He lifted her up
Sermon preached at St.Luke’s Enmore, 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 4th February 2018
Reading: Mark 1. 29–39
In the Gospel passage for today, Mark gives us a day in the life of Jesus, beginning on the Sabbath morning with the healing in the synagogue and continuing through the day until sundown and concluding with the early morning of the next day. The narrative begins with one of Mark’s favourite expressions: ‘As soon as’. Three words in English, but just one in Greek. The word is also translated as ‘immediately’ or ‘straightaway’. Everything in Mark seems to happen in a hurry. His text is fast paced and vibrant.
Jesus and his very new followers, Simon and Andrew, and James and John are in Capernaum where they have attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. In the synagogue Jesus has amazed the worshippers with his teaching and knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and has then startled them by healing a man possessed with an unclean spirit. The service over, Jesus and his followers move quickly to Simon’s home for Saturday lunch. But all is not well in Simon’s house — his mother in law is sick with a fever. Being ill with a fever was a much more serious condition in the pre-antibiotic world of the first century than it is for us today. We would love to know more about the family situation in Simon’s household but Mark’s account is sparse. There is no mention of Simon’s wife and no explanation as to why his mother in law is living with them. Perhaps she is widowed or perhaps has moved in to help in the house now that Simon Peter is spending so much time in the company of Jesus and the other disciples. Clearly she sees herself as the matriarch and would have been mortified that she was too sick to provide hospitality for her son in law’s guests.
Having been made aware of Simon’s mother in law’s condition Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up. In that culture to touch a woman not related to you was considered offensive and to touch one who was sick and therefore unclean was doubly so. But Jesus often healed in a way which flouted the purity laws of his day, believing that compassion trumped legalism. Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law quietly and without fuss, ‘he took her by the hand and lifted her up.’ That the healing was complete is demonstrated by the fact that she immediately began to serve her guests.
Now I suspect many of us feel some disquiet about this episode. Why did this woman feel she had to get up and serve the men straightaway? Surely on this occasion they could have made the effort of getting themselves a bit of lunch? It is natural for us to think like that but we fail to understand the importance of hospitality in that culture. A woman in her position would have been ashamed to have anyone else take over her role. Furthermore the word translated as ‘serve’ is an interesting one: it is the Greek word from which we get our word, ‘deacon’. Simon’s mother in law’s response to her healing was to serve Jesus and his friends in the way she knew best, providing food for them. Jesus himself described his ministry as being one of service to others. Mark uses the verb, ‘to serve’, only of women and angels and Jesus, never of the male disciples. So the word does not denigrate Simon’s mother in law –it affirms her and some have described her as the first deacon of the church. At the end of Mark’s gospel he tells us that there was a group of women who stood at a distance, watching the crucifixion, (the male disciples having fled) and that they had provided for Jesus when he was in Galilee. ‘Provided for’ is another translation of diakoneo-they deaconed. Perhaps Simon’s mother in law was among their ranks.
On the evening of that same day when Jesus healed in Simon’s house, a huge crowd of people turned up wanting to be healed. They had waited until the evening because healing was not allowed on the Sabbath- a rule that Jesus had ignored in the Synagogue. Is Mark getting a bit carried away when he says that ‘the whole city was gathered around the door?’ Well maybe but in first century Capernaum there probably wasn’t a lot happening on Saturday night: watching an itinerant preacher, healing the sick and performing exorcisms may have been the only show in town. Jesus’ ministry was to the whole person, mind, body and spirit. He healed various diseases and cast our many demons. He is still in the business of making people whole, making us into the people he wants us to be — freed from the things which bind or trouble us. It’s a life- long process which will continue until the day when we see him face to face.
We can be sure that given the size of the crowd who gathered that evening it would have been very late before Jesus finally got some rest. Despite the demands of that day Jesus rises very early the next morning and goes to a deserted place for time alone with God. Having confronted so much pain and human suffering the night before Jesus needs time for communion with his Father God. The commentator, Eugene Boring notes “that in the preceding scenes Jesus does not pray to God but acts as God…Mark juxtaposes the picture of the weak human Jesus and the preceding picture of the powerful Son of God, so that in these opening scenes there is a mini summary of the Gospel as a whole.” Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Prayer was a resource for our Lord and it remains a powerful resource for us. In my experience many Christians, myself included often think their prayer life is rather poor or inadequate. But prayer takes many forms and there are no rules about how or when one should pray. Prayer is conversation with God, which includes asking (petition), thanksgiving, praise, or just simply telling God how you feel. We pray together as a community on a Sunday or during the week but we also pray privately in our own home or during the day in the ordinary activities of our life. God is always delighted to hear our prayers. Those of us who are parents know how much we enjoy it when our children keep in touch and share their joys and sorrows with us. We know the hurt when children for whatever reason decide they don’t want to communicate with us. God wants to hear from you and me. Often.
Intruding into Jesus’ time of quiet and reflection, comes the blundering Simon. Simon the fresh faced new disciple is determined that Jesus gets as much exposure as possible, especially in his home town. Simon and his mates hunt Jesus down and insist that Jesus continue the work he was doing the previous day. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say. But Jesus knows he must move on. Healing the sick was part of his ministry but not the whole part. He had a message to proclaim. The message was the good news of the kingdom, namely that in the person of Jesus, God was doing something new and radical. Jesus was preaching a message of reconciliation-bringing men and women of all races, classes and creeds into relationship with God so that they could find forgiveness and wholeness. It wasn’t just a message for Capernaum or even for Galilee it was a message for all people everywhere. It would take the disciples a long time to fully understand this message. Jesus had to lead his followers into new and unexpected directions. He had to open their minds to see things they had never thought possible. Only then would they be able to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are like those disciples, often reluctant to have our lives disrupted by God’s call to service and preferring to stay within our comfort zone. But Jesus wants to use us in his ministry to a needy world, which is desperate for the good news of his love and mercy.
In the house of Simon Peter, Jesus ‘lifted up’ Simon’s mother in law and restored her to health. Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who uses that expression to describe healing. But it cannot help but remind us of Jesus own use of this expression when he declared in John’s Gospel, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ As we gather this morning to celebrate the Eucharist we remember again the cost of our salvation. As the early Church theologian Origen wrote, ‘He, the Redeemer, descended to earth out of sympathy for the human race. What is this passion which He suffered for us? It is the passion of love.’