Healing stories provide a major avenue for the gospel writers to connect Jesus with not only divine power and authority but also to show that the kingdom of God has indeed begun to make its presence felt on earth as it is in heaven. Mark’s discourse in chapter 5 is a prime example of that. Mark even provides an interesting twist by giving us a healing story within another healing story.
First there is the story of Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue (apparently not all of the “leaders” of the Jews opposed Jesus, after all):
when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. –Mark 5:22-24 NRSV
No sooner does Mark get started on this story than it’s interrupted by a much stranger healing story:
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?’ ” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” –vs. 25-34
The scene immediately shifts back to Jairus, who is told his daughter has died, so he need not bother Jesus any further. Jesus’ response: “Do not fear, only believe.” Use of the word “believe,” by the way, can easily mislead us in understanding correctly what Jesus has said. In our 21st-century culture “believe” has come to be associated with mental acceptance of a set of doctrines and faith statements. But for Jesus and the gospel writers, “to believe” meant to trust or to be faithful. And so for Jesus to preface his response with “Do not fear” makes perfect sense, for the true opposite of fear is faith.
Of course, Jairus’s daughter lives. As wonderful as that news is, that’s perhaps not the most important part of this “healing sandwich” story. As is so often the case, we need to go beyond, behind, and/or beneath the literal story to discern greater truth. For that, I think we need to focus greater attention on one rather odd detail of the healing story with the woman with the hemorrhages. All it took for her to be healed was to merely touch the hem of Jesus’ robe. Furthermore, Mark tells us that while Jesus didn’t feel her touch his garment he did feel the power going out of him.
Obviously Jesus is so close to divine power that he can sense when even a small amount is leaving him. Another way of looking at this is that there isn’t much at all separating Jesus and God’s Spirit. It’s what some people refer to as a “thin place.” And it’s not just Jesus who can experience such thin places, although the degree of difference is naturally quite different. We may not even realize it at the time, but we’ve probably all had experiences with “thin places.”
I’ve had them standing on a mountainside in the Colorado Rockies looking out across miles of beautiful scenic vistas, and standing in a cold mountain-fed stream while fly-fishing,, and sitting on a cruise-ship balcony in the midst of the Caribbean Sea. Nature offers the most common “thin places” to most people. And why not? God’s magnificent creation is an open testament of divine creative powers.
I’ve had a “thin place” moment at other times, too. Most memorably I recall sitting in a seminary classroom one day several decades ago now, and it felt almost as if I were an observer separate from the setting. There was no audible voice, yet a message came to me that I was in the right place at the right time doing something that would bring long-lasting benefit and blessing not just to me but for many others. Gradually that moment dissapated and I returned to taking notes as the professor lectured on.This short description doesn’t do justice to the extent of that experience, but that probably supports the idea that thin places are “God moments” that defy full explanation.
We can’t force experiences with thin places, but we can encourage them. The sacraments of the church come to mind in this regard first of all, for they are, almost by definition, “sacred moments” in which the Divine can come close. My own faith tradition observes eight sacraments, the most frequently celebrated being the Lord’s Supper (or Communion). We traditionally include the Lord’s Supper in our worship services on the first Sunday of each month. Other churches do it more or less frequently. And I’ll be the first to admit that the experience is not always a great spiritual high point–but sometimes it is.
This coming Sunday I’ll be a part of another sacrament: what’s known in my denomination as the blessing of small children. We believe children are born innocent and holy and so we don’t authorize baptism until children are at least eight years old. But we invite parents to bring their infants (although sometimes the children are getting fairly close to that eight-year mark) to receive a prayer of blessing by elders in the church. Two of my wife’s nieces had babies last winter, and so they’ve asked me to officiate at this sacrament. It is a sacrament in which it’s fairly easy to connect past, present, and future–and as such I have experienced thin places as a result. Because this coming Sunday happens also to be July 1, we’ll be observing the Lord’s Supper as part of the worship service, as well. Generally, I prefer to have one sacrament per worship service simply so we can all maintain focus but two baby blessings and Communion–well, I and many others are looking forward to the experience.
Young parents are quite naturally filled with all kinds of worries and fears when it comes to their children. We live in uncertain times and it’s impossible (as well as inadvisable) to shield children from everything. So maybe it’s a good thing that the recommended worship theme this week is “Do Not Fear.” A part of my hopes and prayers for those young parents and their children is that they will all experience thin places throughout their lifetime.
- The Season after Pentecost, Proper 8 – Year B: July 1, 2012 (prayerbookguide.wordpress.com)
- Fourth Sunday after Trinity Sunday 1.712 Mark 5.21-end (stephencherry1.wordpress.com)
- When it looks too late (briancoatney.com)
- To Infinity… and beyond! (mtsweat.com)
- Lectionary sermon for 1 July 2012 on Mark 5: 21 – 43 (billpeddie.wordpress.com)
- Only Believe (ministerioinfantilusa.com)