Sermon: “Do Not Fear, Only Believe”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8.7-15; Mark 5.21-43
Let’s briefly recap some of our journey through the gospel of Mark. Two weeks ago we considered two of Jesus’ parables concerning the reign of God: the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Last week we noted how Jesus and the disciples were crossing the sea of Galilee when a violent windstorm arose, how Jesus “woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’”, how the wind ceased and there was a dead calm, how Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”, and how the disciples were astounded, and asked, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4.40-41; NRSV)
We further noted that Jesus exorcised an unclean spirit in the first chapter of Mark with the words, “Be silent, and come out of him!”, thereby causing many to ask, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1.21-27, NRSV). Thus, in the first four chapters, Mark has established Jesus’ authority over both the spiritual and the physical realms.
Today’s gospel presents us with an intercalation, the telling of a story within a story. The account opens with Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, falling at Jesus’ feet and begging him to come lay his hands on his daughter that she might live. While enroute, the crowd is pressing in upon Jesus; a woman who has suffered hemorrhages for twelve years and has spent all that she has seeking a cure, believes if she can but touch his garments, she will be made well. She pushes through the crowd, reaches out and touches Jesus’ garment; she is healed immediately. Jesus, sensing power has gone out from him, asks who touched him. Given the way the crowd was pressing in upon Jesus, the disciples expressed surprise. Jesus looked around. The woman fearfully fell before him and confessed. Note Jesus’ loving words, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5.34; NRSV).
Before returning to Jairus’ story, lets note a few things about the woman suffering from hemorrhages. First, according to the purity laws set forth in Leviticus, the woman was adjudged unclean. The law stipulates, “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean” (Leviticus 15.25; NRSV).
Anything or anyone touched during her time of uncleanliness was also considered unclean and was subject to a seven-day period of separation and a sacrificial offering. Thus, numerous people in the crowd, and Jesus himself, were rendered unclean. Jesus did not dwell on any of this. By addressing her as “daughter,” Jesus granted her acceptance and social status. The word Mark uses for “healed” also implies salvation. Jesus fully extended God’s loving grace and salvation to this poor woman.
Meanwhile, people from Jairus’ house said, “your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus, having overheard what was said, told Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe” (mark 5.35-36; NRSV). Once the wind had ceased and the sea was calm, as you may recall, Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” In the story of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” The message is essentially the same, but Jairus is still in the middle of the storm.
Jesus then took Peter, James, and John with him. Upon arriving at Jairus’ home, Jesus addressed, the people who were weeping and wailing loudly (undoubtedly a group of professional mourners: “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” They laughed at him. Jesus then put everyone outside except for Jairus, his wife, and Peter, James, and John. Jesus took the child by the hand and said, “Talitha cum” (“little girl, get up!”) She got up and began to walk. People were amazed. Jesus ordered that no one should know what had happened then told them to give her something to eat.
In this intercalation, the story of the woman with a hemorrhage reveals the power of faith, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” The story also reveals Jesus’ healing power and compassion, for the woman was healed and she had her communal rights restored. At long last, she could be at peace – “go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
The story of Jairus’ daughter reveals Jesus’ power over death. In a sense, this story prefigures Jesus’ own death and resurrection, for death could not hold him captive. This may be the reason for Jesus’ stressing that no one should know what had happened.
Beyond these exegetical points, it strikes me that Jesus is addressing our deepest fears. If we listen closely, if we attend to these stories, we may hear Jesus asking us, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And we might hear Jesus comforting us, “Do not fear, only believe.” Amidst the storm, the disciples feared for their lives. Jairus feared the death of his daughter. The disciples lived to see another day; they lived to carry the message of God’s love to the far corners of the earth. The woman with the hemorrhage feared continued social isolation, poverty, and distress. Jesus told her to go in peace – think of what that must have meant to her. The story of Jairus’ daughter does not tell us what ultimately became of her. It is reasonable to expect that Jairus went on to see her live a normal life, to get married, and raise a family. In each instance, Jesus addressed their deepest fears.
What are your deepest fears? Are they related to your emotional or physical health, your reputation, your financial condition, the impending death of a loved one, violence, the death of our democratic principles? Fear is debilitating. It inhibits a life of joy. It limits the kingdom of God in our own lives and in the lives of others.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Bishop Tarrant in which I expressed my belief that the lack of love may be the greatest problem we face. He argued for fear. As I have continued to wrestle with this question, I have come to think we are both right, for we are looking at different aspects of the same thing. To get at this, permit me to raise a question: What is the relationship among fear, faith, and love? Jesus intimated this connection when he asked, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
When we are filled with fear, we often cry out to God – and yes, as noted last week, we sometimes think God is sleeping in the stern of the boat! But note the words of the psalmist: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 30.1-2; BCP). In the prayers of the people, we abbreviate this supplication – “Lord, hear our prayer.” The psalmist further notes how his soul waits for the Lord and concludes with this testimony of faith: “With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins” (Psalm 30.7; BCP). Faith is critical.
But what is it about the nature and character of God which causes God to address our fears by responding to our supplications? In 1 John, we read: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected [made complete] among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (Vss. 16-18; NRSV). Admittedly, this passage more directly applies to fear of punishment, but might it also apply to all our fears? If we genuinely love God, if we honestly believe and place our faith, our trust, in God, isn’t much or perhaps all, of our fear dispelled?
If we were to practice what Paul commends to the Church of Corinth, many of our own fears and other’s fears would be relieved. Paul writes that he is not commanding the members but is rather “testing the genuineness of your [their] love against the earnestness of others” (2 Corinthians 8.8; NRSV). In this letter, we see that Paul has been raising money for the Church in Jerusalem. For some reason, the fundraising was interrupted, so Paul now exhorts them to finish the job so “their eagerness may be matched by completing it according to their means” (Vs. 11; NRSV). Then Paul notes something important: “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (Vss. 12-14; NRSV).
Yes, our fears limit the kingdom of God. They would rob us of faith and love – and let us not forget hope!
We are called to respond to God’s love demonstrated for us in Christ Jesus through faith and to practice that love in such a manner that our fears, and the fears of others, may be relieved! And that, my friends, is easier said than done. It is a life-time task. I invite you to contemplate the connections which exist among fear, faith, and love.