So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples. And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment. For she said to herself, “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.” But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that hour. (Matthew 9:19-22)
The Gospel lesson with the hemorrhaging woman is a favorite of mine, but it is the versions found in Mark (5:21-43) and Luke (8:40-56) which add the details which particularly attract me. Both Mark and Luke mention the large crowds following Jesus and pressing in on Him. I take their descriptions of the crowd following Christ to be a vision of the Church, albeit an unusual one. For those following Christ include curiosity seekers, spies, His enemies, as well as those seeking a miracle, those interested in the truth, and those hoping Christ would lead an insurrection. All of these are following Christ—not simply His disciples, but all kinds of people, the needy, the curious, those physically or spiritually hungry, those with no interest in being disciples but having a need they hope Christ will meet, insurrectionists, sinners, social outcasts, the religiously disenfranchised, and even those who want to destroy Christ. Yet, they are all following Him, and He sends none of them away. Only if they follow Him will they know what He is teaching, who He is and what He is doing. Icons of an assembly of saints with halos are beautiful, but the Church is also that larger conglomeration of people of all kinds who follow Christ for reasons both good and ill. As the Gospels say, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The lost are in that crowd following Christ.
It is with that thought in mind, that I found the quote below from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so intriguing for he adds a dimension to the Church which frequent church attendees may forget:
“The Church—which should be the place where we discover life, truth, beauty, meaning; the place from which we go into the world to bring to others what we have seen—a glimpse of it, perhaps, tasted a little; the place from which we should go forth as witnesses who would say, ‘I have touched the hem of his garment. I can tell you at least that with certainty. Come, come and see for yourselves!”–the Church has become to us instead a place of refuge, an infirmary. We come to it indeed infirm, but alas, we want to remain infirm, we want to be cared for, protected by God; when there is danger we run away from it to God: ‘Protect! Save! Defend me!’ It is a place of oblivion–’Let me forget the tragedy, let me have a moment of rest.’” (CHURCHIANITY VS CHRISTIANITY, pp 73-74)
As Metropolitan Anthony notes, the Church is to be the place where we discover life, truth, beauty, meaning, however, that is not her only purpose. The Church is not merely a refuge from the troubles and sorrow of the world, though it can be that. It’s real purpose is to equip us to go out of the church and into the world to be witnesses to the Gospel (Luke 24:48), to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:14), and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). We don’t go to church to escape the world or to withdraw from it. When Jesus prayed for us to His Father, he petitioned: I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one (John 17:15). We go to pray for the world and to prepare ourselves to go back into the world which God so loves (John 3:16) and to do God’s will in the midst of a fallen, troubled world. Remember the woman in the Gospel lesson – she only wanted to touch the hem of Christ’s garment and then imperceptibly slip away. Christ stopped her in her tracks and had her witness in front of a hostile crowd, who would not have approved or her presence in their midst. Or think about the poor, cowering apostles hiding in the upper room. When Christ appears to them He does wish them peace but then instead of coddling them He sends them into all the world, the very world they were terrified of and hiding from (John 20:19-23).
We may touch the hem of Christ’s garment, like the woman in the Gospel in the hopes of receiving God’s mercy, but then we are not to withdraw into the safety of our homes, but rather to go into the dangerous world to share the experience of the blessings we have received. We come to the Church infirm, as Metropolitan Anthony notes, but then we are not supposed to want to remain as an invalid to be constantly ministered to. Rather, we are to become ministers of the Gospel and go into the world to share the light, the healing, the love and the truth which we have received. We don’t go to the hospital to be taken care of and pampered for the rest of our lives. We go there to be healed and then head back to our homes in order to live now healed. In any case hospitals kick us out pretty quickly as they are not trying to make us dependent on their care. They are aiming to heal us so we can go on with life. That is what should happen in our churches as well – we assemble together to be one with those united to Christ, but then strengthened and healed we go back to the world to do the work of the Lord by ministering to others still in need.