Athanasius and the Fatherhood of God

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I made sure to have a video chat with my Dad and to watch Cars 2 during a thunderstorm with my kids. And crack open a cold one in the evening while preparing tonight’s lecture about Wycliffe and suchlike. I also thought a bit about God as Father.

Most of us think of God as Father in three ways:

  1. Creator of everything. Thus, Father of all humans by analogy.
  2. Adopter of redeemed humans. Thus, Father of some humans by divine will.
  3. Father of the God Word, God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Thus, Father by his own nature.

Actually, most people today, no matter how orthodox their idea of the Trinity, probably rarely think of number 3. St Athanasius (sign up for my Athanasius course today!) did, and when I encountered his ideas early on in my journey into the Fathers, they cemented for me two facts:

  1. The Trinity must be true.
  2. It good and healthy to speak of God as Father, despite the failings of human fathers.

It’s point number 1 that came home to me time and again. Basically, if we take seriously the Bible as being revelatory of God’s nature, then biblical names mean something. The names the Bible uses of God reveal to us something of His nature. Thus, if a biblical name for God is “Father”, we need to take that seriously. The name “Father”, rather than something we came up with like, say “unbegotten”, is revelatory of the divine nature. It means that God has always existed as Father, according to St Athanasius. And therefore, there has always been a Son from eternity.

St Athanasius nuances this with the analogy from human fathers, an analogy that some felt divided Father and Son so that the Son could not be fully God. According to St Athanasius, sons have all the same essential and natural attributes as their fathers. I am a human by nature; so are my sons. Whatever is necessary to my humanity is necessary to theirs — this is in virtue of my having begotten them.

Likewise in the Godhead. Anything that can be predicated of the Father — eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immortal — can be predicated of the Son. Grasp this with the biblical teaching of God being only one, with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and you are headed straight for the Trinity.

Point number 2 is partly related to this. We need to be able to speak of God as Father because that’s how the Bible does. And biblical names matter. By speaking of God as Father, Athanasius was able to see how Father and Son are homoousios.

Furthermore, in the life-and-worldview of the ancient Christians, influenced by both Scripture and Plato, the reality of human fathers failing did not bear on God the Father at all. God, as Father in all three ways listed above, is the perfect Father, of whom every human father is an imperfect image. Think of the absolute best Dad, and then multiply him by infinity — then you have a poor analogy for the perfect divine Father, God the Creator, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And once we embrace these biblical names and the transcendent realities they point us toward, there is no fear of uttering the Scriptural names of the Three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sign up for my Athanasius course today!

Demons: From sword and sorcery to civilizational collapse

My latest YouTube video is a discussion of demons, sparked by some thoughts I was having about sword and sorcery, and then coupling them to my upcoming course on St Athanasius, thus tying in On the Incarnation and The Life of Antony. Enjoy!

St Athanasius round-up

Life is very busy (so I’ve not blogged as much I’d like), but you should know that I have an upcoming course with Davenant Hall this summer called “Athanasius Against the World”. I hope you will be able to join me for it! In the meantime, here are some of my previous Athanasius things, culminating at the bottom with my recent St Athanasius video on YouTube:

Reflections on John 12 (from 2021)

A little Trinitarian incarnational theology for you (from 2021 — video of my Davenant Fellows Lecture from December 2020)

Irenaeus and Athanasius (from 2013)

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius (from 2010)

Wish I had more time for St. Athanasius (from 2009)

Evagrius in Anglo-Saxon England

In rereading St Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, in preparation for this past Monday, I encountered (unsurprisingly) Evagrian resonances in Pope St Gregory the Great’s letters to St Augustine of Canterbury in 1.27. Evagrius of Pontus was a late fourth-century mystic and ascetic master amongst the Desert Fathers of Lower Egypt at Nitria and then Kellia. Father Luke Dysinger has an accessible biography of Evagrius here. Despite being controversial in posthumous Origenist controversies, Evagrius remains foundational for ascetic and mystical theology and practice both East and West. In the West, his teachings were transmitted and refracted through the work of St John Cassian, and then further refracted through the works of Pope St Gregory.

The Evagrian resonances were most explicit for me in St Gregory’s response to question 9.

First, Gregory recapitulates teaching common to both Evagrius and St Cassian that fornication and gluttony are intimately linked. The immediate context is the ongoing, perplexing question raised by ancient monastics as to whether someone who has nocturnal emissions has sinned or not.

Pope Gregory writes that the illusions that accompany such emissions are sometimes caused by overeating, that one’s body is essentially overburdened by eating. The correlation between gluttony and fornication is made by Evagrius in the “Texts on Discrimination” excerpted in The Philokalia Vol. 1:

For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony…

Trans. Sherrard et al., p. 38

One of the basic realities I discovered when I did my first dive into John Cassian was the interconnectedness of our whole lives, including the life of sin. Succumb to one sin, and you are setting yourself up for being bound to the others. Excel at one virtue, and you gain strength to fight all the sins. I confess here and now that I have yet to read Gregory the Great on the Seven Deadly Sins (which he adapts from Evagrius-Cassian), but I imagine his concept is much the same.

But what really got my Evagrian gears turning was this passage in Bede, EH 1.27, Q IX:

all sin is committed in three ways, namely by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. The devil makes the suggestion, the flesh delights in it and the spirit consents. It was the serpent who suggested the first sin, Eve representing the flesh was delighted by it, and Adam representing the spirit consented to it: and when the mind sits in judgement on itself it is necessary to make careful distinction between suggestion and delight, between delight and consent. For when an evil spirit suggests a sin to the mind, if no delight in the sin follows then the sin is not committed in any form; but when the flesh begins to delight in it then sin begins to arise. But if the mind deliberately consents, then the sin is seen to be complete.

Ed. McClure and Collins, pp. 53-54

Gregory the Great goes on. But this is enough to see the Evagrian anatomy of sin. The suggestion comes first — that is, the initial temptation as we would see it. We like the idea — sure, why not have another goblet of wine? We succumb; our spirit consents. (Another goblet … or three?)

It is a sublte, psychologically real approach to sin that attaches all the responsibility for action upon the human agent. Gregory notes that one may have the suggestion, and be delighted by it, but resist so as not to consent with the spirit. This circumstance, of being delighted by sin yet able to resist, is what St Paul spoke of in Romans 7:23,”But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” So we are able to fight these thoughts when they come.

This fight is what much of the surviving work of Evagrius is about, and it is also the chief business of many writers in the Philokalia. One of the chief skills Philokalic and Evagrian spirituality seeks to hone is watchfulness. We must watch our thoughts, “to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons.” (Evagrius, On Discrimination 7, p. 42)

Watchfulness and the discernment of the thoughts and the battle against temptation are central to Evagrian praktike, but central to his whole program, central to St Gregory, to the Venerable Bede, to the missionaries of Anglo-Saxon England, is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, to be met in contemplation, theoria, and worshipped and adored.

Nothing else really matters.

Why the Council of Chalcedon is (still) my favourite ecumenical council

As a final question to my students in “The Seven Ecumenical Councils in Historical Context”, I asked which council was each person’s favourite. Votes came in for Nicaea, Ephesus, Constantinople II, and Chalcedon. I affirmed that I still prefer Chalcedon. One student asked who the greatest theologian we’d read in the course was. I’ll save that for another post…

Why do I still like the Council of Chalcedon after all these years?

  1. I like the Chalcedonian definition of the faith, which I’ve translated here. It did not solve the Christological can of worms opened by Nestorius by any means, and potentially just opened up another can and poured the new worms on top of the Nestorius-Cyril worms. But I still think it is beautiful and balanced, so long as interpreted correctly.
  2. The Council of Chalcedon empowers theologians like St Maximus the Confessor to do wonderful stuff. That’s reason enough for me.
  3. I like Pope St Leo the Great and his theology. It’s nice to see traditional Latin Christological formulations showcased at an ecumenical council and enshrined as dogma. As I’ve said on a lot of job applications, I am a Latinist (I can certainly do Greek as well, but my interests and deep knowledge tend more to Rome than Athens).
  4. This might be 3a, actually — whether you like Leo or not, it’s an historically interesting fact that traditional Latin Christological formulations from Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine of Hippo are enshrined in an ecumenical council. The councils are usually dominated by eastern/Greek concerns, eastern/Greek formulations, eastern/Greek bishops, and eastern/Greek ideas. This, at least, makes the Council of Chalcedon an interesting object of study.
  5. So much evidence survives. For someone who wants to dig into the primary sources for ecclesiastical history, Chalcedon has them in abundance.
  6. The actual transpiring of the council is interesting, even entertaining, to read. The acts of the council have embedded in them both the acts of the Second Council of Ephesus (449) and the portions of the acts of the Home Synod of Constantinople of 448 relevant to Eutyches.
  7. The flurry of activity leading up to the council survives, documented chiefly in Leo’s letters.
  8. The fallout from the council is interesting to read about — monks take of Jerusalem! Bishops get killed in the streets over this! It’s crazy stuff. Historically interesting, whether morally appropriate or not.

I think any other reasons would come in as subsidiaries to these. But these are the reasons why the Council of Chalcedon of 451 is my favourite ecumenical council.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Reading Boethius at age 38

Wheel! Of! Fortune!
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fr. 809, fol. 40r (15th c.).

Two nights ago, I sat reading at the top of the stairs within earshot of my sons’ room. I was ready to lay down the law if the goblins weren’t keeping quiet. I did — some stern words were uttered. Silence reigned. If they don’t get enough sleep, they are increasingly unmanageable. As I sat uncomfortable and only able to half listen, I was reading The Old English Boethius.

Sort of appropriate.

I’m not comparing completely normal parenting woes to being imprisoned on suspicion of treason by King Theoderic the Great (which was Boethius’ situation when he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy). But the underlying theme of the Consolation is that age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? This question is the cry at the heart of Boethius the character as he engages in conversation with Wisdom/Philosophia, a cry stretching back at least to the book of Psalms. Psalm 73:1-15:

TRULY God is loving unto Israel : even unto such as are of a clean heart.
2. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone : my treadings had well-nigh slipt.
3. And why? I was grieved at the wicked : I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.
4. For they are in no peril of death : but are lusty and strong.
5. They come in no misfortune like other folk : neither are they plagued like other men.
6. And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride : and overwhelmed with cruelty.
7. Their eyes swell with fatness : and they do even what they lust.
8. They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy : their talking is against the most High.
9. For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world.
10. Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage.
11. Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High?
12. Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession : and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency.
13. All the day long have I been punished : and chastened every morning.
14. Yea, and I had almost said even as they : but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.
15. Then thought I to understand this : but it was too hard for me,

1662 BCP/Coverdale

When I first read Boethius’ Consolatio I was 20 or 21 (I think). I typically have two books on the go for leisure reading — something fictional and something Christian. I recall at the time having a conversation with the friend who first mentioned Boethius to me that it didn’t really feel very Christian to me, and certainly not as “helpful” as my then-standard fare (I honestly can’t remember what Christian books I read in undergrad besides CS Lewis stuff, Bonhoeffer’s Christology, and Ridenour’s How to Be a Christian without Being Religious).

Maybe I just hadn’t suffered enough. Now, round three through Boethius, I find his concerns eminently relatable and the teaching of Wisdom (in OE, rather than Philosophia in Latin) something of a balm. Being parents has not always been easy on my wife and me. I was unemployed for a year within recent memory. I never landed the academic job I wanted. I am actually mostly between jobs just now.

This list is not exhaustive.

I am, 18 or so years on from first reading Boethius, in a place where reading the modern English translation of the Old English translation of the Consolation of Philosophy is blessing me. As I sit in the midst of uncertainty with various troubles besetting my world, I am called to consider what are those goods that endure.

Position? Influence? Power? Money?

Pat Sajak spins the wheel, and you fall from these at the snap of Wyrd’s fingers (Wyrd, or Fate, takes Fortuna’s place in Old English).

Wisdom calls us to a different life, and not just the life of the mind, not just the life of reason (although he certainly does this). The Old English Boethius makes explicit the moral and ethical demands Wisdom makes upon those who would pursue him, demands implicit in the original in its discussion of Philosophia.

And what do you enjoy if you pursue and hold tight to wisdom?

Therefore the wise always lead
an untroubled life without change,
when they renounce all earthly good
and also remain untroubled by those evils,
looking for the eternal things which come afterward.
Then almighty God keeps him
in every way perpetually
continuing in his mind’s own
blessings through the grace of the creator,
though the wind of worldly troubles
may greatly afflict him and care may constantly
hinder him when the wind of worldly fortunes
blows cruelly and fiercely on him,
and though the distraction of these worldly fortunes
may always terribly afflict him.

The Old English Boethius, trans. Irvine and Godden, Meter 7, ll. 40-54, p. 65.

I find this more comforting in the midst of worldly trouble than people quoting Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [NIV]), because I think, “Well, the Lord’s plans for Russia in 1917 included Bolshevism, and his plans for Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley involved being burned at the stake.”

But the Christian philosophy of Boethius, drawing on the best ideas of Aristotle and Augustine, knows such realities all too well. Thus, he doesn’t and cannot look to a “better future” unless that future is rooted in his own inner man, his own conduct, his own mind. And that is where hope and consolation are to be found.

Boethius aligns well with the Psalmist. And so I close with the final verses of Psalm 73:

20. Thus my heart was grieved : and it went even through my reins.
21. So foolish was I, and ignorant : even as it were a beast before thee.
22. Nevertheless, I am alway by thee : for thou hast holden me by my right hand.
23. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel : and after that receive me with glory.
24. Whom have I in heaven but thee : and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee.
25. My flesh and my heart faileth : but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
26. For lo, they that forsake thee shall perish : thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against thee.
27. But it is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God : and to speak of all thy works in the gates of the daughter of Sion.

1662 BCP/Coverdale

Beauty

Winchester Cathedral – not my dad’s old parish!

Recently, we have been worshipping at the parish where my dad was priest in my teenage years. Various thoughts have assaulted me, and I thought I’d share two of them. First, the experience of worshipping surrounded by beauty, second, getting plugged back into the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism after years of exile …

In the January 31 episode of the Ad Fontes podcast, Onsi, Colin, and Rhys discussed beauty. You can listen to it here. Beauty is not, ultimately, necessary. Beauty is not a transcendental. And most churches today avoid spending extra money to be beautiful, echoing Judas Iscariot — could this money not be spent on the poor? Nonetheless, most Christians admit that beauty in worship and worship spaces is desirable, if oftentimes financially unattainable.

One point that was made was that no one has been wholesale converted through beauty. Sure, Malcolm Guite’s atheism was cracked by John Keats while visiting Keats House in Rome — but Guite was raised by Christian parents and no doubt had so much Gospel hidden in his heart that it was this that brought him to the living Word behind the words of Keats. Rod Dreher was converted from atheism to Rome by Chartres Cathedral. Yet, once again — he will have needed the ecclesial community of the Roman Catholic Church and the teaching of the church to make a full conversion, I imagine.

Those are the two counterexamples I know, but they nonetheless highlight to us the importance beauty of our experience of God. God has created a beautiful cosmos and is Himself simultaneously everywhere within this cosmos, ordering it aright and thus accessible through its beauty, and beyond it by far. And he, the creator God, has created us in his image. In Tolkien’s vocabulary, we are subcreators.

Making beautiful things is what we do. It’s part of living for God’s glory, showing Him His glory, and living out our existence as beings shot through with His glory.

Now, back to church the Sunday before that podcast episode dropped.

My three-year-old son is irrepressible. He cannot be stopped. Throughout the entire church service, he sat on my knee, rarely taking a break from talking, with a pause to have a snack and many attempts from me to keep the volume down.

At one point, this unstoppable force looked across the aisle from us to the many stained-glass windows flanking the nave and said, “Is that Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“To remind us that Jesus came to rescue us.”

“Why can’t we see through the window?” (This query was repeated later.)

“By making a window out of stained glass, we can see the picture of Jesus but still have the daylight filling the room. The light shining through the window reminds us that Jesus is the light of world, sort of like what Abbot Suger of St-Denis says.”

I don’t expect my sons to get the references to people like Abbot Suger. But I think it’s worth sprinkling conversation with these references to point them to big world of knowledge that awaits.

A while later, he looked to the front.

“Is that Jesus, too?” he queried.

“Yes, that’s Jesus, too,” I answered.

One of the windows on the walls of the apse portrays Jesus and the little children.

I think it’s great that my wee men go to church and hear hymns, hear sermons, hear prayers, hear the Scriptures read. I have no doubt it is good for their spirits to have these come to them. And I know that they don’t just wash over them. The four-and-a-half-year-old is particularly good at remembering tiny references we thought he wasn’t listening to. He is our listener, our watcher, our observer, taking it all in and synthesising the world into knowledge.

Nonetheless, I also love that we can go to this place of beauty where the light shines through, where Jesus shines down on us (most of the windows are of the Lord, in fact), and we ourselves are drawn by the beauty into His true, eternal Beauty, whether we are three or thirty-eight.

I just finished teaching my students about iconoclasm, and there’s something of St John of Damascus in all of this, about participating in Christ through encountering His image, not to mention my reference to Pseudo-Dionysius via Suger of St-Denis (Denis = French for Dionysius). We can meet with Jesus with the help of these images, seeing His beauty made manifest for us in the stained glass.

Maybe the expense is worth it?

This January I’ll be teaching The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

Boy, that’s possibly the longest title I’ve given a blog post yet! But it’s true! This January I’ll be teaching “The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” for Davenant Hall (the Davenant Institute’s teaching wing). If you’re already excited enough, you can register for the course here. If you need more convincing, read on…

Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, perfect and entire in each, without getting it all mixed up and turning him into a divinised man or a man adopted by a god or a god who merely uses a human body like an avatar or something?

Do you kiss icons?

If you have an answer to any of these (yes, no, what?), then the outcomes of the Seven Ecumenical Councils should interest you! These seven councils met between 325 and 787. All were called by emperors. All dealt with church-rupturing theological issues. All also dealt with some canon law, except for 5 and 6, so a special council was called after number 6 that we call the Quinisext Council. It’s exciting already, isn’t it?!

These seven councils were admitted by the imperial church to provide the dogmatic boundaries for orthodox thought and worship. They come to be considered as having universal jurisdiction in doctrine and canon law. These seven, and only these seven, hold such a status in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These seven plus a bunch of later ones hold such a status in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of these, if I understand aright, are embraced by the Oriental Orthodox. And I’m not sure if the Church of the East formally embraces any of them, but they espouse the doctrine of the first two.

Protestants tend to explicitly endorse the first four, but I see no reason not to embrace five and six as well, whereas many Reformed Christians reject the seventh because of its acceptance and promotion of holy images (icons). I, personally, accept all seven. I’ve been told that I am what they call, “based”.

These seven councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is of one substance with the Father
  2. Constantinople (381): Reaffirms Nicaea and pushes towards the full divinity of the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is only one person, fully human and fully divine
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus exists in two natures, one human and one divine
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus’ two natures come together in what we call the “hypostatic union”
  6. Constantinople 3 (680/1): Jesus has two wills
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Images of Jesus and the saints are good

In my class, we are going to explore the events leading up to and the aftermath of each council. Some of them had some pretty crazy stuff going on at them (particularly Ephesus and second Constantinople), so we’ll look at how (or how not!) to run a church council. We’ll look at why these seven but not other ones (why not Serdica in 343? Why not the Lateran Council of 649? What about the council of 869?). And we’ll examine the writings of one major theologian associated with the teaching of each council.

It’s going to be a fun ride, and hopefully it will help you appreciate even more the glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ our Saviour and His work of redemption in becoming man.

The Gospel is Jesus, so these questions matter.

You can sign up here.

And for a foretaste, check out my December 16 lecture, “The Christmas Councils”.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

The Christmas Councils

In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.

This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:

  1. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
  2. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
  3. John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.

The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.

Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.

Register for the lecture for free here.

Register for my 10-week class starting the week of January 10 here.

Watch last year’s December fellow’s lecture here.

Sermon on Matthew 9:18-26 (Trinity 24)

The Woman with the Flow of Blood, Paolo Veronese, 1565-70

Derived from notes for a sermon I preached at the Urban Abbey, Thunder Bay, November 14, 2021.

This Gospel reading is a familiar story. Jesus performs two miracles, and, in Mark and Luke, one of them is almost by accident! I think the Mark-Luke version of events is more what we are used to, sort of as told here in Tatian’s Diatessaron which is a combined version of all four Gospels that tells the events in order, put together in the 100s:

And a man named Jairus, the chief of the synagogue, fell before the feet of Jesus, and besought him much, and said unto him, I have an only daughter, and she is come nigh unto death; but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live.  And Jesus rose, and his disciples, and they followed him.  And there joined him a great multitude, and they pressed him.

And a woman, which had a flow of blood for twelve years, had suffered much of many physicians, and spent all that she had, and was not benefited at all, but her trouble increased further.  And when she heard of Jesus, she came in the thronging of the crowd behind him, and touched his garments; and she thought within herself, If I could reach to touch his garments, I should live.  And immediately the fountain of her blood was dried; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her plague.  And Jesus straightway knew within himself that power had gone out of him; and he turned to the crowd, and said, Who approached unto my garments?  And on their denying, all of them, Simon Cephas and those with him said unto him, Our Master, the multitudes throng thee and press thee, and sayest thou, Who approached unto me?  And he said, Some one approached unto me; and I knew that power went forth from me.  And that woman, when she saw that she was not hid from him, came fearing and agitated (for she knew what had happened to her), and fell down and worshipped him, and told, in the presence of all the people, for what reason she touched him, and how she was healed immediately.  And Jesus said unto her, Be of good courage, daughter; thy faith hath made thee alive; depart in peace, and be whole from thy plague.

And while he was yet speaking, there came a man from the house of the chief of the synagogue, and said unto him, Thy daughter hath died; so trouble not the teacher.  But Jesus heard, and said unto the father of the maid, Fear not:  but believe only, and she shall live. And he suffered no man to go with him, except Simon Cephas, and James, and John the brother of James.  And they reached the house of the chief of the synagogue; and he saw them agitated, weeping and wailing.  And he entered, and said unto them, Why are ye agitated and weeping? the maid hath not died, but she is sleeping.  And they laughed at him, for they knew that she had died.  And he put every man forth without, and took the father of the maid, and her mother, and Simon, and James, and John, and entered into the place where the maid was laid.  And he took hold of the hand of the maid, and said unto her, Maid, arise.  And her spirit returned, and straightway she arose and walked:  and she was about twelve years of age.  And he commanded that there should be given to her something to eat.  And her father wondered greatly: and he warned them that they should tell no man what had happened.  And this report spread in all that land.

I wanted to read this story out loud in this version not only because it’s worth seeing how we all tend to think of these famous Bible stories, but also because it’s worth it just to hear the Scriptures over and over again, to allow them to penetrate our hearts, as in the meditative reading of Scripture from the medieval monasteries called Lectio Divina today.

I think there are some interesting questions to ask about why Matthew isn’t the same as the other two, but I’m not going to. What we see in any version, though, is the power of God at work in the lives of those around Jesus, and Jesus is the epicentre of that power.

What stands out to me first when I read it in the Matthew version is that the leader says, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Unlike the others and the Diatessaron, the girl is already dead. Recently dead, yes. But dead nonetheless. And yet this man comes to Jesus expecting that Jesus will be able to heal his daughter.

When the Son of Man returns, will he find such faith on earth?

How deep does our faith go?

Think on that.

Jesus goes to see this girl. He goes because He has come from heaven, the God Word himself, to make everything sad come untrue. He is life, as the Gospel of John says. This is God’s rescue plan, and death is the final enemy who, because of Jesus’ victory, will lose its sting through the cross and resurrection at Easter. Indeed, for us here now, death already has lost its sting.

Along the way, embedded in this other miracle narrative, another person seeks Jesus out. This woman has spent all of her money on doctors. Some preachers will tell you these men were basically quacks. I’m not one of those preachers. Some probably were. But others had real knowledge, even if the theory was not sound. But it doesn’t matter; they couldn’t heal her. And that was a problem in Jewish life, because a woman during her period was ritually unclean, and so there were all sorts of things she couldn’t do, including certain forms of normal human interaction and religious practice. The clean/unclean distinction is part of many ancient religions, and I know a Hindu whose mother had a completely separate room to sleep in during her period. That’s the kind of life this woman had been leading. All she wants is to be a bit normal. She wants healing deep in her soul, and she believes Jesus can give it to her.

What do you want from Jesus today?

..

In the other Gospels and the Diatessaron, Jesus feels the power go out of Himself. He queries, “Who touched me?” Here, Jesus knows. He knows who has touched him. So he turns, and there she is. He looks at her.

Jesus Christ is God come down to meet with us. The incomprehensible, almost inaccessible King of the Universe, the Logos, the Word, who makes and orders all things, came down as Jesus of Nazareth to liberate his beloved people from sin, death, and the devil. He became man because of his unutterably deep love for us. “Jesus turned,” the Gospel says, “and seeing her he said…”

This is a simple, straightforward historical truth about a specific moment in the earthly life of our Saviour. He saw her and spoke to her.

Let me tell you something else. This is a powerful, cosmic truth about every moment in our earthly life with our Saviour. He sees you. He sees me. And he speaks to us.

And when he speaks to the woman with the issue of blood, he says, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” Faith, at its root, is trust. Trust is a great English word, related to tree and truth and tryst. Sturdy, dependable. Trustworthy. Her pistis, her relying on Jesus, her trust in him, made her well. Jesus healed her instantly in response to her faith. This is the truth and beauty of divine compassion let loose upon the world in Jesus the Christ, the God Word enfleshed for our salvation. Trust him. He will heal you—of course, last week our main pastor already noted that our physical afflictions may not always be healed. But what endures, Jesus can and does heal that. Your deepest wounds, sins, scars, soul, eternal self. This is healed and prepared to be raised up at the last day to reign with Him.

So Jesus looks at her. At you. At me. And he speaks, and he says, “Take heart, child; your faith has made you well.”

He continues on his way. And he comes to the home of Jairus, where the girl is dead. Here the mourners, some of them possibly professionals, have gathered already to make the public display of the family’s grief. Jesus sends them away with the astonishing, laughable words, “Depart; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.”

They laughed at Jesus. Ridiculed him. Once again: How do you respond to the God of the universe when He speaks? With faith, like the woman with the issue of blood, or with ridicule, like the professional mourners? Sometimes the things he says seem crazy.

Nonetheless, he came, took the girl by the hand, and she arose.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In him is life. He came so that we might have life, and life abundantly. Nothing can stop him. Not even death. And there’s something really cool about how Jesus performs these miracles that a friend of mine wrote about in a book. Here, and in all the miracles of Mark, Jesus just performs miracles. He doesn’t pray for God to intervene or use some other agent like Aaron’s staff, as the prophets in the OT had. He doesn’t say, “In the name of God…” like how the Apostles say, “In the name of Jesus Christ.” He just heals.

No one else in ancient history about whom miracle tales are told does this. They always defer to God if they’re Jewish or Christian, or maybe they use magic or a pagan deity or demon if they aren’t. But they don’t just go around performing miracles on their own power. The only person who does that is God. The weight of miracle upon miracle upon miracle in Matthew’s Gospel—the next story, just so you know, is Jesus performing a miracle—presses us to realise this beautiful, glorious truth, that sometimes we Christians take for granted. And this truth is:

God is Jesus.

Hence the power of the Jesus Prayer prayed by the monks of Mount Athos that gave them such grace:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

[NB: I preached this on the feast of St Gregory Palamas.]

This takes us right back to the Colossians passage I read earlier in the service, showing us what the miracles teach us about Jesus as God. This is the cosmic dimension of the Gospel we are baptised into, the glorious reality we grasp when Jesus looks at us, speaks to us, and we have faith in him:

Colossians 1:9-23 NIV

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[c] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.