A Sermon for Proper 8 | Mark 5:21-43
Introduction: What is it like to be a bat?
There’s a famous essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel entitled, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” Now, I realize it’s probably not the best time in human history to talk about bats, but, here we go anyway.
From their pinched creepy faces to their webbed-hand wings, bats are weird creatures. Perhaps most strange is the way they sense the world around them—through echolocation. You know the expression “blind as a bat” because bats have eyes less for function and more to complete that terror-inducing, soul-shriveling look. Instead, to get around, they screech out their sophisticated and creepy bat-noises, and then they have just unbelievably fine-tuned ears to catch and interpret the echoes such that they know precisely where they are, what their environment is like, and how big the nearest prey or predator is.
And Nagel talks about bats in this essay as a way of exploring the elusive nature of conscious experience. He’s asking the question: Can we know what it is like to be any conscious subject other than ourselves? And he uses bats because their mode of being in the world—while sophisticated, is so utterly unlike our own. And he’s genuinely asking, can we have any idea what it’s like to be a bat?
And his answer is: No.
We love to explain things we don’t understand in terms of things that we sort of do understand. So when it comes to something as mysterious as consciousness, we humans will grasp onto anything familiar to try to explain it.
We’re also very good at seeing ourselves in other things—we anthropomorphize, to use the high school English class word. We attribute human qualities to non-human things.
So when it comes to bats, we humans can project, we can analogize, we can close our eyes and let out an “eeeee” and see how it sounds in the room, and think, ‘Yeah, I more or less know what it’s like to be a bat.” Or perhaps the more scientific among us can devise ingenious experiments and instruments to measure the pitch and quantify the decibels and pinpoint the mechanisms of echolocation, and then can think, “Yeah, I more or less know what it’s like to be a bat,” but even then, we only know a few things about bats. Our best objective observations lack entirely the first bit of subjective experience of being and always having been a bat. Whatever we imagine it’s like to be a bat is our human projection of human experience onto what we as humans can observe about bats. But it’s not actually what it’s like for a bat to be a bat. So we don’t actually know what it’s like to be a bat.
Where am I going with all this? Well this week, as I meditated on our gospel passage, a question persistently pushed itself to the front of my mind: “What is it like to be a Jesus?”
What is it like to be a Jesus?
That probably sounds like a silly question, even just grammatically. “What is it like to be a Jesus?” That indefinite article just sounds wrong. “A Jesus?” It might even sound a little blasphemous. Jesus refers to one person, thank you very much. But I think having the “a” there can be helpful, at least for a moment, because it forces us to consider that when we’re talking about Jesus, we’re talking about a truly unique person, a unique being.
It’s worth pausing from time to time and being overwhelmed at the brain-breaking puzzle of what a Jesus is. To ask, “What is a Jesus?” is another way of asking the question we heard out of the nearly-shipwrecked disciples’ mouths last week: “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”
And strong, true statements about what Jesus is and who Jesus is are possible because God has revealed himself in Christ—he has, in his mercy, stooped down and made himself comprehensible to us. The Gospels themselves are eyewitness accounts from the disciples, testifying to the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Lord and God. So we are, brothers and sisters, on firm ground in knowing who Jesus is.
But again, we’re faced with the bat question—we can affirm things about Jesus, absolutely. We can confess the creeds with surety of faith. But do we know anything about what it’s like to be Jesus? Do we have any idea what his experience was and is? Scripture tells us that Jesus knows our human experience as his own—he knows what it’s like to be a human—frail, tempted, tested, broken, joyful, despondent, hopeful, desperate.
But can we take a similar step: can we know something of what it’s like to be Jesus? Can we know something about the internal experience, the way of being, the way of seeing, the way of interacting with others, that Jesus introduced to this world? Can we know the heart of our Savior? Can we know the mind of our Lord?
Unlike Nagel and his bats, I think we can know what it’s like to be a Jesus, we can know, by God’s gracious revelation, something of how Jesus perceived and felt and acted, and that that knowledge reveals to us more of the glory of the Jesus who is the image of the invisible God.
Let me try to show you what I mean, in classic three-point fashion.
Jesus and Time
So our question is: What is it like to be Jesus? First, it is to inhabit time in a unique way. In this story packed with urgency and longsuffering, Jesus is unhurried, he is patient. His sense of urgency is tuned to a different frequency than every other person in the crowd and in the story. Time orders itself around Jesus, Jesus does not need to order himself to time.
Our gospel reading opens with Jesus and his disciples re-crossing the Sea of Galilee after the remarkable incident with the Gadarenes, who respond to his miraculous exorcism of the demoniac with rejection, in the words of a Richard Wilbur poem: “If You cannot cure us without destroying our swine, We had rather You shoved off.” So he does. And there, on the other side of the sea, is—you guessed it—another crowd ready to press him. Each person there likely has his or her own agenda—idle curiosity about the pig-killer, earnest desire for blessing, desperate need for healing. But in this great crowd, there are already two people in particular marked for Jesus’ unique intervention, one in a moment of acute crisis, another who’s at the end of a twelve-year trial.
Jairus is a man who leads the local synagogue. He is a respected, respectable, religious leader. He’s the man to whom you bow before you address him. But the urgency of a situation beyond his authority–the fading life of his beloved daughter— leads Jairus to push through a crowd and fall at Jesus’ feet. You might’ve experienced this same acute sensation of time passing in a crisis moment—Jairus can feel the minutes, the seconds clawing away at his daughter’s life.
Mark says simply that Jesus went with him. A whole crowd clamoring for his attention, and Jesus responds to Jairus’ desperate need. You can imagine pretty easily Jairus’ desperate relief in that moment, how he tried in a dignified way to get Jesus to pick up the pace, how annoyed he must have been that the huge crowd decided to just tag along to spectate the worst day of his life. But the hope that’s there, “The teacher is coming; she’s gonna make it!” And I’ve always been crushed to consider what Jairus must have felt when Jesus suddenly comes to a dead stop, and asks, “Who touched my garments?” Does Jesus not remember that Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death? That every second counts? The disciples definitely think he’s joking—“You see this crowd, Jesus? Who isn’t touching you? Let’s go!”
But Jesus’ sense of time is not that of the world. The order of his days is not the order of the minute agenda, or the optimized schedule, or the triple-urgent please read now. He—the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end—has all the time in the world. So when it serves his divine purpose—in this case, the healing and restoration of a woman who has suffered and been marked as unclean and divided from her people and the worship of God for 12 long years—Jesus is ready to pause in the midst of a time-sensitive crisis to look around, to give the woman a chance to work up the courage to tell him the whole truth, to look into her eyes and affirm her faith and restore her to wholeness.
But to Jairus, even as he witnesses this miraculous healing, that pause has to seem like a terrible mistake. Because in that pause, what Jairus sees as his last hope is extinguished, and the news breaks in from the urgent world—”Your daughter is dead. It’s too late. Don’t trouble the teacher anymore.” Again, we have a marked contrast in the perception of time. Where the world says, “It’s too late. It’s over. Time to move on.” Jesus can yet say, “It’s not. It hasn’t even started. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.”
When they get to the house, the world of efficiency has already set the mourners to mourning. When Jesus tries to recalibrate them, “Why are you mourning? She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they mock him. They don’t have time for a man who can’t see what time it is. But it’s they who have misread the clock, that when Jesus is present, today is the day of salvation, now is the year of the Lord’s favor.
So Jesus takes with him to the girl’s room only those who believe—Peter, James, John, and Jairus and his wife–he sits tenderly at the bedside, he speaks the girl back into life, and suddenly it is not a day of mourning, it is not the hour of grief, it’s breakfast time. To be Jesus is to determine, and not be determined by, time.
Jesus the Conscious Conduit of God’s Restoration
What is it like to be Jesus? Second, it is to be a conscious conduit of the triune God’s work of restoration. There’s a detail we get in this story that I don’t think we get anywhere else in the gospels, outside the versions of this story in Matthew and Luke. It’s in verse 30: Jesus “perceived in himself that power had gone out from him.”
Isn’t that fascinating? I don’t think Jesus is being disingenuous when he stops and asks, “Who touched my garment?” There really is a crowd jostling around him, but someone in that crowd reached out to him in faith, even perhaps a confused faith, but a genuine faith that Jesus was the only source of restoration in a world which had only multiplied her suffering. And Jesus, God in the flesh, without physically seeing her, feels power go out of him, feels power respond to that faith, to the effect that this woman feels immediately her ailment leave her.
This is a bit speculative, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think we could extrapolate from this detail that Jesus always has some sort of sense perception of the kingdom of God working in him. I don’t mean some sort of spooky sixth sense. I definitely don’t mean Jesus is walking around like some video game character with a little green bar under him that depletes a little when he uses his power and then he needs some sort of power up or potion. I mean simply that Jesus, the God-man, in every interaction in his earthly ministry, could feel himself perched between the world fallen and the world redeemed, and can feel himself as the agent of that world’s restoration. I don’t think it’s too wild to imagine that at every healing and every exorcism and every natural miracle we read about in Scripture, Jesus can feel the world being put to rights, being restored to the created order which he also made in the beginning, and which God called “good.”
Which is just another way of saying that Jesus lived in the constant communion of the triune God, whose common work is the redemption and recreation of sinful humanity and this fallen world. Jesus is a conscious conduit of God’s restoration because Jesus is in in constant communion with his Father in the Spirit. He feels the good pleasure of his Father, he feels the anointing of the Spirit, he feels the righting of the wrong like the resolution of a song. And we get a suggestion of that feeling, just in this moment.
Jesus as Divine and Tender
And this brings me to the the third point. What is like to be Jesus? It is to wield the fullness of divine power in perfect tenderness.
Let’s not miss one of the points of this passage: Jesus does what no human can do. Remember that the woman with a flow of blood has exhausted all of her options many times over. Verse 26 is just brutal, she “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” For over a decade, she has suffered without relief, and then Jesus restores her health in a moment.
And what Jesus does for Jairus exceeds his original hope. Jairus had begged our Lord to save his daughter from the brink of death. Instead, Jesus does the unprecedented: he reaches down and pulls her back up from death’s valley.
And yet we must also notice that Jesus does not perform these divine acts as a cold god, stoically dispensing divine favors to those who say the magic words. He performs them as a loving, tender savior, attentive not just to the most pressing need, but to the deepest need.
Consider again the woman: her suffering goes beyond the physical. For 12 years she has been unclean, untouchable, forbidden from joining her people, her family, in worship. Her approach to Jesus is not the desperate and bold begging of Jairus the synagogue ruler; her touch is defiling, she doesn’t want to be noticed.
Jesus will heal this isolation, this psychological scarring as well. He not only restores her to bodily health, he calls her forward, to make herself known that she and the whole crowd might know that her faith has been placed in one who would see her in full fellowship, fully accepted. ‘Daughter,’ he calls her affectionately, ‘your faith has made you well.’ She who has been cast out is welcomed back.
To the frantic and panicked Jairus, frozen at the news of his daughter’s death, Jesus doesn’t scoff at his loss of hope, “Don’t you know who I am?” Jesus looks him, eye-to-eye, and invites his deeper trust. “Do not fear,” Jesus says to him, not because there’s nothing fearful in this situation, but because He himself is there, alongside Jairus, even to the bedside of his daughter’s deathbed, and faith in this Jesus who accompanies us is the only means by which we will overcome fear and death.
And for the daughter, who has had her own terrible day, has lived her own death, Jesus has tender, unforgettable words, “Talitha cumi,” “little girl, arise.” And having raised the dead, while the room goes giddy with amazement, Jesus has the presence of mind to tend even to her rumbling living tummy.
What is it like to be like Jesus?
So what is it like to be Jesus? It is to be perfectly unhurried and unpressed by time. It is to be a constant and conscious conduit of God’s restoration. It is to wield divinity with tenderness and total care.
Let’s take these observations one step further. Because the Gospels not only reveal to us what is it like to be a Jesus, they not only reveal to us the life and experience of the God-man, they also reveal that this Jesus who heals and makes clean and raises to life intends for us to become like him.
It matters that we know what it’s like to be Jesus because we are meant to be like Jesus. Paul is often on about it, “We have the mind of Christ. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Indeed, those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29).” Jesus came down from heaven, was made man, laid down his life and took it up in again in resurrection power that we might become like him. Not only freed from the bondage of sin and death, but freed for the experience of his divine life.
So I have some questions.
What would it be like for you to inhabit time in the way Jesus did, and does? What would it be like—not in some hypothetical or ideal life, but in your actual, daily life—to walk through your day not pressed by an unforgiving agenda or flitting from emergency to emergency, or from distraction to distraction, but instead to live as though this day is a day made by the Lord. What might you perceive, what ministry might be given you, when you see the child you need to calm, the traffic you need to endure, the tasks you need to get done, not as hindrances to your flourishing, or drains on your time, but as a moments intended by God?
What would it be like for you, like Jesus, to become a constant and conscious conduit of God’s restoration? What would you feel and see, again in your daily life, as you lived in full communion with the Father, through the work of the Son, in the union and power of the Spirit? How would your life—your same life, with the same relationships—come alive when you perceive that God intends to act for the restoration of the world in and through you?
And finally, what would it be like for you, like Jesus, to speak the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, with tenderness and total care to the world in which God has placed you? What needs have you been divinely equipped to meet? What hospitality, what welcome, what relief has God sent you to offer?
I haven’t worked out the answers to these, they deserve your own reflection and prayer this week.
But let me offer a place to start.
Think of where Jairus and the woman begin and end their interaction with Jesus—with faith. And not a perfectly secure, flawlessly reasoned, impenetrable faith. Their faith is desperate, and opportunistic, and perhaps tinged with magical thinking. But it is real faith and it is effective faith because of its object. Jairus and the woman have a straining, vital trust in Jesus. If you are overwhelmed at the prospect of knowing what it’s like to be Jesus—if the very idea seems lightyears away from your own experience, look again at the Jesus that you long to be like. See him still the urgent minute, see him in an instant heal the years of pain. See him restore the woman, see him raise the girl. Then think of what would keep you from following this Jesus—and hear him say, “Do not fear, only believe.”