Dedicated to my best mate. I promised to be quiet, not absent. I cannot get there but I never left you.
Sat by a riverbank, soaking in the sunshine, in June 2017 I posed a question it took me another 18 months to answer: IF God were real, what would it look like?
It triggered a process that lead me into faith one researched step at a time. I didn’t grow up in faith, my best friend had pushed open a door for me to want to seek God. Slowly and painfully I began to claw fingernail holds into what others seemed to skim over with blithe assurance. When I finally stood on the first ledge and admired the view, I realised I had gone around faith backwards to most.
Friends who grew up with a Christian faith take for granted their closeness to Jesus Christ. As a child he’s accessible, he’s a baby at Christmas, bad stuff happens before Easter but it’s all about Him, it is His story! Later, as adults, their understanding and closeness to God the Father develops out of the childhood stern figure of rules and punishment into the companion and guide with the steady gaze and boundless love.
This presented me with a unique difficulty. I had found God, I knew he loved me, I also knew I had no hope of comprehending His fullness other than what He chose to reveal to me, but nonetheless I felt that love and companionship bridging the chasm between us. But I had no clue who this Jesus chap really was, and why was everyone praying to Him?!
As an atheist I had thought Jesus was a pseudo-historical figure, probably the amalgamation of various visionaries, revolutionaries and social activists of the age, and about as real as Robin Hood or King Arthur. This martyr was enthroned by a new religious sect disgruntled with the Jewish leadership under Rome and had metastasised into a legend so twisted from the original story it became Religion! Unquestionable, unfathomable and unstoppable and every powerful Christian church had done terrible things in His name.
Where was God in any of that?!
How could the story of Jesus be true?
How could God in all His immensity squeeze into a human being?
And lastly, two years after that river bank, I stared out at the Milky Way from my tent in the Dordogne with the breeze wafting the aroma of grapes still warm on the vines, and I wondered why would God come here, to our planet? What about every other life in the galaxy, did they feel this tug to seek the divine? And given all the vastness of space, billions of stars and planets, why did the creator choose to visit a dusty, hot country two thousand years ago? I shied away from the human conceit that we are somehow more special to God.
Staring into the dark, I realised my deepest fear: what if all the men of the early church were wrong and Jesus was merely gifted, charismatic teacher and the rest was allegory or outright invention?
These are horrible questions to face alone in the dark. Especially when I felt they would offend the majority of Christians to ask them.
My best friend nudged me back at the gospels and managed not to sigh as he told me for the hundredth time to read them. This time, I did.
On first pass I didn’t find an answer. I’d sat through enough sermons by now to know experienced Christians inferred more from these stories than I was getting so I kept at it. Eventually in frustration I kept a log of all the names and titles mentioned for or about Jesus, all the bits and pieces I could see that were human or definitely magical then began to sort through them… what was “real” evidence what could have been trickery. John threw me for a loop with the whole Word bit but click the link to read how that ended!
Believe it or not, I started my Theology course still with a list of questions over Jesus’ identity… Imagine my delight when my Christianity lecturer announces he’s decided to teach Christology first this year! (Remember our -ology endings mean study of).
We immediately dived elbow deep into homoousios, the Greek word for “of the same essence” and the hypostatic union (google it and wait for your head to explode) as the specific example of homoousion that describes Jesus’ humanity and divinity. We romped through the various theories of Jesus and his relationship to God (now called heresies!) that were conceived, flourished and died in the first 500years of Christianity.
This is hugely cathartic for me! This is the same journey I have been on. These guys had inherited God the father from classical Judaism, they too were trying to figure out who Jesus was and how he fitted in. I wasn’t alone, I’m merely 1800yrs late – impressive tardiness, even for me!
Finally last week the question I’ve been longing to ask burst out – where in the gospels (aside from the resurrection) is the smoking gun of Jesus’ divinity? My lecturer beamed as he answered, “Everywhere!”
My poker face is crap at best so I’m guessing he got the message I needed more despite my mask.
I wasn’t prepared for the next ten minutes.
He directed us to look at the story of the woman who had been bleeding for more than 12yrs and was healed simply by touching Jesus’ hem. This story is found in all three synoptic gospels but for this I’m going to refer to Mark 5:24-34.
“So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.
He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.””
Mark 5:24-34 NIV
I’ve read this story many times, as a pre-menopausal women I can relate to suffering unending bleeding. Coupled with that, I knew she would have been cast out of Jewish society. While on her period, a woman is viewed as unclean in Jewish society so one who is perpetually bleeding would have been seen as unable to be clean, thus unable to cook, bathe, or touch her husband or children. Her life would have been isolated, hand-to-mouth and her peers would not even have spoken her name.
The significance of this story is we see the divine aspect of Jesus appear, shine through the humanity and disappear again, like a barrel roll on a rollercoaster, BUT only if we read it as a first century Jew would have.
Jesus is on his way to a house to heal a child, he is walking, jostled by the crowd – all obviously human traits.
Suddenly he stops. Despite the noise, confusion and kerfuffle, he knows someone has drawn power from him – we begin to see the divine aspect as that carriage turns. Even when queried by his disciples he stands firm asking who touched him.
Remember God knows the answer already but Jesus speaks of “someone” touching him, a “who” not the “no-one” she has been for a dozen years. Into the warmth of this recognition, she steps forward.
She already knows she is healed, she already knows who she speaks to. Her explanation isn’t recorded but Jesus’ response is and his divinity blazes forth in a few words before he turns and departs: Daughter, your faith has healed you.
Jews have strict customs over family ties, your heritage and parentage are memorised as far back as is known and usually ending with Abraham to show the linkage to God’s family through the covenant they share. In this instance, the woman who bleeds is publicly acknowledged as daughter. No longer a no-one, cleaned of her impurity, she is adopted by God into God’s family through faith in that moment and publicly named “Daughter”.
Then he walks away.
You have to put yourself in her shoes for one second, left standing on the street after a brush with her God, healed, whole, loved, named…
Think about it.
I wonder if she ever washed that hand again.
As always, likes are love, comments are divine logos!
One last note:
My best friend remains instrumental in this process. It’s taken me this long to realise why he succeeded in cracking open the door of my atheism and anti-religion prejudice when so many others had failed.
Michael, women don’t learn faith from the bible, women learn faith in relationship with others. That’s not to say women don’t study the bible as effectively as any other person of faith but when seeking faith from outside belief, the bible is incredibly off-putting.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously said, “The bible degrades women from Genesis to Revelation” and this certainly matched my first impression but this is a story for another day. Take home the certainty it was through your friendship, I am here now.
I don’t know how else to thank you for your patience and perseverance with me, through all my tantrums and squabbles, other than to dedicate this and all the posts in this topic to you.
One day we’ll get that evening, whisky, good music, lots of laughs, probably a few squabbles. Promise.