An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Revulsion and Contagious Love

A sermon on Mark 5:21-43 by Nathan Nettleton

A few days ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury made some comments about how too much Christian thinking about homosexuality is shaped by strong feelings of revulsion. He was quoted as saying, “What’s frustrating is that we still have Christian people whose feelings about it are so strong, and sometimes so embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted, that that just sends out a message of unwelcome, of lack of understanding, of lack of patience.”

Today’s gospel reading had nothing to do with homosexuality, but similar reactions of disgust and revulsion are a key aspect of the story, and we need to recognise them to make much sense of the story. Actually it was two stories. This was another example of this story telling technique that Mark uses a lot in his gospel where he begins one story, breaks from it to tell another, and then returns to the first one so that the two stories shed light on each other. In this case, the first story is about the sick daughter of Jairus, a prominent local religious leader. Jairus comes to Jesus and asks for his help, and Jesus sets off with him to see the daughter. Then the story is interrupted. A desperate woman reaches out to touch Jesus in the crowd, hoping to be healed simply by touching him, and she is. But Jesus stops, and speaks with her for long enough that when the first story resumes, the girl has died. Jesus goes to her anyway, and taking her by the hand, he raises her back to life. As well as this technique of telling one story framed by the other, there are other things that alert us that these stories are meant to be read as linked. There is the number twelve. Mark emphasises that the girl was twelve years old, and that the woman had been suffering from a bleeding disorder for twelve years. There is the word “daughter”. Jairus seeks help for his beloved daughter, and when Jesus speaks to the healed woman, he addresses her as “Daughter”.

There is a lot going on in this story and many different angles that could profitably be preached from it, but I’m going to try to limit myself to just one; the one I’ve alluded to in the comments from the Archbishop. The world where these stories took place was one that had very strong religious rules about purity and impurity. It wasn’t too hard to know whether you were among the officially “clean” or among the “unclean”, the “impure”, the “untouchables”. The rules were clear and well known, and as is usually the case with these kind of things, the rules become deeply ingrained in the way we think and so we take them for granted and imagine them to be simply natural and universal and we can barely even imagine any other way of viewing things. I remember hearing a Jewish Rabbi explain once that he didn’t think of not eating pork as a sacrifice. In the worldview he had been raised with, pigs simply weren’t food, and so the thought of eating pig seemed to him just like the thought of eating cats or dogs seems to most people in our society. They are simply not food, and the thought of eating them seems revolting. Wherever these rules came from, they get written into our the structure of our feelings, and so into the group-think of our culture.

Now there are two big ticket items of “uncleanness” in these stories, and they are things that still cause a fairly high degree of revulsion for many people today: menstrual blood, and dead bodies. In ancient Jewish society, a woman was not allowed to have any social contact with other people when she was having her period. This was dictated by both people’s feelings of revulsion and by religious law. We no longer lock women away when they bleed, but many people are still pretty squeamish about any contact with the blood. More so than blood from a cut or a bleeding nose. But this story is set at a time when both feelings and law dictated that a woman who was bleeding avoid all contact with others, and this woman has been bleeding continuously for twelve years. She is literally an untouchable, because anyone who touches her will also be officially unclean and will also have to be quarantined for a week. So no wonder she sneaks through the crowd and tries to touch Jesus without being noticed. If she had been caught deliberately touching people and making unclean, she would have been at risk of being stoned to death. So you can imagine her fear when Jesus starts trying to identify who has touched him

Another thing that could get you declared unclean and sent to quarantine for a week was touching a dead body. We may have got over thinking of it in terms of rendering one ritually impure, but an awful lot of people still have the same squeamish fear of dead bodies that probably gave rise to these rules in the first place. For many people it is now worse that it once was, because we have so thoroughly professionalised and sanitised the funeral industry that we usually no longer even have close contact with the bodies when our own family members die.

Both death and illness, and especially illnesses that are in any way linked with sexuality have often been tied up in the popular imagination with sin and moral impurity. Throughout the centuries, people have seen illness and death as divine punishments for sin. It is surprising how common this still is. And I’m not just thinking of the crass and opportunistic preachers who wanted to define AIDS as God’s punishment on sexual immorality. Many many people, in moments of crisis and grief when they discover they have a serious illness or when a loved one dies respond by asking “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” At some primal gut level, we assume that these things should only happen to us if we deserve them, and that therefore these things are, or are supposed to be, indicators of sin.

So you can see how the religious rules against contact come about. There is firstly a fear of physical contagion. We naturally fear catching the illness from the sick or recently dead person. In the modern world that is often more nuanced now. We can know which illnesses are contagious and which are not, and for most of us that will enable us to get over our fear of the sick person and engage with them if we know we are safe. But the fear of contagion has always gone further than just the fear of bacteria and viruses. As the ancient image of being rendered unclean or impure suggests, what we also fear is that moral impurity is contagious; that we will be corrupted by contact with those who are under God’s punishment. And then that fear can be hidden under a cloak of “righteousness” by regarding our shunning of the people as our cooperation with God’s purposes in punishing sinners and seeking to bring about their repentance and reform.

So a codified religious system of pure and impure, clean and unclean, may no longer exist in the way it once did, but the impulses that drove it still drive much of what goes on in our churches and communities today. Fear of contact with those who are sick still exists, especially in the case of mental illnesses which so often have disturbing behavioural consequences. And fear of those who may be physically healthy but are seen as morally corrupted or even just doctrinally heretical continues to mark much of our engagement with both people and issues. And so, as the Archbishop implied, people picture in their minds what homosexual lovemaking might involve and have a huge gut-churning ‘yuk’ reaction, and make the assumption that that ‘yuk’ reaction is a reliable moral compass, but it isn’t. As children, most of us had the same ‘yuk’ reaction to the thought of heterosexual lovemaking, and I for one still have that reaction to the thought of eating dog meat, but it doesn’t mean that it is a moral sin. But when someone’s physical appearance or mental state or personal hygiene or social behaviour or sexual practices cause us a gut-churning ‘yuk’ reaction, it is easy to shy away from them and fear how we might be affected by them and imagine them cursed by God.

And so Bible verses like “be ye separate” and “have nothing to do with unrighteousness” and “flee immorality” become the religious justifications for maintaining a strict insiders and outsiders policy that is, in effect, a continuation of the old purity laws. But there is nothing of Jesus in the continuation of such a code.

“Who touched me?” said Jesus. He has felt the healing power that has flowed through him to someone nearby. “Who touched me? Step forward, whoever you are?” And so, shaking with fear, the woman steps out of the crowd, falls to her knees, confesses her terrible crime, and awaits her punishment. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Jesus has not just healed her bleeding disorder here. He has openly disregarded the purity laws. He has accepted the touch of this untouchable without a care in the world. He has thus proclaimed that God is not the author or supporter of such codes. And he has declared this supposed untouchable to be a beloved daughter of God. From there he walks into the bedroom of Jairus’ beloved daughter, now rendered untouchable by death, and what does he do? Yep, he takes her by the hand. He takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up!”

There are, of course, all sorts of things I could be preaching here about Jesus’s power over death, but I want to stay with his freedom over impurity and over fear of contagion, although the two are related. You see the basic fear that drives us apart is this fear that sin or sickness or immorality or heresy or something will be too powerful for us and will infect us and corrupt us and destroy us. But Jesus shows no such fear. Why? Because Jesus believes that the threat is actually the other way around to what we so often fearfully imagine it to be. Jesus believes that righteousness and holiness and love and mercy and truth are actually far more virulent, far more contagious, far more infectious than their opposites. Jesus doesn’t flee the broken because he knows that his wholeness is more likely to heal their brokenness than their brokenness is to corrupt his wholeness. Jesus doesn’t flee the company of the immoral, because he knows that his goodness is much more likely to purify their morality than the opposite. Jesus doesn’t refuse conversation with the heretics, because he knows that his truth is far more attractive and contagious than their errors. And so he reveals that our fear and our “righteous” separatism are not only not of God, but that they are actually a huge failure of faith in the truth and power of the Spirit.

So Jesus calls the woman out of the crowd. Her bleeding has already stopped. She thinks she has got all she was looking for. But Jesus wants more. Jesus knows that the legacy of 12 years of living in the shadows, shunned by all will not be so easily cast off. And he knows that if the system goes unchallenged it will go on making more outcasts and scapegoats. So calls her out of the crowd in defiance of the system of victim making which is so often in the hands of the crowd, for it is crowds that so easily become lynch mobs that unite around the cry to punish and expel and purge the community of this threat to its health. “Crucify him!” And what a massive step of faith it was for that woman to step forward and identify herself. She put her life totally in Jesus’ hands at that moment. But Jesus was calling her, and the crowd, and us to step out of one world and into another. To step out of a world that compulsively divides everything into right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, insiders and outsiders, a world of fear and hostility and rules and punishments and shunning, and into a new world where fear is taken away by the contagious power of love and mercy and truth and freedom.

When we come to this table shortly, you will be hearing that same invitation, though the words will vary a little. But that’s the guts of it. Will you step out of the crowd and entrust yourself to Jesus? Will you step out of the world of fear and into the world of freedom? Will you step forward and drink of the new wine of contagious grace and infectious truth and transmittable holiness? Will you step forward and let Jesus take you by the hand, and lift you up with sinners and saints, pure and impure, clean and unclean, and make you all one in his life. I pray that you will take that step. Pray for me, that I might take it with you.


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