined with Jesus in the revelation of his kingdom.  We see in today’s Gospel how the woman with the blood disease, and Jairus and his wife and daughter, joined Jesus in the Kingdom.  They joined Jesus by having faith.

Having faith does not always mean the absence of fear.  When Jesus tells Jairus “do not fear, only believe”, I don’t think that he was chastising him or issuing a directive.  Rather, I think that Jesus was encouraging him.  I have heard it said that courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it.  This is true for faith in Jesus as well.  We may still fear, we may still doubt, but we do need to trust Jesus enough to follow him to the next step.  Because we know that we can rely on him in the end.

In Romans, Paul writes “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.“

We are called to trust Jesus and join with Him in bringing his kingdom here on earth.  We are called to share what God’s power is all about.  Human power will not bring lasting joy, truth or justice.  Faith in human power will corrupt us.  Human power will ultimately fail us.  By placing our faith in human power, we are setting ourselves up to remain mired in sin and death.

Jesus calls us to put our trust in him.  “Do not fear, only believe.”  Only Jesus has the power to heal our world, bring about mercy and justice, and assure us that in the end we will live in resurrected bodies in the new heaven and new earth, where God will dwell with us.  This is power that will neither corrupt nor fail us.

Let us pray.

Eternal God, comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken, you feed us at the table of life and hope: give us faith in you and teach us the ways of gentleness and peace, that all the world may acknowledge the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.; Amen.

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