Many years ago, I got to know someone who as a child used to go to church every Sunday – I am going to call him Steve. It was an old church in Wales which had a strong and faithful congregation. Steve suffered terribly from Grand mal seizures due to epilepsy. One Sunday in winter when he was at church, he had one such seizure during the service. Unfortunately, he fell off the pew, rolled underneath it and in his convulsions was pinned against a scalding hot heating pipe. To this day he has a red welt on his back where he was burned. They were hard times for him. It was hard for him to do the normal things in childhood that we so often take for granted. And in those days, treatments for epilepsy were not as extensive as they are today.
One Sunday though, some years later he came to an evening service. During the service members of the congregation were invited to come forward for healing ministry. He stayed where he was. But one of the ministry team said “I really believe that there is someone here tonight who God wants to heal.” Steve had that “It’s you” moment and knew that he had to go forward for prayer. He slowly made his way forward, knelt down and people laid hands on him and prayed for his healing. After that Steve never again suffered from epilepsy. He was truly astonished, but even more astonished were the doctors who had been treating him. His healing quite simply wasn’t supposed to happen; it was a miracle.
As a young man, Steve’s faith grew and grew. One day a good friend of his became terminally ill and Steve felt incredibly burdened to pray for him. He spent a lot of time praying, after all if God had healed him, surely he could heal his friend. He believed with all of his heart that God wanted to heal them too. And incredibly his friend was fully healed…the doctors were again baffled. There was simply no logical, scientific explanation.
In Steve’s life, a year after his friend had been miraculously healed he was approached by a young couple whose daughter was terminally ill. They had heard how Steve had been healed as a child, they had heard about how Steve’s friend had been healed. They had tried everything and they were desperate and so they asked Steve if he would come and pray for their daughter. Tragically the little girl died, and Steve was both shocked and devastated. He was so upset that later when he saw this young couple he went out of his way to avoid them and he didn’t return their calls. But one day he bumped into them, and he wasn’t able to avoid them. He could hardly look them in the face. He simply said, “I am so sorry.” The couple embraced him and shared with him some of the last words their daughter had said which were “Don’t be afraid mummy, I am going to be with Jesus.”
Illness of whatever kind is undoubtedly difficult for all concerned. It is perhaps hardest of all for the person who is ill; after all, none of us would ever choose to be ill. When we are really ill, our life has to be put on hold whether we like it or not, and all the things that we are usually able to do become more difficult or even impossible. Illness makes it difficult or even impossible for people to engage normally in society, whether that illness is physical, mental or even spiritual.
So, imagine how the woman in our gospel reading might have felt. She had been subject to bleeding for twelve years! That alone must have been terrible. But we must also remember that she was a woman in a patriarchal society, and because of her condition she could never be ritually cleansed. She was always considered unclean, and therefore she was on the fringes of society. She was an outcast. She may as well have been a leper, because that is how people would have treated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have become ceremonially unclean. We are also told that she had tried everything to get better, she was desperate: “she had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.” The woman was therefore also destitute.
The incredible thing is this…despite her affliction and the adversity that was part of her everyday life, she maintained a faith. Oh, that we could hold fast in times of adversity, that our faith was not based on our external circumstances. And she didn’t make a song and dance about her condition. There were no histrionics or drama. She simply approached her Lord and Saviour quietly and graciously and touched his cloak. It was an outward expression of her deep inner faith. She knew in faith that would be enough. In God’s grace she was healed; and then Jesus asked who had touched his clothes.
The exchange between them is amazing. She fell at his feet – she literally worshipped him and confessed everything. And Jesus responded with love beyond measure…firstly he called her daughter. That is like saying “This is what defines you and you are not alone. You do have status, value, a family, and are defined by the love I have for you.” It reminds us all that we are children of God. She who had been on the fringes and was destitute had been brought home, welcomed and embraced. He then commends her faith, and declares her physically healed and spiritually saved “be freed from your suffering” and “go in peace.”
And then when we think of Jairus’ daughter. In that society she would have not had any social standing…firstly because she was a child who had not come of age, and secondly because she was female. In her own way, she too would have been on the fringes of society. And once again Jesus exercises compassion, mercy and love. And even though the people came from Jairus’ house and said it was too late because his daughter had died, Jesus ignored them and said to Jairus “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
So what about people who are not healed? It is in such times that we need to have a shift in perspective. As Christians don’t we believe that death is not the end? We believe that we are destined for eternal life? We believe in a new heaven and a new earth where we will be God’s people and He will be our God. And in our time in this broken world that has been, is being and will be redeemed and transformed we must remember that “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” It is not God’s fault that there is illness and suffering and death.
We so desperately need to be real and honest with God…to cry out to him and convey all of the emotions that we might be experiencing. I know I do. We need to ask him to broaden our understanding of what healing is. If our starting point is from that position of faith, if we believe in God’s compassion, mercy and love and that ultimate healing is being with God and at peace with God, then it shapes how we might respond to people who are sick in mind, body or spirit. We can perhaps begin in God’s grace to see them as God sees them, as his children who need to find their way home. That couple’s daughter got it…incredibly she found herself in that place where she could declare “Don’t be afraid mummy, I am going to be with Jesus.”
We are not destined for death. We are created for life, and life eternal. Jesus said “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” May we not be afraid and just believe, and may we have a deep inner faith that isn’t based on our momentary trials and tribulations.
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen