Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The spirit that enables one person to overleap the boundary of the body in knowledge and love and to incorporate the other in the self is matched by the same spirit in the other.”
Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel
“He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’” Mark 5:34
After several days of renewed public debate about health care, we hear this weekend the familiar healing stories from Mark chapter 5. By Sunday we will know the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding challenges to the Affordable Care Act. So politically charged is this discussion, so designed is it to distort, divide, undermine, and confuse, it’s easy to forget that the issue, at its core, is a simple one: how ought a humane society tend to its suffering ones and aim for the well-being of all?
We will also hear this passage on a day when many will be anticipating the Fourth of July, and perhaps expecting their Sunday worship to kickstart the holiday’s celebration. In hearing the text from Mark, such worshipers might well wonder: What does Jesus’ encounters with a desperate, suffering woman and a young girl believed to be dead have to do with America’s love of freedom and fireworks?
Not much, it turns out. And so the preacher intent on proclaiming the gospel on such a day will find little here to prop up views (pro or con) on Obamacare, nor anything at all to underwrite the American “values” of liberty and independence. What might be gleaned, however, is fresh insight into what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make possible for our attempts to know him and one another, to love him and one another, to find healing and shalom in the relationships of our lives.
In his book, Living Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson describes learning the living Jesus as a process not unlike that of learning another person. To learn another is to participate in a meeting and exchange of spirit–that dimension of human existence which both includes and transcends bodiliness. That is, we know and are known, we love and are loved when spirit meets spirit, when we are incorporated (again, the language of the body–corpus–still matters here) into another in life-giving, soul-satisfying ways.
This learning of another person, says Johnson, requires certain moral as well as intellectual capacities. The first is trust: “a fundamental openness to the reality of the other.” Without it,
the other person–the one learned–is reduced to object only. As a result, both the spirit of the learner and the spirit of the one learned are occluded.
Attentiveness is also required: a “leaning toward” the other; alertness, yes, but also a posture of receptivity which assumes that “the other is always capable of change and surprise.”
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In Jesus’ encounter with the woman with the flow of blood–this unnamed woman who was desperate, spent, alone, and undone by an unknown illness–we glimpse something of this kind of mutual learning by which one knows and is known, loves and is loved.
The body matters here, of course, because an infirm body is in need of healing, and the woman seems to know (she trusts, attends to) the truth that touching Jesus’ own body–or at least the garments that cover it–is essential to the health and wholeness she seeks. Yet what is effected here, what is efficacious in the encounter is not merely a physical cure but a meeting and exchange of spirit, an entering into the mystery by which mutual indwelling of spirit with spirit is possible.
This woman trusts Jesus and in so doing enlivens his own spirit: “Who touched my clothes? . . . He looked all around to see who had done it” (vv. 30, 32). Jesus himself is undone, so surprised is he by this meeting of her spirit with his. As this woman “leans toward” Jesus in this impossible setting of crowds and noise and overprotective disciples, she receives what he gives and he, likewise, is transformed. Each knows and is known, loves and is loved. She is healed and he is changed.
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A wise friend, who uses Johnson’s book in a course on Christian spirituality, recently said to me that the whole Christian life–no, all of human life that is worth living–hinges on this mystery of spirit that makes something like mutual indwelling possible for human beings. If this is not possible, my friend said, if we don’t glimpse the glory and the mystery at the center of this, then all talk of Christian spirituality is silliness. This is what makes any Christian spirituality worthy of the name possible.
I agree with my friend. And I find that in contemplating this familiar gospel story in this particular week we are offered new ways to imagine our own encounters with others: how it is we learn another–come to know and love him or her, as spirit meets spirit in life-giving, soul-satisfying ways.
And in such meetings we glimpse and share in the reality of knowing and being known by, loving and being loved by the resurrected Jesus. His spirit meets our spirit. In word and sacrament we are met, and we, too–like the woman with the flow of blood–can be healed.