The Kingdom of Life, part 2

(Our church cancelled its services this morning, so instead of preaching this sermon, I decided to share it here! Enjoy!)


Mark’s gospel tells the beginning of the good news. So far, we have kept company with Jesus on the move, spreading his Kingdom of Life throughout Galilee. We started in Capernaum, where Jesus taught, and cast out demons, and healed the sick and paralyzed. We have followed Jesus and his disciples as they move from village to village, hearing Jesus teach in parables about the character of the king, and his kingdom. Then, as we read last week, he demonstrates the power of that kingdom, the Kingdom of Life, by driving away a legion of demons. In this morning’s reading from Mark, Jesus again demonstrates the nearness of the kingdom, its presence here now, by healing two women: one old, and one young:

Clean & Unclean

Before we can fully appreciate what’s happening in this morning’s text, we need to understand what it means to be clean and unclean, according to Jewish law.

We need to understand clean and unclean because the woman who was bleeding was unclean. Many things made someone unclean: being near certain places or things, eating certain kinds of animals, and of course, bleeding. And uncleanness spreads. When someone is unclean, they are quickly removed from society, from their families, from their lives, and made to stay apart in order to keep everyone else clean. This woman was unclean, and had been for 12 years. That’s 12 years of isolation, loneliness, and physical sickness without any diagnosis, any treatment, any comfort. She has spent everything, and still is left outside of the community. In fact, she has been unclean for so long, that even her name has been forgotten. She is forever remembered as the bleeding woman.

On the other hand, Jairus is the very model for ceremonially cleanliness. Notice that he is remembered by name, and by his office in the community, a leader of the synagogue. This man, and gender is also important, would have enjoyed every privilege, had every advantage in the community. In fact, he was central to the community, a prominent religious and social leader, someone trusted and revered and essential.

This is what the system of clean and unclean looks like in the community. But why is this system in place at all? Is this just a human system, to keep certain people in and certain people out, for the health of society? I think that’s how we often think of it, that this is a broken system that preserves the status quo. That’s maybe what it had become by the time Jesus walked on this earth, but that’s not the way it started. The system of clean and unclean was a gift from God in order to help hold back the kingdom of death and preserve his chosen people for life.

Part of our great Christian vocabulary is “original sin,” what happened the day that Eve and Adam ate that forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can read that story in Genesis 3, it’s one of the first stories in our Bible. It narrates for us the reason for the presence of sin in the world, why we age and suffer and ultimately die, and why we are so prone to sin, to give in to temptation. We often define our original sin as our arrogance, our prideful rebellion against God and our insistence on running our own kingdoms the way we want. But original sin, our sinfulness, is more than the sum of our sinful acts. Our sinful state goes beyond the things we do, the decisions we make, to rebel against God and live for ourselves. Original sin is also made up of the consequences of all sin in the world: the death and decay and disease and despair and disasters. Everything that is not right in the world, not the way it’s supposed to be, is part of the original sin that has pervaded creation since Genesis 3. The bleeding woman is suffering under the weight of original sin, isolated from her community because she bears the stain of sin on her body, not because of anything she did, not for any reason, simply because sin and brokenness and death rule over the world. God gave his people the gift of the system of clean and unclean in order to hold the natural consequences of sin at bay, away from the people of God, to give life its best chance to grow and spread and take root in the world.

This is all significant for our story this morning because the people that Jesus encounters believe there is a profound link between the health of the body and the health of the spirit. To be clean or unclean is more than just the state of their body, but the state of their soul, as well. The condition and works of our bodies impact the shape and condition of our souls! That idea is lost today, we think our bodies and souls are separate entities, but it was an integral belief of the people we meet in this story.

Once we understand the importance of the clean and unclean system, we begin to better grasp what Jesus is up to here, and why Jesus is so keen to heal these women, both the old and the young. Both women are living in the kingdom of death, one for 12 years and the other only 12 years old. Jesus is fulfilling the original purpose of the clean and unclean system: to force back the power of sin and death in the world and to make room for life. What the clean and unclean system could only do in part, Jesus works completely, fully, dramatically. Jesus is about the work of reversal here, reversing the spread of uncleanness, of death, and instead spreading health and life and strength and wholeness. Unclean people were kept in quarantine to keep the uncleanness from spreading throughout the community; cleanness could only be given again at the synagogue or temple, by performing certain rites and sacrifices. But in the presence of Jesus, cleanness and wholeness spread, simply by touching him – even the edge of his clothes! – and disease and death retreat and perish. This is our King! This is the king with healing in the very corners of his robes. This is the king who so loves his people that he cannot leave them in the isolation and loneliness and quarantine of their sin, but draws them to himself and risks his own uncleanness for their healing.

 Faith & Healing

But what does our faith have to do with all this? That should be our next question. If it is true that Jesus is the power by which we can be healed, then why does Jesus commend the woman that her faith has made her well? Remember that the work and condition of our bodies affects the work and condition of our souls; the reverse is also true: the work of our soul has an impact on the shape or condition of our bodies. Jairus’s household and this unnamed woman both exhibit great faith, and it affects their healing. That is a given of Mark’s story here. But that causes us some anxiety, right? We know, either from our personal experience, or from a pretty simple exercise of our imagination, that this story can’t be a guarantee that faith works healing always. We have prayed for healing, and received none. We have prayed for life and strength for those dying, and have had to attend their funeral and mourn their death. We would say those prayers were in earnest, given in faith. And yet our faith did not guarantee healing, did not ensure life. What do we do with that?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers. I wrestle with these questions. I have prayed for healing, for myself and for friends and for family, and not seen those prayers answered dramatically, immediately. I have laid my hands on sick people, and not seen them get up and walk away healthy. Do I not have enough faith? I assumed so. And, to be honest, I still don’t have answers to these questions; I don’t know what anyone does. But I don’t think that’s the point of this story. I don’t think we should be left anxious and fearful about whether we have enough faith to be well, because that’s ultimately not what I hear Jesus saying to us.

The relationship between healing and faith is, as I take it, sort of a chicken-egg relationship. What comes first? Do we pray for healing in our faith, or are we given faith to pray for healing? Does our faith make us well, or are we made well to live in faith? They are related, to be sure. Our bodies and souls are more united that we think. But the one thing that comforts me over and over again, the one answer I do have, is that the ultimate power to heal is the power of God at work. The real power behind healing, behind restoration, behind life, is not our faith, but the author of faith, Jesus Christ, the Divine Word through whom all things that have been made were made. That Author, that Word, that Power, is the one who calls us to Himself, and to life abundant. And that Power comes to us, not as some amorphous Force, not as the sum of all of nature’s positive energies, not as a fickle or self-obsessed deity, but as God-made-man, Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi, in order that he would have a personal relationship with us.

 The King is Near!

That is ultimately what Jesus means when he proclaims the gospel: “The Kingdom of God is near!” Jesus is announcing that the king, he himself, has come near to his beloved ones, in order to have a personal relationship with them, with us. We see in this morning’s story that Jesus is focused, not so much on healing these women, but on meeting them as people, and valuing them. It is not enough to heal their bodies if their souls continue to live in separation and loneliness.

We see in this story that both Jairus and the unnamed woman have great faith. Jairus has faith that the Rabbi’s touch can heal his daughter. And he has the audacity to presume on Jesus’ time, asking him to drop everything and come to his home, in spite of Jesus’ obvious busyness; that’s a faith that some of us are maybe in need of this morning, the faith to bring all of our needs and worries to God, no matter how trivial. The woman also has faith, perhaps an even greater faith than Jairus; she believes that just his clothes are powerful enough to heal her from what no doctor has been able to cure for 12 years. But she presumes that Jesus will be too busy even to speak with her, that she must break her quarantine of uncleanness and sneak through the crowds to touch him secretly.

Jesus Christ our King is about the work of reversal, reversing the spread of the kingdom of death and advancing the kingdom of life. He’s also reversing these two faithful people’s expectations. Jairus’s faith is made public, with a grand request and mass journey to his house; but Jesus makes their encounter private, permitting only immediate family and his disciples to witness the healing. Jairus is taught here that faith is certainly a public act, but it must first and always be grounded in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, if it is to have any ultimate value.

The woman has an even greater faith than Jairus has, but she keeps it private. Perhaps she was taught by her society and her culture that a woman’s faith is supposed to be private, supposed to stay within the realm of the home and not the streets. More likely, she desperately needs to keep her presence in the crowd a secret, so she doesn’t cause a scandal by being unclean in the presence of so many, and making all of them also unclean. But she has such faith that Jesus – even Jesus’ clothes! – can make her well that she breaks the clean/unclean rules to press in through the crowds and touches Jesus. No sooner has she touched the hem of his clothes than she is healed; and no sooner is she healed than Jesus feels the healing occur. He will not continue to Jairus’s house without acknowledging the healing, and waits until the healed one comes forward. The woman’s private faith is made public. Faith is, of course, personal, but Jesus shows the woman, and the crowds, that faith is not true faith if it remains private. Jesus calls her great faith from the shadows into the public for the benefit of all to see, but even more so that he could meet the one who was healed face to face, and to make her faith and her healing take root in this personal encounter, and grow into something even greater than physical health.

Just like Jesus makes Jairus’ public faith private, and makes the woman’s private faith public, in order that he might encounter them on an intensely personal level, he draws us into situations where our faith is put to work, in order that he might meet us face to face and reveal himself to us as a person who wants an intimate relationship with us. Our American culture is tired of the Christian cliché about a personal relationship with Jesus, but that is an essential part of the beginning of the good news, not to be apologized for or swept under the rug of trendiness. This is the hope to which we cling, the joy that causes us to lift our hearts in adoration not just on Sundays, but every day: our great hope and comfort is that the God of the Universe, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, sent his very Son, Light of Light, true God of true God, into the world he so loved, in order that we might know God himself face to face, as a tender and caring Father, and cast ourselves on him as our only sure hope of rescue and restoration.

I want to close with one last thought, then, in light of this morning’s reading, from the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the Reformed Church’s confessions of faith. Next Sunday evening at 7:00 we will discuss this first question and answer of the Heidelberg, but this morning I want us to remember together how the Kingdom of Life that Jesus the King brings with him is not some distant or abstract or removed thing, but is intensely and deeply personal, given for us.

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.


“As a Tumbler Sings”

Okay, I skipped a couple of weeks again. But this morning as I was doing devotions, God met me and encouraged me, and I had to share! I have been struggling over the past week, once again, with my own slothful inability to “self-start” or motivate myself. This morning I opened up Romans and Barth again.

Romans 5:1-5 | “The Coming Day: The New Man” (part 1)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

This was a powerful section of Barth’s commentary on Romans. By far the most lucid part, however, was his treatment of verse 5:

Therefore we glory in hope (v.2), precisely because it is not an achievement of our spirit, but the action of the Holy Spirit, and because the Love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us. The Holy Spirit is the operation of God in faith, the creative and redemptive power of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is nigh at hand. As a tumbler sings when it is touched, so we and our world are touched in faith by the Spirit of God, who is the eternal ‘Yes’. He provides faith with content…He is the miraculous factor in faith, its beginning and its end…He is the subject of faith, which ‘religious experience’ reaches after and longs for, but never finds.

Barth presents a simple image of the relationship between what God does and what I do: the singing crystal tumbler.

water glasses

A wine glass won’t sing on its own. But it has musical potential under the right touch (and ONLY the right touch. I am terrible at this trick!). Barth sees faith like the goblet’s music: not possible without the right (the Holy Spirit’s) touch.

Too often I fall into the larger American culture’s assumptions about the degree to which I can engineer and produce my own success and well-being (and then become frustrated and depressed when I discover that I really can’t). But Barth (and Paul!) is under no such “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” illusions when it comes to faith. This, of course, is where Arminians and Calvinists butt heads. As someone who is persuaded by Calvin and Barth, I am comforted and encouraged that this faith business isn’t up to me. The Triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — is working in, with, and under me to produce faith within me and to bring me to live in response to that faith. I am an empty tumbler; Praise God for sending his Spirit to play me to the tune of Jesus Christ!

“The Gospel of God,” According to Barth

Karl Barth

Karl Barth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Confession: I’ve never read Barth. We talk about him a lot at seminary, and Hope College’s theology students worship and adore the 20th-century Reformed theologian, but I have not read more than a paragraph or two of the man (which, I have learned, is like saying ‘I have only tasted a drop or two of the ocean’).

So, this summer, in an attempt to inspire my blogging, nurture my personal devotions, and develop some more “well-read” brownie points, I have begun reading Barth’s commentary The Epistle to the RomansSo, for the next couple months, expect some short reflections on Romans each day, usually from Barth. I hope these are helpful and encouraging and thought-provoking for you as they are for me, particularly during “Ordinary Time,” when we reflect on and actually practice the Christian life in active obedience because of the good news and new life that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Romans 1:1-7 | “The Author to His Readers”

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Barth waxes eloquent when he exposits the phrase “the Gospel of God”:

The Gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men. Salvation comes to them from him, because they are, as men, incapable of knowing him, and because they have no right to claim anything from him. The Gospel is not one thing in the midst of other things, to be directly apprehended and comprehended…the Gospel is therefore not an event, nor an experience, nor an emotion–however delicate! Rather, it is the clear and objective perception of what eye hath not seen nor ear heard. Moreover, what it demands of men is more than notice, or understanding, or sympathy. It demands participation, comprehension, co-operation; for it is a communication which presumes faith in the living God, and which creates that which it presumes.

This stirred me. Like the Barmen Declaration‘s litany of “we…declare” — “we reject the false doctrine,” Barth lays out what the Gospel isn’t (religious information, a self-improvement program, self-evident, an event, an experience, an emotion), AND what the Gospel is (proclamation, perception, communication). I find particularly encouraging and important for this season, first, that the Gospel demands of me “participation, comprehension, co-operation;” and second, that the Gospel “presumes faith in the living God, and…creates that which it presumes.” The Gospel creates faith in me; it is not something I work up within myself or find somewhere someday. This faith, which receives the Gospel, then compels me to respond to it actively, energetically. May it be so.