The faith that saves

As well as the audio recording, here is a full transcript of the Bible reading and Bishop Pete’s excellent sermon.

Luke 8: 40-56 (NIV)

Now when Jesus returned, a crowd welcomed him, for they were all expecting him. Then a man named Jairus, a synagogue leader, came and fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading with him to come to his house because his only daughter, a girl of about twelve, was dying.

As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.

‘Who touched me?’ Jesus asked.

When they all denied it, Peter said, ‘Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.’

But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.’

Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’

While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. ‘Your daughter is dead,’ he said. ‘Don’t bother the teacher anymore.’

Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.’

When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child’s father and mother. Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. ‘Stop wailing,’ Jesus said. ‘She is not dead but asleep.’

They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and said, ‘My child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.

The late great Billy Graham, who, as it happens, died the very week I was here last time, in February 2018, used to tell a story against himself.  He used to say that he had once heard another evangelist say that every born-again Christian, on waking up in the morning, should fling back the bedclothes, stride across the bedroom, throw open the bedroom window, take a deep breath, and say, “In Christ I am a Super Conqueror!”  So Billy thought he should at least give this a try, so the following morning, he used to say, he had pushed back his duvet, stumbled out of bed, hobbled across to the window, leant on the window enough for it to open a crack, took half a breath, and said, “I need a cup of coffee!”

I love that story not just because I also need a cup of coffee before I can get going in the morning, but because it shows up Billy Graham for what he really was, which is to say, an ordinary human being.  I admire him all the more for the capacity he had to tell that story against himself, and it gives me hope because it was that Billy Graham, who had difficulty getting up in the morning, who by the grace of God was used in such an extraordinary way as a servant of our Lord Jesus.  It was by grace that he met with God and by grace that he was able to be an agent whereby hundreds of thousands of other people came to meet with God too.  It was by grace that he himself throughout the course of that long life grew daily more and more into the likeness of his saviour Jesus, and it was by grace that he was enabled to help other people grow into the likeness of Jesus.

As we return to this Bible passage which we’ve just heard read, I want to suggest to you that it is actually only in your ordinary everyday-ness that you will meet with God.  And in your everyday-ness that God will pour out his Spirit upon you so that you can grow in him.  It’s the real you that God loves; it is the real you that God calls; it is upon the real you that God gives his Holy Spirit; it’s the real you that God transforms bit by bit, more and more day by day into the likeness of his son Jesus.  And all that, God does by his grace.  You will never meet with God by pretending to be someone you are not.  You will never meet with God by pretending to be better than you truly are.  I think that’s the message of these verses.

That Bible reading is actually two stories in one, and Luke the evangelist has crafted that passage very carefully so that through a series of highly deliberate parallels and contrasts, the two parts of the passage shed light on one another.  So, besides Jesus, there are two characters that have starring roles.  One is a man, and he is named, which is an indication of his power and social status; and the other is a woman, and she is given no name, and that’s a mark of her social insignificance.  He is Jairus, and he is the leader of the synagogue in Capernaum, and the only thing that we know about her is that she had a medical condition which made her ceremonially unclean, which means that she was an outcast from the synagogue.  She was an outcast from Jairus’s synagogue.  He, in this story, approached Jesus openly and ended up receiving a blessing in private; she approached Jesus secretly and ended up getting a blessing in public.  Both Jairus and the woman are desperate: he had a 12-year-old daughter who was dying; and she had been ill for 12 years.  Both, we’re told, had faith, yes.  Both met with God in Jesus, yes.  Both received a blessing from God in Jesus, yes.  Both, no doubt, grew in the Spirit that day they met with God in Jesus, yes.  But the point is, it all happened by grace.  They received mercy and healing and salvation by grace, and it’s because of that that they can encourage you and me to know that we can also receive from God mercy and healing and salvation, because we also only ever do it by grace.

In fact the story breaks into three parts, because the story of Jairus tops and tails the one about the haemorrhaging woman.  I’m going to begin with the opening verses in which Luke introduces Jairus.  From the moment we’re told Jairus’s name we know he’s a powerful man in a man’s world; he’s a man who is a leader among men; he is used to getting his own way; he is used to having other people defer to him – but as he approaches Jesus on this day, it is not as a formidable religious leader; it’s as a distressed and powerless dad, whose only daughter, aged about 12 – so right on the cusp of womanhood – is dying.  And of course by his stage in Jesus’ public ministry, religious leaders were mostly lined up against him.  So from a political point of view, Jairus had every reason not to engage with Jesus.  He could at least have done what Nicodemus, that other religious leader, had chosen to do – he could have approached Jesus by night, but he doesn’t.  He approaches Jesus in daylight in full view of the crowd, and everybody in that crowd knows exactly who he is.  And when he falls to Jesus’ feet, the tongues, you can have no doubt, will have started wagging, because this privileged man, this man with status, has tossed his dignity to one side in full view of all of them.  And as he kneels there at Jesus’ feet he is no super-conqueror.  He is a desperate man, a man in such dire straits that he has abandoned his special-ness.  He comes to Jesus stripped back to his real self, and it is his real self that he throws upon the mercy of God.  And just like that, Jesus goes with him, and they set of for Jairus’ house, with the whole crowd, Luke says, pressing in on them.  And at that moment – it’s a real cliffhanger – at that moment Luke interrupts the story to tell us the story of the woman who is bleeding.

Twelve years non-stop she has been bleeding, and Luke (Doctor Luke, remember) tells us that she has spent every last penny that she had on medical care, to no effect.  So her problem is presumably gynaecological, and quite apart from the physical and emotional distress that must have caused her, there were social implications as well.  Under the law of Moses, her condition has made her unclean.  She is permanently excluded from public worship, and worse still, any thing and anyone she touches becomes unclean as well.  But like Jairus she has run out of alternatives; like Jairus she has heard of Jesus, and like Jairus she has decided to pin her hopes on him.  Unlike Jairus, she does not approach Jesus openly.  She creeps up behind him and touches the tassels on his prayer shawl.  In the NIV it says the ‘edge of his cloak’ and actually Luke is talking about the prayer shawl that Orthodox Jews wear to this day – you know the sort that hangs over the shoulders and has fringes down the back.  And she has crept up behind him and laid hold of those tassels which are symbols of Jesus’ prayerfulness, symbols of Jesus’ holiness.  And at once, Luke says, her bleeding stopped.  And I’m convinced she would have crept away as quietly as she had come, had Jesus not at that moment spoken.

“Who touched me?” he says, and Luke reports everyone denies it, so eventually Peter, who liked to placate and smooth everything over, says “Master, it’s a big crowd.  People are pressing in on you all the time.”  Jesus says, “No, someone definitely touched me because I felt the power go out from me.”  Because by the way, as an aside, notice that that act of healing was so costly to Jesus at that moment that he felt the power leave him.  I take that to be the hallmark of Christian ministry always and everywhere – authentic Christian ministry is always costly to the minister.

Anyway, at this moment, the woman realises that the game is up and that she can’t stay hidden, so, trembling, she copies Jairus once again and falls to her knees before Jesus, and in front of the whole crowd she admits that it was her who had defiled Jesus by touching him, and in the process she has effectively admitted that she has wormed her way through this tight-pressed crowd, defiling any number of them in the process.  Her heart must have been pounding as she waited for Jesus to speak.  And the crowd must have been waiting for Jesus to speak.  And the crowd would have been quite sure that Jesus would rebuke her.  But no, he says to her “Daughter”.  And this is the only time in the Gospels where Jesus uses that word as a form of address, “daughter”.  This is Jesus’ way of saying “I don’t know your name, but you are not a nothing to me.  You are significant to me; you are family to me.”  “Daughter, go in peace; your faith has saved you.”  Most English translations, including the one we heard earlier say “your faith has healed you” but the Greek word is “sozo” which means so much more than “your faith has cured you” – healed you, yes, but healed you in the biggest, broader sense – your faith has made you whole, or your faith has saved you.

I suppose the first question I want to ask you this morning is: how did God meet this woman in Jesus?  The answer is that he did it by grace.  It’s absolutely true that Jesus says to her “your faith has saved you”.  Absolutely true – she received wholeness through her faith.  She grew in the Spirit that day through her faith; she encountered God that day through her faith.  But just take a look at her faith, because it is not perfect.  For one thing, it was secretive.  When she approached Jesus, it was from behind.  Surely true faith is up front with Jesus, isn’t it?  Secondly, it is deceitful.  When Jesus challenges the crowd “Who touched me?” Luke says everyone denied it – and that includes this woman.  She denied it.  Surely true faith is more honest than that?  And then, her faith is superstitious.  When she reaches out to take hold of Jesus, she goes for the tassels on the back of his prayer shawl, as if that part of Jesus’ clothing has magical properties or something.  Surely that can’t be right – that’s folk religion, isn’t it?  And then she’s terrified.  When she falls at Jesus’ feet Luke says she was full of fear.  Isn’t true faith more confident than that?  What kind of faith is this?  Secretive, deceitful, superstitious, scared witless – what sort of faith is that?  It is the faith that, by God’s grace, brought her salvation.  You see, like Jairus, this woman has come to Jesus desperate.  She has come stripped back to her real self, and it’s her real self that she has thrown upon God for mercy.  Yes it was tentative of her to come to Jesus secretly; yes her doctrine was a bit muddled when she reached for those tassels; yes she was terrified when Jesus said “Who touched me?”.  This nameless woman might not have had much going for her, but what she had she staked on Jesus.  She may not have had much going for her, but what she had became for her, by grace, the faith that saves.  And when Jesus made her come out into the open it was not to humiliate her; it was to bless her publicly.  “Go in peace; your faith has saved you.”

You know, it really matters that her story is topped and tailed by the story of Jairus, because his story acts like a set of brackets around her story.  Usually we put stuff in brackets if it’s not that important.  We put stuff in brackets if it’s just an aside, and this woman has got used to living her whole life in brackets, as if it’s just an aside.  Always treated like an irrelevance; an anonymous woman in a man’s world.  But Jesus knows she’s a daughter of Abraham, made in the image of God, loved by the God who made her.  And here we see her stepping out of those brackets at our Lord’s invitation.  Stepping out of a man’s world into God’s world.  Maybe, maybe she still knew, somewhere deep down, that she was precious in God’s sight.  Maybe that’s why she fought her way through that crowd, risking its disapproval.  Maybe that’s why she was so determined to touch Jesus.  Maybe she knew that it was time for her to assert herself, to stop letting herself be defined by the opinions of others.  At any rate, what Jesus does is to invite her to take centre stage, to enter into her full status as a daughter of the living God.  And he did it as an act of grace.

So back to Jairus.  I wonder how long that interruption was?  Five minutes?  Ten minutes?  It must have been the longest wait of his life.  His daughter is dying!  His daughter is in urgent need of Jesus’ attention, they had just begun to make their way to his house, and Jesus has stopped to give attention to this nameless and unclean woman.  Then, when eventually Jesus dismisses this woman, and they set out for his house again, his worst nightmare is realised.  Because a messenger comes to say “it’s too late – your daughter is dead.”  And as Jairus crumples, Jesus says to him, “Don’t be afraid, only believe, she will be saved.”  You know, to the woman, earlier, he had said “Daughter, have faith, you’ll have salvation, go in peace.”  Here it’s “Jairus, have peace, by faith, your daughter will find salvation.”

So when they get to the house, Jesus leaves the crowd and most of the disciples outside and enters the house only with Jairus and the girl’s mother, and Peter, James and John.  It’s the first time in the Gospels that Jesus has taken that inner circle of three disciples to one side.  He’ll do it again on the Mount of Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane, and like those two occasions this is a holy moment.  The professional mourners, the wailers and the pipers – they’re already in the house.  They’re the ancient equivalent of the funeral director, and if they’re there, you can be sure this girl is dead.  So when Jesus said “Don’t weep, she’s not dead, just sleeping” they laughed.  They know she’s dead.  But the point is that it is no harder for our Lord to raise the dead than for you and I to raise the sleeping.

So then comes the final parallel between these two stories.  If a haemorrhaging woman is unclean according to the law of Moses and defiles what she touches – then so is a corpse.  So when Jesus takes the corpse by the hand and says “Little girl, get up” we know that battle has been joined.  Will this unclean corpse defile the Lord Jesus, or will the Lord of life restore this girl?  And “at once”, Luke says, “her spirit returned and she got up.”  He says, “give her something to eat.”

And then comes the final contrast between these two stories.  When the woman approached Jesus secretly, Jesus made her dealing public.  When Jairus approached him publicly, Jesus ordered all those who had eventually seen this most private miracle not to say a word to anybody.  For both Jairus and the woman, meeting God and growing in the Spirit meant answering to God alone, and for the woman that meant breaking out of the brackets others had put her in.  It meant expressing herself, it meant asserting herself, it meant laying hold of her identity as a daughter of God, made in the image of God.  For her, faith meant stepping into the limelight in front of a crowd.  But for Jairus it’s different.  For Jairus, answering to God alone means letting go of the prominence he has enjoyed as president of the synagogue.  For him, faith meant letting go of his public role; for him it meant stepping out of the limelight, stepping out of the crowd.

So you and I, how do we meet with God and grow?  Well, look at Jairus – there is nothing conquering about him.  He starts the story desperate, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet and begging for help.  Surely true faith is confident, isn’t it?  Half way through the story, Jairus is frightened – why else would Jesus say to him “do not fear”?  Surely true faith is unafraid, isn’t it?  And at the end of the story, Luke tells us that he was astounded – astounded! – that Jesus had brought his daughter back to life.  Well, did he not expect Jesus to restore his daughter to life?  Surely true faith is expectant?  What sort of faith is this?  Distressed, begging, frightened, astounded.  Well, by grace, this is the faith that saves.  Yes, he made a scene of himself when he first approached Jesus.  Yes, his blood ran cold when the messenger came with the news that his daughter was dead, and yes, his amazement does imply that he never really expected to see her alive again.  Jairus may not have had much going for him that day, but what he had he staked on Jesus.  He may not have had much going for him that day, but by grace, it turned out to be the faith that saves.

In a moment there will be opportunity for you to receive anointing – prayer for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that you will know yourself blessed and you will be a blessing in the world.  I wonder, when you come forward, whether there is a particular bit of business you know you need to do with God today?  It may be that you’re more of a Jairus, used to power and influence but currently facing circumstances in which you find things outside your control.  Or maybe you’re more like the woman, used to being pushed aside and ignored, but longing to be delivered so that you can become your true self, your real self.  Well, you may not have much going for you this morning but if you stake what you have on the Lord Jesus, you’ll discover that by grace what you’ve got is the faith that saves.  But then again, you don’t have to identify with Jairus or the woman, because the point is that the Lord dealt with Jairus in the way that was right for Jairus, and he dealt with the woman in the way that was right for the woman.  And what that means is that he will deal with each one of us in the way that is right for each one of us.  You absolutely do not need to be a ‘super conqueror’ to experience the Lord’s healing touch, to meet with God and to grow – in fact, the one obstacle to your meeting with God and experiencing his Spirit is if you approach him as if you were a ‘super conqueror’.  You just need to stake on him what you’ve got, however small and inadequate it might seem, and what you’ll discover, thank God, is that you have the faith that saves.

The bishop who ordained me had a favourite saying; you didn’t have to be around him for very long before you would hear him say “Don’t worry if you’re not up to it, because God is down to it.”  Isn’t that great?  So this morning, don’t worry if you’re not up to it, because God is down to it.  This morning whoever you are, whatever your needs, don’t worry if you don’t feel you have much going for you.  If you stake what you have on the Lord Jesus, you’ll discover what you’ve got, by grace, is the faith that saves.  If what you want this morning is to meet with God and grow, then don’t worry if you’re not up to it, because God is down to it.  Amen.