The Twenty Fourth Sunday after Trinity
November 15, 2015
“Faith: A Matter of Life and Death”
St. Matthew 9:18-26
While He spoke these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshiped Him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her and she will live.” So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples. And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment. For she said to herself, “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.” But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that hour. When Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, “Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him. But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went out into all that land. St. Matthew 9:18-26
The Gospel before us today paints a beautiful picture of genuine faith. St. Matthew shows us the faith of the woman who suffered from a flow of blood and the faith of a man whose daughter had just died. The woman didn’t have the courage to confront Jesus face to face. She was content to touch his clothes. He, on the other hand, came directly to Jesus, bowed down before him, and made a clear request, specifying how Jesus would do the healing.
The woman had been isolated from full participation in the life of the community for a dozen years. Her disease made her ritually unclean. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t dare ask Jesus to touch her. Instead, she touched the hem of his robe. The man was an important figure in the religious community. His name, we learn from parallel accounts, was Jairus. He was a ruler of the synagogue. She was timid. He was bold. She was an outsider. He was an insider. But the obvious differences between them become insignificant when you consider what they had in common. They shared the same faith.
The word faith is used to refer to mutually exclusive things. I cannot think of a word less understood by the religious mainstream than the word faith. Folks talk about people of faith with the faith part being the part that you choose for yourself, depending on your personal preferences, which just might change from day to day. It is as if faith emanates from us, is created by us, formed by us, established by us, and strengthened by us. If that’s the case, then there is no difference between true faith and false faith, between genuine worship and idolatry, between God and the devil. If faith is produced by us, by our exercising whatever religious powers we have within, then who’s to say that this person’s faith is any better than that person’s faith? Faith is faith.
Some years ago my wife and I went on a tour of Greece and Turkey to visit the cities that the Apostle Paul visited during his missionary journeys. One day we were admiring some statues of famous men and one of our group commented on the fact that there tended to be seams on the statues between the neck and the head. We learned that that was so that they didn’t have to make an entirely new statue when the leader fell from power. They’d just replace the head and keep the body.
That’s how people look at faith. Faith is in whatever. You can change the head and keep the body. But you can’t. The Christian faith is fundamentally different than all other religions. That’s because Jesus Christ is fundamentally different than all other religious leaders. Everyone else teaches a religion in which you help God save you. You have a problem. Do your best to overcome it. Religion will give you a boost to help you achieve your goals. You and your god – whoever he, she, or it may be – fix whatever it is that ails you by working together, as in the old Beatles song: “We Can Work it Out.” The theological term designating this religion is synergism, literally, working together. God does his part and we do our part and together we get the job done.
That’s not how it is with Jesus. That’s not how it is with the Christian faith in Jesus. Jesus is the Savior. You don’t help him do what he does. You don’t take responsibility and then let him help you toward your goal. You come to him helpless. You come as a beggar. You come with no confidence in yourself.
The woman suffered from a flow of blood that no doctor could cure. She suffered physical pain. She was religiously and socially ostracized. She knew that Jesus was full of mercy. She knew that Jesus had the power to heal her. Her faith wasn’t in some abstract doctrine of God’s merciful nature. Even the Muslims call their god benevolent and merciful, while they must remain in doubt about whether they are going to heaven or hell. What good is a merciful god whose mercy cannot be trusted? Faith in Jesus is faith in him who will not deny mercy to you. It is faith in the One who will not fail to validate your faith.
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has made you well,” literally, “your faith has saved you.” Faith saves. It doesn’t save you by what it does. It saves you by what it receives. This is critical to understand if we are to understand the Christian faith. It isn’t some sort of power that we exercise to overcome this problem or to gain victory over that obstacle. Christian faith, the faith that receives salvation from God, is purely receptive. It receives. It is done to. It doesn’t do.
Faith in faith isn’t faith. It’s self-confidence. The apostle Peter expressed his self-confidence when he said to Jesus, “Though the whole world denies you, I will not deny you.” Then he went out and promptly denied him. Faith in faith looks within to see evidence of itself and seeing faith trusts in that faith. Oh, what folly! What boastful, arrogant, ignorant folly! Christ alone is the object of the Christian’s faith!
The sinner needs a Savior and that is where faith is born. Faith does not look inward to find assurance and hope. Faith looks outside of itself to Jesus Christ alone.
Faith is in Jesus. It isn’t in itself. And faith is born in our need. Just before he died, Martin Luther said what faith was. He said, “We are all beggars. This is true.”
Look at Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. He was accustomed to being treated as an important man, a dignified man. What does this dignified man do? He worships Jesus. St. Mark reports that he fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him. He humbles himself. When he asks Jesus to come to his home to lay his hands on his little girl he is not commanding. He is begging. Faith – true faith – is born in humility.
True faith is always directed toward Jesus. The Father teaches us to listen to Jesus. The Holy Spirit, through the Holy Scriptures, guides us into the whole truth about Jesus. Faith is directed toward Jesus because the first thing we need from God is to be delivered from our sins and the consequences of our sins and it is Jesus who delivers us. As the neon sign above the city mission says: “Jesus saves.”
Faith is born in humility. It is the opposite of self-confidence. Faith doesn’t need God to affirm us. It needs salvation, not affirmation. What do I have that I want God to affirm? As the hymnist says:
Faith finds is true worth, its true dignity, its security and identify in Jesus who shed his blood for us.
And this means that faith clings to Jesus’ words. What he says is what faith believes. Jesus told the woman that her faith had saved her and it was at that very moment that she was healed. Jesus said that the little girl was not dead, but sleeping, and that made it so. For, she had died. She was dead. Her heart stopped beating and her breath was stilled. But when Jesus said she was not dead but sleeping his words brought her out of death to life.
This is a simple but powerful truth that we must impress upon our hearts and minds so that our faith will not become confused from within. True faith doesn’t go by what it sees or feels or wants. It goes solely by what Jesus says. Without a promise there can be no faith. There can be only delusion and superstition and vain speculations. We Christians must be on our guard against false versions of faith that replace humble trust with its opposite.
Faith is serious business. It’s a matter of life and death. Death comes without warning. All of those people in Paris were alive and well when Islamic terrorism erupted without warning and then they were dead. Fanatical murderers or a childhood sickness, dead is dead and when death strikes who can challenge him?
The girl was not sleeping. She was dead. The flute players and wailers put on quite a production, letting the grief hang out in vivid tones, typical of a Jewish funeral of Jesus’ day. The mourners honored death’s power with their display of grief. Then life entered the room, met death, and challenged his power. Those with their hearts set on death laughed at the Lord of life. He said the girl was sleeping. They knew she was dead. They knew a dead body when they saw one. Witnessing death, embracing death, they laughed at life. But life gets the last laugh. As we sing:
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) He doesn’t change. We do. We must reckon with our own fickleness. We are hot and cold. One day we are confident in God’s Word and we rejoice in the victory Jesus won over sin, death, and the devil. The next day God’s Word seems unreal and our hearts are filled with doubts and we’re afraid to die. Faith flickers like a candle in the wind, while Jesus, the object of faith, remains constant and true.
With the woman and the man who begged Jesus for his mercy, we look outside of our feelings to where they looked. As we read again in Hebrews,
The faith that endures and remains constant is focused on the crucifixion of Jesus. It was there, as Life defeated death, that every spiritual enemy who assaults our faith was defeated.
Rolf D. Preus