I have had several classes in this room and I am always struck by the quote on the wall by Elton Trueblood: "Jesus Christ can be accepted; He can be rejected; He cannot reasonably be ignored." Like most people, I grew up knowing of Jesus, I’d heard of him. But I was formally introduced to him over eight years ago. Since then, Jesus and I have had a tumultuous relationship. Whatever my struggles with him have been, however, I haven’t been able to ignore him. Elton Trueblood is right.
I must admit that when I realized our class readings had transitioned into the New Testament this week, I was a bit disappointed. There is something about the New Testament that keeps me at arms length. Of course, the character of Jesus is probably the biggest reason. And I suppose the fact that I was originally trained to read the New Testament by fundamentalist Christians doesn’t help. But there’s just something different about the stories, they don’t grab me and suck me in in the same way the stories in the Hebrew Bible do.
But, I’m probably being unfair. Maybe I’m trying too hard to ignore Jesus, to shove him aside, to devalue the stories that surround him. Because, as I read the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark this weekend, I was reminded of two stories. Two stories I have always loved. The story of the leper in chapter one and the story of the hemorrhaging woman in chapter five. These stories don’t allow me to ignore Jesus. In fact, they force me to look deeply at him. And more importantly, they challenge me to a better vision of and relationship with the world I inhabit.
Let me read these two stories to you:
- A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)
- Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (5:25-34)
Both of these people had been suffering for a long time. Because of their ailments, leprosy and bleeding, they were considered unclean and were not allowed to participate in community life. For years, they had been forced into painful isolation, but the gift of touch healed them.
A few years ago, I worked among the people often considered unclean today, the people shoved into the alleys and forced out of sight. The mentally ill and homeless. For two years, I worked among women in Spokane, WA and for the only time in my life, I was on a first name basis with a lot of the people begging for money on the street corners and talking to themselves as they wandered aimlessly through downtown. The people often considered too dirty or frightening or weird to pay attention to. Inside the center where I worked, however, these women were acknowledged and known by name. They were allowed their full humanity and freed from their isolation. The simple gestures of reaching, of looking, of listening, of touching, these gestures, just as for the leprous man and the bleeding woman, worked miracles. For two years I witnessed countless miracles in the lives of these women, all brought about through relationship.
I don’t know how many times I have read the story of the leprous man in chapter one, too many to count. But the power of this story, the power of Jesus’ first response, that of reaching and touching, has never weakened for me. I struggle with Jesus, I struggle with much about Christian theology, but I do not struggle with the message of this story. This man, most likely yelling “unclean, unclean” as he approached Jesus, was touched, probably for the first time in years. I can’t imagine the isolation that would come with permanent separation from human contact. It is clear that Jesus understood it, though, because his first response to this man was touch.
The story of the bleeding woman is similar, but not identical. She tried to stay hidden, she didn’t ask for Jesus’ attention, she attempted to gain the healing touch without forcing him to notice her. But it didn’t work. The healing comes from the attention, in the act of being noticed and included as a full member of society. Jesus stopped and wouldn’t continue any further until she was given this attention. He wanted to look at her, to hear her story and to voice his offer of peace to her. He didn’t want her to remain on the outside of society any longer.
These gracious acts of attention, inclusion and touch do not require divinity. So while I continue to struggle with theologies around Jesus’ divinity, I’m not struggling with his humanity. A humanity that I share, that I see in these two stories and that I saw at the center in Spokane. These stories challenge me to fully embrace my humanity and the humanity of everyone around me. They challenge me to look deeply into my life and figure out who I have stuck in the “unclean” category. I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted this task—it’s a difficult one. But as these New Testament stories tell us and as I witnessed in the lives of the women in Spokane, this work and the actions that can follow it, could prove to be miraculous.