Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
June 16, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer.
When I began to write this sermon, I quickly ran into a problem. You see, I had this great idea. Well, at least I thought it was great. Youíre free to disagree, of course. Anyway, the Gospel passage we read this morning, as I hope to explain shortly, is all about purity. With that in mind, I remembered the old hymn Rock of Ages. When my brother and I were kids, my family would frequently sing songs out of an old song book we had while my father played the guitar. Some of those songs were hymns, and my brotherís favorite hymn was Rock of Ages. The way I learned the first stanza so many years ago, it went:
Rock of Ages, cleft for meI thought, what a great tie in to a sermon about purity. But then I looked up Rock of Ages in both the Pilgrim Hymnal (which we call the red hymnal) and the New Century Hymnal (our black hymnal). In both, the last line was changes to "save me from its guilt and power." I was perplexed. Was I remembering the hymn wrong? So I went to the Internet, that font of all wisdom, and looked up Rock of Ages. There, at a site devoted to this hymn (there really is one) my memory was confirmed. The last line really is "save from wrath and make me pure." I donít why our Congregational and UCC hymnals changed it. Anyway, for today, the last line of the first verse of that hymn, which weíll sing after this sermon, is "save from wrath and make me pure."
Let me hide myself in thee.
Let the water and the blood,
From thy side a healing flood,
Be for sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
And the reason I want to insist on that version of that line is, in fact, that the great good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is exactly the opposite. At least itís exactly the opposite if we understand that last line to mean that we have to be pure before we are saved. We donít have to be pure. Purity is not what itís all about. Grace is what itís all about. Faith is what itís all about, not purity. And that is the point of the Gospel lesson this morning.
Now, on its face, that story looks like two fairly simple miracle stories. A leader of the synagogue asks Jesus to raise his daughter from the dead. There are several stories in the Gospels about Jesus bringing back people who have died. This is one of them. There is a lot that could be said about these stories, but today I just want to accept this one at face value. A father, who was a leader of the synagogue, asked Jesus to raise his daughter, and he did so. But something else happens in between the request and the act. As Jesus was on his way to the home where the dead girl lay, a woman approached him. We are told she had suffered from "hemorrhages" for twelve years. The exact nature of her illness is not entirely clear to me. The reference to her bleeding is almost certainly a reference to the menstrual flow of blood which is a natural biological function of female humanity. It is hard to see how a women could have a menstrual flow for twelve years, but we need not worry about that detail. Again, we will accept the story at face value here.
As just another of the many miracle stories about Jesus, this passage is making the point that Jesus is the Messiah, as all of the miracle stories do. But thereís a lot more here than meets the eye. What we are not told in the text, but what we need to know if we are fully to understand this story, is that early first century Judaism was primarily a purity system. The Mosaic law was interpreted in such a way that the faith came to be about a personís duty to protect his (it was always his) ritual, legal purity. All sorts of things could make a person impure. Touching a dead body did. Thatís why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side in the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. More importantly for our purposes this morning is the fact that in the purity system of first century Judaism, woman were ritually unclean, impure, during their menstrual period. Indeed, all human blood was considered unclean. Anyone touched by a menstrual woman, or by any blood, became unclean and had to undergo a purification ritual. The story is set in a synagogue, a place where this purity code supposedly was preached and enforced. According to the religious and cultural norms of the time, Jesus should have been outraged that a bleeding woman touched him. That touch should have made him impure. He should have gone straight to the priests for purification. He should not have had any healing power until he had done so. Yet, we are told, he was not outraged, and he was not deprived of any power. Rather, he told the woman that her faith had healed her, and he went right ahead and raised the little girl.
So, you see, this little story sets the entire religious world of early first century Judaism on its head. The story is telling us that true religion is not about purity. The womanís problem is not that she is impure, it is that she is ill. Jesusí shows that the proper religious response to her is not to shun her, isolate her, send her away, as any good Pharisee would have done. It is to have compassion on her. Beyond that, the story says that what is important about the woman is not that she is ill, but that she has faith. It is not some purification rite, not stricter compliance with the law, that heals her, that is, that makes her whole. Rather it is her faith. So you see, this little story was, in its time, profoundly revolutionary. It is in ours too, as Iíll try to explain toward the end of this sermon.
One striking thing about the two Scripture passages we read this morning his that they make the same point. Now, it came as something of a new insight to me that Matthew and Paul were making the same point. As we will see later this summer in our Bible study series, Matthew is, among other thing, a Gospel of good works. It is full of passages in which people are cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth because of their failure to do the good works required by the faith. Paul, on the other hand, and particularly Paulís Letter to the Romans, is the source of our Reformed emphasis on salvation by grace through faith and not by works. (It is only a bit of an oversimplification to say that the Reformation happened because Martin Luther one day reread Romans.) We see Paulís emphasis on grace and not the works of the law in very beginning of the Romans passage we just heard: "For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith." Just like the story from Matthew, Paul here makes the point that it isnít about the law, itís about faith.
Itís about faith, and that is great good news indeed. We donít have to be pure. It doesnít matter if we arenít. We donít have to earn Godís love. Are you imperfect in mind or body, and arenít we all? It doesnít matter. God doesnít care. God accepts us just as we are. If that werenít true, I wouldnít be standing up here this morning because, among other things, the imperfections in my skin and my bad eyesight would disqualify me from priestly office under the old Jewish purity system. Have you sinned, and havenít we all? Itís OK. Our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord will make us whole. We are freed in Christ Jesus to come to God just as we are, with our bleeding bodies and hemorrhaging souls, with our hurts, our guilt, our sorrow. God will not send us away. Jesus will not say: You are impure. Go and purify yourself before you approach me. No. Jesus says come. Come to me just as you are. Put your faith in me, and I will make you whole. The bleeding can stop. The pain can end. We can let go of all the guilt, all the regret, all the sorrow, all the fear, all the emptiness. We can release them into the waiting arms of Jesus and find relief. Isnít that just about the best news you ever heard?
Now, in our society today, people who are well meaning Christians are forever trying to turn that great good news into another kind of purity system. Latter day Pharisees try continually to erect a faith test for entry into Godís grace. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior? Itís a legitimate question, but not if it becomes a new kind of purity law that marks some as in Godís grace and others as out. Do you oppose abortion? Opposition to abortion is a legitimate position, but not if it becomes a litmus test marking some as Christian and others as not. Because, you see, the whole thrust of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are set free from these kinds of laws, from these kinds of tests of faith and purity. St. Augustine summed it up like this way back in the fifth century: "Love God, and do as you please." Christianity is most emphatically not a new set of laws. It is freedom from the law, freedom to love God with all of our hearts, minds, and souls, freedom to approach God in faith just as we are and know that we will find acceptance, love, forgiveness, and grace, just as we are. We donít have to pass a test first, and most especially not a purity test. And neither does anyone else. And, my friends, that message is just as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus first preached it two thousand years ago.
So, does Rock of Ages get it all wrong when it prays that Christís blood will not only save us from wrath, that is, reconcile us with God, as it surely does, but also make us pure? Well, no, it doesnít get it wrong. You see, although we donít have to be pure to merit Godís grace, which is given to us in Christ as Godís free gift, that doesnít mean that there is no appropriate response to that gift. When someone gives you a gift, you say thank you. We say thank you to God here every Sunday by our worship. But when someone gives you a very special gift, donít you want to do more than say thank you? When you were a little child, and your parents did something really nice for you, didnít that make you want to please them, to be a better person for them, to live more the way they wanted? Maybe your resolve to do that didnít last very long. Mine usually didnít. But didnít you have that feeling? God, our cosmic parent, has given us the greatest gift of all--reconciliation with the Lord of the Universe through Jesus Christ our savior. We should want to live lives that please God, lives devoted to what Jesus at Matthew 23:23 calls "the weightier matters of the law--justice and mercy and faith.". If thatís what pure means, then by all means let Christís blood make us pure. But let us never forget that the purity we seek is a response to the limitless love of God and not a condition of that love. That love comes first and without condition for us and for everyone. Thanks be to God!
And remember now. As we sing Rock of Ages the last line of the first verse is what? "Save from wrath and make me pure."