Faith makes you whole

June 28, 2009

( 2 Cor. 8, 7-15; Mark 5, 21-43)

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reading a book by Barack Obama, the President of the U.S. It’s called ‘Dreams from my Father’ and it’s a personal memoir of his early life until his marriage, and of the lives of his parents and grandparents.

Barack Obama has been hailed as the first black president of the U.S. – but that’s not strictly accurate.  He was the child of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. His father left them and went back to Kenya when Barack was very young, and he was brought up by his mother and her parents, and, for a while, his mother’s second husband who was Indonesian. Because Barack looked black, he didn’t entirely fit into the white society of his parents and grandparents; but because of how he was brought up, he didn’t fit into black society either. The book charts his quest to reconcile his divided inheritance, via the history of his liberal mother and grandparents, and his experience at school in Hawaii, through a relatively privileged life in Indonesia, and work as a community organiser in the run-down South Side black area of Chicago, and finally to his meeting with his father’s relatives and his Kenyan half-brothers and sisters in the  families ancestral Luo homeland. That meeting, and his experience as a lawyer, finally brought him to a resolution of his internal conflict.

‘Dreams from my Father’ is about the search for individual wholeness and personal authenticity in a society from whose full benefits people were excluded because of race or colour or gender or poverty. It is about how those who are excluded can find wholeness of life without resorting to violence, or being poisoned by hatred for the dominant group. Obama came to believe that the law, for all its faults and failings, was  a long-running conversation in which a nation argues with its conscience, asking  itself questions about what constitutes its community, and how that community can be reconciled with freedom. He came ultimately to the faith that as long as those questions continue to be asked,  then what binds people together might somehow ultimately prevail.  That became the faith by which he lives, and which motivated his move into politics.

That long-running conversation between law and conscience, those questions about what constitutes community are discussion which the church also has – or should have; and today’s Gospel is a major contribution to those discussions.

On the face of it, this passage of Mark contains the interwoven stories of two of Jesus’ miracles. These two provide the climax to a section of miracles in chapters 4 & 5 of the Gospel; each miracle is more astounding than the previous one, concluding with the healing of an illness that was beyond the help of human medicine, and the raising of a dead child. Corresponding to the rise in the miraculous is a rise in faith of those who seek Jesus’ help – from the demoniac who has no faith, to the woman with a haemorrhage, who has faith in Jesus’ power, but dare not show it, and, finally, Jairus, who proclaims openly his faith that only Jesus can save his daughter from death.

But more importantly for us today, these stories are also about prejudice and exclusion. In the Jewish society of Jesus’ time, all adult women were in a state of ritual impurity for half of the month. The ritual laws of Leviticus ch.15, said they were unclean from the time their monthly period started until 7 days after it ended. During that time they themselves were unclean, everything and everyone they touched became unclean, and they were excluded from places of worship and from normal social life and interaction. This was justified by the religious authorities as a result of God’s curse on Eve for her part in the Fall – but it meant that a normal biological process, essential for the continuance of the race, was considered to be disgusting to God, and that women were permanently second-class citizens.

For the woman in Mark’s story, the situation was much worse. She bled constantly, so she was in a permanent state of ritual impurity, permanently isolated from family life and all community activity. That was why she crept secretly to touch Jesus’ clothes. When her action was discovered she expected Jesus to react with disgust – for by law he also had become polluted and would need to be isolated until he had completed ritual purification.

But Jesus called her ‘daughter’,  including her within his family and community. He praised her faith, which he said had made her well and told her to “Go in peace’, healed of her disease, freed from the curse which had isolated her.

The small daughter of Jairus had just reached the stage of her life when this ‘curse’ of being a woman would begin to affect her. She was 12 years old, the age of puberty, the age at which she could be married. She was considered an adult, and because of this any respectable Jewish male should not have touched her, in case he became ritually unclean. By the time Jesus reached her house, she had died; dead bodies also polluted those who touched them ( which was why the women prepared bodies for burial). Jesus however, ignored this taboo also, took her hand and raised her up. He spoke to her in her own language. ‘Talitha cum’ means literally “Little lamb, rise up”. My Mum always called little children ‘Lambkin’, so thiese words to me are a powerful expression of gentleness and family concern. Christ’s concern did not end with her healing; he immediately asked those present to find her something to eat, making practical provision for her continuing health.

On the surface, these stories are about the healing of physical disease. But the language used means there is also an underlying theme, about salvation and resurrection. The Greek words used for “healing” and “made well” can also mean “saved”; the word Jesus used for “she is sleeping” was used by the early Christian community to speak of those who had died before the expected resurrection to eternal life; the command to the little girl to “Rise up” uses the word also used to speak of  resurrection. And, perhaps, the command to give the little girl something to eat has echoes of the community meal of Christians, and is a command to include her in the Eucharist. Jesus is showing concern for the spiritual health of women and children as well as their physical health.

In his actions towards these women, Jesus overturned centuries of prejudice and exclusion, to declare women full and equal members of the community of the saved – just as by his actions he had included other unclean people – lepers, demoniacs, sinners and Gentiles. He greets them and accepts them with warmth and concern; he is not just going through the motions. It was a radical change in religious practice.

But, sadly, it did not take very long for the Christian community to forget his example and reverse his practice. From early on, women were made to sit separately from men during worship, and forbidden to take communion during their monthly period; and, of course,  they were not allowed to take a significant role in worship by reading, or singing, or leading prayers. After the ‘pollution’ of childbirth they had to be ‘cleansed’ before being readmitted to church and society: the ceremony for “The Churching of Women” was still included in the Prayer Book in use when I was growing up, and in my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, no-one would associate with a woman after childbirth before she had been “churched”.

Jesus included; the Church excluded, preferring the laws of Leviticus to the example of her Lord. During the debates about the ordination of women, opponents still used the laws of Leviticus to argue that women priests would pollute the sanctuary and the sacrament if they presided at communion during certain times of the month, or when they were pregnant. There have been people over the last twenty-five years who would not hear me preach or receive communion from my hands because of my gender. The same irrational fear of normal biological processes lies behind the present objections to women bishops, though those who object may try to conceal it; but the fact that most of them will not allow themselves to be touched by hands that have ordained women show that the fear of being made unclean by secondary contact is far from past.

Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, in his book “The Meaning in the Miracles” remarks: “this healing shows Jesus throwing aside the irrational fears and inhibitions of his own culture, touching the supposedly untouchable, and welcoming her as God’s beloved child. The cruel, irrational taboo about menstruation, with all its dark, destructive implications for women down the centuries, was cancelled in one warm  and loving word. Alas, it has taken the Church twenty centuries to notice”.

The forename of the President of the United States, Barack, means ‘blessed’ in both Arabic and Hebrew. The teaching of Jesus proclaims that those whom secular society despises – the poor, the humble, the sad, and those who are persecuted – are ‘blessed’. His actions proclaimed that those whom other religious leaders regarded as unclean and impure were full and equal members of the community of the saved, full members of God’s family.

It took twenty centuries for most of the Church to hear his words about women. It took eighteen centuries for the Western church to hear his words and apply them to  people of colour and the natives of Africa, Asia, Australasia and America. It is perhaps only in this 21st century that the community Jesus proclaimed may become a reality in the civil societies of America and Europe: Barack Obama’s election is a sign of hope, but we still have some way to go.

But still the Church avoids the clear lead of Jesus in his words and actions, and returns to the taboos of Leviticus to refuse some Christians full participation in the life of the Christian community and positions of leadership. How long will it take before discrimination against Christians on the basis of their sexuality is seen to be as irrational as fear of pollution by menstruating women?

Jesus said to the woman who was healed simply by touching his cloak: “Your faith has made you whole, Your faith has brought you salvation.” In the Kingdom of Heaven, race, gender, colour, sexuality are all irrelevant. It is faith in Christ alone which makes us whole.

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(Isaiah 6,1-8; John 3,1-17 )

In  an edition of The Reader magazine a few years back there was a page of suggestions to help the unfortunate ones among us who have been assigned to preach today, Trinity Sunday, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

There were the usual suggestions that we’ve all used sometimes, especially when we have had a Family Service on Trinity Sunday: water, ice and steam, three different forms of the same substance H2O; one person who is known in different relationships ( father, son, brother ) or different roles (teacher, churchwarden, golf cub secretary). And others that I’ve not come across before: three parts of an egg – yolk, shell and white ( though that falls short because none of the three is in itself a complete egg, while each of the three persons of the Trinity is fully God );  or one that appeals to me: a blend of three different varieties  which make up a particular tea ( though this was criticised on the basis that although each variety is completely ‘tea’, they each have different flavours and are thus essentially different from each other, whereas the three persons of the Trinity are not.)

Today I came across another suggestion in the Bishop of Huntingdon’s blog – a power cable which has three leads in it. I am afraid I am not a physicist, so I don’t know whether his explanation of the cable showing us we must be earthed in the love of God, come alive in Christ and complete the circuit with the Holy Spirit works or not!

Some people say  that maybe it is better not to try to explain the Trinity in words, but to use pictures. So, some people find Andrei Rublev’s icon called ‘The Hospitality of Abraham’ a helpful representation of the Trinity – three figures seated around a cup – of wine or of blood? – heads and hands inclined to one another. rublevtrinity

trinity

A more abstract representation is the Trinity shield – a triangle of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each joined to the word ‘God’ in the centre by the word ‘is’, and joined to each other by arcs of a circle on which are the words ‘is not’.

Another pictorial representation which people find helpful is a shamrock, and I have found that this ancient Celtic symbol speaks to me of a unity of three parts endlessly interacting.

IMG

But perhaps the real problem is that we are trying to explain God the Trinity, or to represent it, when what we really need to do is to experience it. As Paul explains in Romans, we are justified by faith – and that is not faith in a set of abstract propositions, but faith in the validity of our experience of God, made known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Belief in God as Trinity grew out of the experience of the first Christians. They were Jews and monotheists, who believed in one  unseen God. Their God spoke to them through major figures in their past – prophets and kings. They saw God’s activity in nature and history, and believed him to be the god of both. They saw him, as our reading from Isaiah illustrates, as a mighty, otherworldly ruler. They used many names and titles to describe God’s being and activity – Yahweh, El, King, Lord, Shield, Shepherd, Ancient of Days.  And they spoke of certain aspects of God almost as separate beings, but still wholly God; the  Spirit, active in the creation of the world and in the inspiration of the prophets; and Wisdom, also at God’s side during the process of creation, and speaking directly to human beings on behalf of God.

Then the disciples encountered Jesus, and in him they came to believe that they were experiencing God incarnate in a human being – someone who reflected so closely the God of their history, their Law and their Wisdom, that they could only describe him as ‘Son of God’. And Jesus spoke of God as his Father. But these were  not terms which spoke of physical parentage, but of spiritual.

After Jesus’ death, the disciples experienced a time when this feeling of being in the living presence of God was lost – but then it returned again with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, the disciple’s experience was that the Spirit had the character of both the God of their history and their scriptures, and of Jesus.

When the first Christians came to speak and write about their experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, they drew on the language used in their Scriptures about God. But they didn’t at first go into exact definitions of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Those sorts of definitions came later, when the Gospel was taken out into a different cultural world, that of  Greek and Roman philosophy. In particular, they  came as the experience of a direct encounter with the living Jesus retreated  further into the past, and people began speaking of him in ways that did not ring true to the accounts of those who had that direct experience. The definitions came about in opposition to what was defined as heresy, and that affected the way the doctrines were expressed.

One of the essays that almost all people training for ministry have to write at some time in their training is entitled something like ‘Describe the steps in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity that led to the formulation of what we now know as the Nicene Creed’. That Creed was put together in its first form about the beginning of the 4th century AD for the Council of Nicaea and in its final form in the middle of the 5th century for the Council of Chalcedon.

So, our creeds, or definitions of faith, were drawn up four centuries after the experiences they were trying to define. What is more, they were drawn up in a very different cultural milieu from that in which the first disciples lived. Another complication, for us, is that they were drawn up in a different language from the one which Jesus and his disciples spoke, and from that which we speak. The technical terms in which the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were defined  – persons and substance – meant very different things to the ancient Greek theologians who drew up the Creeds from what they mean to us – and hence our problems with the doctrine of the Trinity which they defined.

Religious experience – the experience which the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to encapsulate – is  akin to the experience of viewing art or listening to music or reading poetry. Sometimes, attempting to analyse the experience can help us to a deeper experience; but very often, the analysis simply destroys the experience all together. How many of us have been put off Shakespeare, or the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, or a splendid piece of opera or orchestral music  by being force to pick it to pieces and define why it has the effect on us that it does have?

Should we then abandon the observation of Trinity Sunday all together. A good many preachers would answer yes!

But I think Trinity Sunday is a useful corrective to our all too human tendency to make our God too small. It reminds us that God has been made known to us through many forms of revelation, and yet is still beyond our understanding.

It reminds us that  our faith is not just in the God of the Old Testament, nor in the incarnate Son, nor in the Holy Spirit, but in God revealed as all three. It reminds us that the persons of the Godhead are in relationship, and that a relationship is a living, growing, constantly changing thing. So we cannot limit our faith to belief in the God revealed through the Scriptures; nor to the God we experience in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; nor to a God who inspires us through the Spirit. A complete faith needs to encompass all three, and needs to be open to new experiences and interpretations of all three, while being faithful to the revelation of Scripture.

In our reading from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that entering the Kingdom of Heaven is likely to be a transforming experience, akin to being born a second time into a completely new life. Elsewhere in the Gospel he tells his disciples that his Spirit will be sent to guide us into new truth and to reveal things that could not be understood in previous ages. Trinity Sunday reminds us to remain open to those new truths and new experiences of God.

Trinity Sunday also has important things to say to us about how we live and work as God’s Church. Our Christian life  should reflect the character of God. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we cannot be Christians on our own. We can only truly reflect the character of God when we are in relationship with others – respecting their differences from us, but acknowledging their essential oneness with us, as we believe the persons of the godhead do.  And that is something which both our world and our churches  need to be reminded of, not just once a year but constantly.