Faith and Courage
6 June 1999
This Sunday always feels rather awkward in the church's year, I find. We are at the beginning of the long haul of Sundays after Trinity, or after Pentecost, or whatever they are called nowadays. They were always Sundays after Trinity in my youth, then with the old lectionary they became Sundays after Pentecost, and now they seem to have gone back to being Sundays after Trinity again!
It seems rather a dull time of year; we started off with Advent, then through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost it is one thing after another, and then all of a sudden all there is to look forward to is faintly dull festivals like Church Anniversaries and, after the summer, Harvest Festival!
It is, of course, all part of the pattern of faith and worship throughout the church's year. We celebrate the major events in Jesus' life and the church's story for half the year, and then we spend the other half of the year looking at some of the teachings that Christianity brings us.
And today the readings are all about faith and
The first reading, of course, was all about Abraham. St Paul, writing to the Romans, is involved in one of his rather convoluted explanations of how we no longer have to obey the Jewish law in order to be righteous in God's sight. He commends Abraham's faith, shown, of course, before the Law was given, that led him to do all sorts of things - to leave his home and family and to travel to an unknown land, to believe that he would have a child, even though he, and more especially Sarah, were well past normal child-bearing age, and so on. "Abraham believed God," we are told, "and it was credited to him as righteousness". And Paul reminds us that if we believe in Jesus, that will be credited to us as righteousness, too. "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification."
"He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." It's quite a sentence, if you think about it! And this was written when Jesus' crucifixion was in living memory. Paul might be complicated, but he does have a knack of putting the deepest Scriptural truths into simple words. Justification, if you aren't familiar with it, is one of those Christian jargon words. It really means being made right with God - if we sin, we separate ourselves off from God, but when we are justified, God makes it all right again.
And Christ was put to death, Paul says, because of our sins, and raised to life for our justification. That is quite a truth!
3. The Gospel Healings
I'll probably come back to that in a minute, but I want us to look at our Gospel reading, since that shows three people with enormous amounts of faith in Jesus, even when he seemed just an ordinary person.
The first, of course, is Matthew. Matthew is a
collaborator. That was the main thing wrong with the
tax-collectors, they collaborated with the occupying power. And
that is something that people do not find easy to forgive. Many
tax-collectors lined their own pockets, too. I've a feeling they
were expected to make their own living from the taxes they
collected, but as long as they sent the requisite amount to Rome,
no questions were asked about how much else they'd picked up.
And, human nature being what it is, some of them picked up quite
a lot! Zacchaeus, that "very little man" who famously
met Jesus while climbing a sycamore tree so he could see over the
heads of the crowd, Zacchaeus seems to have been a rip-off
merchant, but we are not told that Matthew was. He may have been
more-or-less honest; I expect many of them were. But it was
difficult - the decision, first of all, to take a job with the
occupying power, and then to face the derision of those who
thought you were despicable for doing so - even if you gave it
up, nobody would trust you, nobody would employ you. It was a bit
of a vicious circle.
And then Jesus says to him "Come, follow me!" That must have been quite a step for Matthew to have taken. He may or may not have longed to get out of his old life, and to go with Jesus, but he was seriously brave. After all, one of Jesus' other disciples had been a resistance worker - Matthew might well have expected to feel a knife between his ribs one dark night....
But Jesus not only called him, he also met with Matthew's friends; I'm sure that when he was at that dinner and they said "Why does he mix with tax-collectors and sinners?" he was with Matthew's colleagues. And he points out that those who think themselves righteous don't need to be saved.
How very true that is! How often have your
friends and so on said, "Well, it's all very well for you,
but I don't need God!" They seem to think that if they don't
drink or gamble to excess, and don't sleep around, they're all
right. It's the ones who know they're in hell who look to God for
As, indeed, do our next two people. The first is Jairus, whose daughter is really, really ill. In fact, in this version of the story, the child has just died, but Jairus still reckons Jesus can do something about it, and goes so far as to interrupt Jesus at supper to beg him to do so. And so they set off.
And then, the woman with the haemorrhage. There are times, I think, when the Bible stories lose their value, either because we are so familiar with them, or because, as we are such a different culture, they lose half their meaning. We don't quite realise, I think, that while she was bleeding, literally nobody could touch her. Imagine, twelve long years, not only of being celibate, but also of nobody hugging her, nobody shaking her hand, nobody being willing to do her hair, or help her dress, nobody even wishing her the Peace. And we don't realise quite how much courage it must have taken for her to reach out and touch Jesus' cloak, no matter how quickly, how light a touch. If he wanted, he could have been very angry indeed with her.
But he wasn't. He knew someone had touched him, and he knew why. In Luke's take on this story, you may remember, he asks "Who touched me?" and makes the woman admit in front of everybody what she had done. But in Matthew's version, he just speaks to her quietly, and perhaps most of the crowd didn't even notice. And the words he speaks are the same: `Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.'
3. Faith and Courage
Now, of course, Jesus was going to be made unclean anyway, by touching the dead child. It's amazing how little notice he took of the things which were held to make you unclean - he never minded touching dead people (unlike the priest and the Levite in his story, who couldn't touch the man who had been mugged on the Jericho road in case he was dead, and they would have been unclean), and he never minded touching people whose illnesses made them unclean, like the woman there with the haemorrhages, or the lepers.
And, as we've seen, he never minded the other sort of uncleanness, either, the uncleanness of sin. He went to a meal with Matthew and his cohorts; he went to Zacchaeus' house for tea, he was willing to cadge a meal off anybody, as long as they would listen to him.
And so all these people found the faith to approach him. And we, too, need faith in the Risen Lord to approach him. It's more difficult for us, of course; we don't see him grinning at us like Jairus did, or the woman with the haemorrhage did or Matthew did. But God does call us through the Holy Spirit, and I'm sure that the Holy Spirit both shows us how attractive Jesus really is and gives us the courage to approach him.
We are told that Jesus died for our sins, and rose again for our justification. Which is, of course, terrific, and the heart of the Good News. But we still need to know how, if we are to approach Jesus, he will receive us. There are times when I get all scared, when I'm convinced that Jesus will tell me I'm a terrible person, or something.
And Matthew needed a tremendous amount of courage to get up and follow Jesus. Jairus needed a certain amount to tackle Jesus and say "Will you come?" And the woman with a haemorrhage needed a very great deal of courage, too, since Jesus could so easily have been furious with her.
Faith and courage seem to go hand in hand. So often we are told we lack faith, when probably what we lack is courage! But remember what Paul wrote to Timothy: "For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline."
"For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline."
So it is God the Holy Spirit who gives us courage, just as she gives us faith to approach God. And we know that when we do find the courage and faith to come to Jesus, as Matthew did, as Jairus did, as the woman with the haemorrhage did, Jesus will not reject us.
And we also know that when we believe what God says, when we believe to the point of doing something about it, just as it was to Abraham, so God will reckon it to us as righteousness.
So what are we waiting for? Let us approach the throne of God with boldness, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, and ask Jesus to heal us and meet us at the place of our deepest need, just as he met with Matthew, with Jairus and with the woman with the haemorrhage. We'll express that by singing hymn no 526: "It passeth knowledge, that dear love of thine."
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