Sunday, July 29, 2012


Ephesians 3:14-21[1]
There are some in our world today who view faith as something of an aberration, a mental illness.  In fact, there are many who would associate religious faith more closely with a break from reality than with anything healthy.  Think about it: we worship a God that no one has ever seen.  We follow a Savior whom none of us ever met in person—face to face—and nobody we’ve ever know has ever met.  And we practice a religion that is based on the premise of having a relationship with this God we’ve never seen and this Savior we’ve never met.  It’s no wonder some people think we’re either deluding ourselves or simply hallucinating! From their perspective, those who practice faith are anything but “grounded.”
Unfortunately, that sentiment has at times been all too true—people with serious mental illness have used religion as an outlet for their obsessions and fantasies.  And yet, it would be too simplistic to paint all faith with that brush.  The fact of the matter is that there are many more people who have practiced the life of faith through acts of devotion and kindness, over and over again.  Their lives are a testament to the best of humanity.  They embody compassion and generosity.  And they do so without any thought of praise or attention or reward for themselves.  We would consider them incredibly grounded people.
It’s tempting at times to be cynical and assume that those people must have had it easy in life.  That’s why they’ve made it through with their faith intact.  They’ve been spared the abuse and tragedy and heartbreak that define this world where it often seems that there are no happy endings.  But to attribute faith to an “easy life” would be a mistake.  The fact of the matter is that the life of genuine faith is not an easy one at all.  If you take a good look, I think you will find that the deeper the faith, the more hardship and suffering in that person’s life.  We might expect faith to make life easier, but in fact the opposite often seems true.  
So what is it that keeps us going in this life of faith that can be so very difficult?[2]  Is it simply habit—we were raised in the faith and we simply cannot imagine life without it?  That’s not much of a motivation for sustaining a life-long practice of faith. Is it the external aspects of serving others, worshipping God, and supporting our sisters and brothers in our community?  Those aspects of faith are important, and they do play a role in sustaining faith.  But I think the answer to our question is found elsewhere.
I believe St. Paul speaks of it in our lesson from Ephesians for today.  He uses some puzzling language to describe the life of faith.  In his prayer for the Christians in that city, he speaks of being “strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” (Eph. 3:16).  That’s not language that is common in our vernacular; you don’t hear people talking like that at the mall or at work.  We’re in a realm here that is mysterious and confusing.  How do you talk about the internal aspect of our experience of God?  It’s incredibly difficult, yet that’s what Paul is talking about.  And the reason is because what sustains the life of faith is something that happens to us, something that happens inside us. 
Part of this internal reality that St. Paul is trying to describe is that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17).  This is also strange language, if you think about it.  We believe that Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again, but Paul goes beyond that here—he views the life of faith not simple as a matter of looking back to the life and ministry of Jesus, but as a matter of Christ living in our hearts in the here and now.[3]  And he says this happens through faith.
He also says this happens “as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17). Now he’s talking about things that seem more down-to-earth.  He says that the life of faith is grounded in the experience of God’s love.  And how do we experience God’s love?  I think he answers that question in the next verse: “ I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19).  It’s “with all the saints” that we come to know this love.  The idea is that it is in the community of faith that we experience the love of God.[4]  We enjoy this mysterious internal relationship with God as we support and encourage and love one another! Most of us who have pursued the life of faith have known people who communicated God’s love to us at various times in our lives.  Sometimes that’s the only way we made it through a crisis.  But it’s in those times when we really experience the life of faith at its best.  That’s when, as St. Paul describes this life, we find ourselves “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).
In my life’s journey, it seems to me that there is nothing so “grounding” as the experience of being loved.  That’s what enables us to go on living this difficult and sometimes confusing life of faith.[5]  That’s what enables us to go through the up’s and down’s and twists and turns of life with stability and serenity and strength,. We may never understand fully what it means to live in faith, to live in this mysterious relationship with an unseen God, to be strengthened by internal resources granted by the Spirit of God, to be grounded in the love of God.  But even if we don’t understand it fully, the experience of God’s love continues to give us the internal strength to believe where we have not seen.  It gives us the strength to keep praying the prayers and listening for God to speak through the Word.  And it keeps us grounded enough to go on serving others every day with peace, calm, kindness, and compassion.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/29/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:417, reminds us that the early Christians did not have magnificent temples or cathedrals to reinforce their faith in God; in fact, it was the “pagans” who had the impressive places of worship!  She says, “It must have required extraordinary inner confidence to remain a faithful Christian with no external signs of the truth of our faith.”  Cf. also A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 219.
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:538, where he says that the Christian lives in “the most direct fellowship” with Jesus Christ. Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 45: “For the Paul of Ephesians, Christ and his congregation are not two separate entities” but “one corporate whole, Christ-in-his-church.”
[4] Cf. Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Ephesians 3:14-21,” Interpretation 45 (July 1991): 287: “By ourselves, we cannot know the breadth and length and height and depth of God's love because it is a love that is revealed as we are gathered.”  Cf. also Barth, Dogmatics 4.2:784; and Lincoln, Ephesians, 213.
[5] Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 220: “The Church will become more what it ought to be as it experiences more of the one who mediates God’s purposes in salvation, more of Christ’s presence through the Spirit, and more of his all-embracing love that surpasses knowledge.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Visualizing Peace

Visualizing Peace
Eph. 2:11-22[1]
Last week, we talked about St. Paul’s vision of God’s plan to restore all things by gathering them together in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).  It’s a vision of unity, wholeness, and peace, for the whole human family.  But when you look at the human family in our day, I wonder if we can even begin to conceive what that kind of peace might look like.  We are divided by politics, divided by religion, divided by race, and divided by the violence that runs rampant through this family of ours.  Can we really imagine unity, wholeness and peace—between Republicans and Democrats, between Christians and Muslims, between Jewish settlers and Palestinian activists, between tribal warlords who wreak havoc all over the globe?  I think in fact that in the current state of things, with all these different groups of people who are so at odds with each other—who even hate one another enough to kill—it’s difficult if not impossible for us to visualize the kind of peace St. Paul hoped for.
It’s not as if the world St. Paul lived in was any less divided.  He was facing his own set of prejudices in the churches he served.  Most if not all the churches of his day were living with the tension between Jewish and Greek and Roman members .  From a Jewish perspective, all non-Jews were Gentile heathen.  From a Greek and Roman perspective, all others were uncultured and uncivilized barbarians.  As you can imagine, this created some problems among the churches.  In fact, that’s probably an understatement.  A careful reading of his letters suggests that St. Paul was always dealing with one conflict or another relating to the divisions in his world that were troubling the churches. 
Nevertheless, he could still envision all those divided people coming together in Christ in a world of unity, wholeness, and peace.  The reason is that he believed that Jesus’ death on the cross effected reconciliation between the divided parts of the human family.  He framed this from a Jewish perspective—in his mind it was the rules and regulations of the Law that separated the Jewish people and the Gentiles of his day and therefore built a dividing wall of hostility between them.[2]  At least part of the outcome of Jesus’ death was to cancel out the validity of the rules that divided people. 
But I think there was more to it that made St. Paul believe that the future of the human family was one of unity.  He says that through Jesus’ death, he “made peace” for us all.  In part, it would seem that Paul is referring to the idea that Jesus’ death reconciled us all to God.  The implication is that if we can be reconciled to God, then we should be open to reconciliation with each another.[3]  But I think more importantly, one aspect of this line of thinking has to do with the idea that the only way to overcome hatred is to absorb it by responding with love.  It’s an ancient concept:  you cannot overcome hatred with hatred.  You can only overcome hatred with love.  You cannot overcome violence with violence.   You can only overcome violence with peace. [4] And so it is that St. Paul viewed Jesus’ death as an act of peace overcoming the hatreds and divisions of the human family.  He believed that the peace inaugurated by Jesus Christ could heal the divisions of his world. 
I guess the question facing us is whether we believe that peace can heal the divisions in our world.  Despite St. Paul’s proclamation of a “new humanity” united in Christ, it seems that, if anything, the conflicts of our world have proliferated.  I wonder whether part of the problem is that we have not taken our role as the “Body of Christ” seriously enough.  As the Body of Christ, it is our task to demonstrate what that unity looks like in our life together as communities of faith.[5] It is our job to extend the grace and mercy and love and peace of Christ to the people of our world. 
That may seem a daunting task.  There is so much division, we may wonder what one person can do to change all that.  What can our peaceful acts accomplish in the face of so much hatred and anger and violence?  In spite of the size of the problem, I do believe that one peaceful act can transform the whole world.[6] One act of patience, one act of kindness, one act of understanding, one peaceful act can have a ripple effect in our world, the end of which we may never know.  Our peaceful actions in our everyday lives can contribute toward the vision of a human family living together in unity, wholeness, and peace. 
Jesus of Nazareth believed this, and he gave his life for it.  St. Paul believed it, and he called the churches of his day and ours to demonstrate that unity.  Saints and sages throughout history have believed it, and have taught those who were willing to listen for generations that it is possible for us to live a different way.  When we believe that what we do can make this kind of difference, then maybe we can visualize the peace St. Paul envisioned—because we will see its effect on ourselves and on the people around us.[7]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/22/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 35-36; cf. also Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:399.
[3] Cf. Perkins, “Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:398.
[4] Cf. Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
[5] Cf. the Book of Order 2011-2013 G-1.0304: Faithful church membership includes “demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church.”  Cf. also Confession of 1967, 9.21-26: “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community. We are entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and share his labor of healing the enmities which separate us from God and from each other.”
[6] Cf. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart, 39-41: “Our entire society can be changed by one person’s peaceful presence”; Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here, 6-7: “Peace is contagious.”
[7] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 32: “The apostle’s teaching holds out the hope and prospect of a reconciled, unified, and amicable society, whose microcosm is seen in the church’s worldwide, transnational, and reconciling family.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The End of Faith

The End of Faith
Ephesians 1:3-14[1]
Sam Harris is one of several “New Atheists” who severely criticize religious faith as dangerous, prone to violence, detrimental to democratic society, and something that is best likened to mental illness!  One of his most popular books is The End of Faith, in which he seems to view all religion through the eyes of its most violent fanatics, including the Inquisition, Nazis, and bomb-wielding terrorists.[2] Ironically, he rejects the designation “atheist,” insisting that he is simply being intellectually honest and advocating that everything attributed to faith is capable of rational explanation, especially through the science of how the brain functions.   He insists that religious faith deserves no more respect than claiming that Elvis is still alive! So it should come as no surprise that Dr. Harris advocates the “end of faith” in the sense of its termination as an influence in our society.
When you look at some of what has been done in the name of God, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be in favor of the end of that kind of faith myself.  A faith that legitimates killing in the name of God doesn’t deserve our devotion—even if there are passages in the Bible that do just that.  The idea that God has chosen only a favored few for eternal bliss and rejected all others for eternal punishment is nothing if not offensive and at worst inhumane.[3]  A church or synagogue or mosque or temple that manipulates people through guilt and fear or through promises that all your dreams will come true is simply exploiting people’s emotions.  I for one would not be sad to see the end of that kind of religion.
But it seems to me that our lesson from St. Paul points us to a different end of faith.  Not the termination of smug and toxic faith, but rather the fulfillment of a gracious and open-hearted faith in the God who created all things very good.  Paul’s faith is in the God who entered this broken world to restore us all, and who will not rest until all things are once again “very good.” From Genesis to Isaiah to Jesus to the Book of Revelation, the good news is that God is working to establish “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.”[4]
That seems to be what Paul talks about in our lesson for today when he speaks of gathering all things together in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). I like the way J. B. Phillips’ translation puts it: God’s plan is “that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.”[5] Paul believed that the return of Christ would be a day when the entire created order would be “reconciled to God” (Colossians 1:20) and restored to the way it was meant to be. He believed that there would come a time when “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11) and that in the end God would be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).[6]
I believe that God’s ultimate purpose is to restore what is broken in all of us, and that includes all humanity—in fact, all of creation! I really fail to see what is good about the news that those of us who are “in” will inherit an eternity of blessing in the presence of God, while those who are “out” are going to suffer an eternity of torment. From the perspective of our lesson from St. Paul for today, it would seem to me that the Christian hope is that God’s plan to set things right will prevail—for everyone and everything.[7] It is the hope that at the end of all things, all people and all creation will be restored so that we are all once again “very good.”
We’ve been talking a lot about faith lately.  I think the way you envision the outcome of your faith plays a pretty big role in shaping your faith.  If you envision faith as something that gives you privileged status over against those on the outside, then I think that faith is very likely going to be smug and toxic.  It seems to me that’s the kind of faith that can justify doing just about anything in God’s name.  I look forward to the end of that kind of faith.
But it seems to me that the vision of our faith is a very different one.  It is the hope that the God who made all things “very good” will one day restore all things through grace and mercy and love.  I think this faith by definition is going to be more open, more humble, and more joyful.  It’s the vision of Charles Henry Brent, Anglican Bishop of the Philippines, who prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”[8]   I look forward to end of our faith as well—the day when it reaches its fulfillment in God’s realm of peace, justice and freedom, where everything and everyone is restored to being “very good.”

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/15/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Natalie Angier, “ ‘The End of  Faith’: Against Toleration,” The New York Times 4 Sept 2004; accessed at 05ANGIERL.html?pagewanted=all&position=; Johann Hari, “The End of Faith by Sam Harris: The sea of faith and violence,” The Independent 11 Feb 2005; accessed at .
[3] Cf. H. S. Reimarus, Apology: “My own salvation gets lost amid the piteous cries of millions of souls condemned to unending torture”; see Jarolsav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition V:114.
[4] Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,”Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at
[5] Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ.” Confession of 1967, 9.53.
[6] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411; Jürgen Moltmann,Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-40, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85; Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145, 147-49.
[7] Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 34: “Christ is the one in whom God chooses to sum up the universe, in whom he restores the harmony of the cosmos.”
[8] The Book of Common Prayer, 101; cf. a similar sentiment by Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century: “On the cross, God stretched out his hands to embrace the ends of the earth.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 207.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strength in Weakness

Strength in Weakness
2 Cor. 12:2-10; Mk. 6:1-13[1]
For most of us, the idea of strength in weakness makes no sense.  After all, strength and weakness are opposites.  Logically, they don’t go together at all.  Weakness is bad, and to be avoided at all costs.  Strength is good, and something we all want.  Which explains why most of us do everything we can to avoid or overcome or conceal our weaknesses.  They make us feel vulnerable.  Perhaps more importantly, they frighten us.  After all, if we’re weak and vulnerable, someone can take advantage of us.  If we’re weak and vulnerable, we can be hurt.  As a result, we adopt all kinds of strategies to try to protect ourselves from our weaknesses and the vulnerability we feel.  We try to control our lives.  We hide our true thoughts and feelings for fear of betrayal.  We do anything we possibly can to avoid or overcome being weak or vulnerable in any way, shape, or form.  From our perspective, “When I am weak, then I am strong,” makes no sense.[2]
But with all that protecting, and controlling, and hiding going on, in the process, we close ourselves off from life! [3]  In fact, most of the spiritual leaders through the ages recommend the opposite approach.  Some of the greatest sages have made it clear that their deepest spiritual insights came precisely through their vulnerability, through their suffering, through their pain.  They virtually unanimously attest that they found peace, happiness, and strength through the full experience of their weakness. 
I think the Apostle Paul adds his personal testimony to this ironic truth in our lesson for today.  We have to remember that St. Paul was under attack at Corinth by so-called “super-apostles.”  They claimed they were better speakers, they claimed to have supernatural visions and powers, in short, they were better apostles than St. Paul.  Rather than engage in one-upmanship with them, Paul takes the opposite approach.  He claimed that his ministry followed the model of the Suffering Savior, and backed it up by listing all the hardships he had endured in the service of Christ (2 Cor. 11:23-30).[4] 
At the same time, he also tells the story of an unusual spiritual experience he had years earlier.  For some reason, something about this particular spiritual vision was so extraordinary that St. Paul says he was afflicted by a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from boasting about it.  Nobody really knows what this “thorn” was, but it’s clear that from Paul’s perspective it weakened him.  In a sense, it put him in a state of perpetual weakness.  No wonder he says he asked to be relieved of this burden.  Not once but three times.  Most of us would do the same thing—except I wouldn’t stop at three! 
In reply to his fervent prayer, the answer he received was “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament, beginning with Jesus himself.  In the apparent “weakness” of his humiliating death on the cross, Jesus demonstrated the true power of God’s love to change everything and everyone.[5]  In that same vein, St. Paul consistently “boasts” in his weaknesses.  In fact, he insists that his weaknesses are the very means by which the transforming power of faith in Jesus Christ shines most dramatically.[6]
When you look closely at life, there really seems to be a correlation between weakness and spirituality.  It seems the more vulnerable we realize that we really are, the more open we make ourselves to the presence of God, and the deeper our faith and our spirituality. On the contrary, the more we try to protect ourselves, to control our lives, and to avoid pain and weakness, the more we cut ourselves off from the presence of God, and the weaker our faith and spirituality.  That means the very path to discovering new strength is through embracing and facing our weaknesses.[7]  But in order to do that, we have to take the step of faith that God’s grace truly is sufficient for us in any and every crisis we find ourselves.  We can only discover that strength if we entrust ourselves into God’s hands.[8]
Taking the step of faith is a risk that opens us up, that can make us feel vulnerable to all our personal weaknesses.[9]  That can be a scary thing for most of us. Like the people at Nazareth, we feel safer with our doubts than taking the risk of faith (Mk. 6:2-6).  But the only way we can truly experience the sustaining grace of God is to take that risk.  It is the only way we can experience new levels of personal strength that we may never have suspected we have.  It is the only way we can find the courage to face the sometimes frightening and always challenging ebb and flow of life.  When we take that step of faith, we discover the truth in Paul’s affirmation that “when I am weak, then am I strong.”

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/8/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, “Power Made Perfect in Weakness,” in  “Suffering,” Christian Reflection, 2005, 12, where she says, “In America we value independence, being able to take care of ourselves. As a result, we treat weakness, vulnerability, and suffering as evils to be avoided, prevented, and overcome.”  Cf. also Jon M. Walton, “2 Corinthians 12:1-10,” Interpretation 52 (July, 1998): 295, where he admits that “On the face of it, it is patently absurd.”
[3] Cf. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 121, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one …. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; …. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
[4] Cf. Walton, “2 Corinthians 12:1-10,” 293-94.
[5] Cf. DeYoung, “Power Made Perfect in Weakness,” 15.
[6] Cf. David E. Garland, “Paul’s Apostolic Authority: The Power of Christ Sustaining Weakness (2 Cor 10-13),” Review & Expositor 86 (Summer 1989):381, where he says that “Paul embodies the folly of the cross of Christ which reveals the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18-31; 2 Cor. 4:7-12).”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:189.
[7] Cf. Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 12.  She says,“The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening.”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:750: “in all its weakness [the church] is sustained by a strength compared with which all other strength is really weakness.”
[9] Cf. Walton, “2 Corinthians 12:1-10,” 296, where he cites the contemporary example of twelve-step programs with their “rituals of vulnerability and weakness they have established in making confession to one another” that “give them the strength they need.”

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Only Believe

Only Believe
Mark 5:21-43[1]
There are some experiences in life that take us to the very edge of our ability to cope.  You lose your job and wonder how in the world you’re going to find another one.  Or you learn that the cancer has metastasized.  Or you look at the person you’ve shared your life with and realize that it’s over.  It may take a while, but in situations like that, the stress you feel can easily push you beyond the limit of what you think you can endure.  We have a word for it: finding yourself at the end of your rope.  Most of us at one time or another either have faced or will face this kind of situation.  And, unfortunately, In those kinds of situations, our faith can seem pretty empty.
Our Gospel lesson presents us with a couple of people who had reached the end of their respective ropes: a father whose daughter was dying and a woman whose life had been almost literally consumed by her illness.  The lesson begins with a prominent man in the community coming to Jesus and asking him to save his daughter.  As they were on the way, however, a woman who had been afflicted with an illness for 12 years came and touched Jesus. The woman was so desperate, she believed that all she needed to do was touch Jesus’ clothes, and she would be healed.  And in fact, she was!  Jesus told her that it was her faith that healed her. 
It’s hard to know what it was she believed in.   The fact that she thought she would be healed if she only touched Jesus’ clothes makes it sound like she had some kind of magical view of who Jesus was and what he could do for her.  But I think more important is the faith and the courage it took for her to take the step of venturing into the crowd and reaching out to touch Jesus.  Her particular illness rendered her, for all practical purposes, an outcast.  She was perpetually “unclean,” and therefore unable to take part in any of the normal activities of life, even the worship of God at the synagogue![2]  Rather than giving up, she had the faith and the courage to seek the one who was healing people in God’s name.
Unfortunately, although the father came to Jesus first, during the time Jesus was healing the woman, his daughter died.  One would think that would be the end of it.  But Jesus told the father, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk. 5:36)! That seems to me a strange response to death.  Normally we would say something like, “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”  Or “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” But to say, “Do not fear, only believe” strains the imagination.  The fact that he, an influential leader, came personally to beg Jesus for healing suggests that he was just as desperate as the woman.[3]  What was this father supposed to believe in now that his daughter was dead? 
I think the answer has to do with the whole purpose for miracles in Jesus’ ministry.  They were not meant for show, or to convince skeptics, or to gain notoriety.  They were acts of compassion in response to human need.  But they were also more than that.  They were individual demonstrations of the new life of God’s Kingdom. [4]  So in a very real sense, what Jesus was asking this grieving father to believe in was that God had begun working to make all things new already in the here and now.  And that Jesus was the agent through whom God was bringing this new life into our world.  And that somehow that would make a difference even for him.
What do we believe in when we reach the end of our ropes?  Many of us these days have a hard time believing in miracles.  When life brings something so painful, so devastating that it feels like you’ve gone beyond what you can humanly endure, what then? For many of us, if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that our faith tends to evaporate.[5] But is there some way to face that kind of devastating loss without giving up our faith?  I guess what I’m asking is what we can believe in when it seems like we have nothing left to believe in. 
We may have to start with the people around us.  We can believe in the people who continue to show us love and compassion and support—and that they will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  That’s something we can believe in.  And we may also have to take a hard look at ourselves.  When we go through our own end-of-the-rope situations, we can believe that our life isn’t over.  One chapter may be coming to a close, but as it does, it opens the way for another chapter to begin.  Ultimately, however, I think what we can believe in is that the one who has carried us from the day of our birth will continue to carry us all the days of our lives.  We can believe that God can and does bring something good from what seems to be our worst nightmare come true.[6] We can believe that God is working in and through all the heartbreak and suffering in this world to bring new life. 
There are times in our lives when things happen that press us to our limits and beyond.  When that happens, we have a choice.  We can pull the covers over our heads, isolate ourselves, and try to escape from it all.  Or we can embrace what we’re feeling and move forward in faith that God has a future for us.  Just because we experience devastating loss doesn’t mean our lives are over.  It could very well mean that our lives are just about to truly begin!  If we can only believe, and open our hearts to see the new possibilities, it may just be the greatest miracle of all!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/1/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:587-88.
[3] Cf. Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:588. Cf. Adela Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 284-85, where they suggest that the story of the woman’s faith serves as an example of what he was supposed to believe in.
[4] Cf. Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:588: “ healing reflects the presence of God’s saving power … and Jesus’ saving and healing presence demonstrates that the kingdom of God is near.”  Cf. also Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 305.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:598, where he says, “Fear is the resignation from which there can obviously be no road forwards.”
[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:600: When we give into our fears, “We have obviously failed to see that God is for us, and that therefore no one and nothing can be against us”!