Sunday 8 February 2015
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Poor Jesus, he just can’t seem to get a break. He sneaks out of the house early in the morning and heads out to the wilderness to spend a little time in prayer. He just needs a few minutes to himself. He hasn’t been doing ministry for very long, and he’s not used to the pace. People have been flocking to him ever since he came into Capernaum a few days before. And all he wants is a little time to himself, to rest and get reconnected with God. But as it happens, the time he gets is very short. As soon as they notice he’s gone, Jesus’s new disciples go out searching for him, saying, “Everyone’s looking for you. What are you doing out here in the wilderness when there are people back in town who want you to heal them?” And with that, it’s back to the grind for Jesus.
It all started when Jesus came to the synagogue in Capernaum and started teaching like someone who really knew what he was talking about. There was someone there with a demon, and the demon called out to Jesus, and Jesus drove out the demon. It didn’t take long for the news about Jesus to spread. He had hardly gotten out of the synagogue before people starting showing up, wanting him to heal them or their families or friends. And from then on, Jesus would barely get a moment’s peace for the rest of his earthly life.
One of the first people Jesus heals is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. It’s a fairly simple story on the surface. She is in bed with a fever, Jesus goes in and heals her, and she gets up and starts to fix them dinner. But looking a little deeper, there is much more to it.
First, Mark uses an interesting word to describe how Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. It says that he “raised her up.” On the surface that means that Jesus lifted her out of bed. But of course, it’s also a word about resurrection, isn’t it? Jesus was raised up. And when we read this story, we’re supposed to be reminded of Jesus’s resurrection. We’re supposed to connect this story with that kind of resurrection power. This woman is healed by the same kind of power that raises Jesus from the dead.
And what that implies is that we can experience that same kind of resurrection power, not just after we die, but in the here and now. Maybe it’s relief from illness, like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law experienced. Maybe it’s relief from addiction, that anyone who’s gone through a 12-step program knows can only come with the assistance of a higher power. Maybe it’s escape from oppression or crushing poverty. Maybe it’s the new sense of purpose and worth that comes with conversion when we realize that God really loves us and we really are God’s own children. Maybe it is comfort in our grief, and a sense of assurance that, as it was with Jesus, our lives do not end when we breathe our last. These are all ways that God’s resurrection power is expressed, the power to bring new life out of death, the power to bring new hope out of despair.
The second unusual thing about the story of Peter’s mother-in-law is what happens after the healing. Mark says, “The fever left her, and she served them.” It’s always struck me as a bit strange that she began to serve them as soon as Jesus healed her. It seems a little cold of Jesus to allow her to run around fixing them dinner when she should probably still be resting.
But looking a little closer, we notice that Mark uses another interesting word here, and that word opens up a whole new layer of meaning. The word for service, διακονία, is the word from which we get the English word “deacon.” In addition to meaning service, it also means “ministry.” So while on the surface all she is doing is setting tables, at a deeper level, she is doing ministry.
And it makes it clear to us that the proper response to God’s resurrection power is ministry. We are not healed from illness or set free from addiction just for our own personal benefit. We are not released from captivity or saved from sin just for ourselves. God does not turn our lives around just so that we can sit at home and enjoy it. No, God turns our lives around so that we can share that gift through ministry to others. God heals us and sets us free so that we can continue God’s healing and liberating work in the world. The appropriate response to God’s grace in our lives, to the work of God’s resurrection power, is always ministry with God in the world.
When Jesus is out there in the wilderness the next morning, trying to recoup, recharge, and get reconnected with God, his disciples come out and find him. And they tell him, “Everyone’s looking for you. Come back into town so that you can heal more people.” But do you notice what Jesus does? He does return to active ministry, but he doesn’t return to the town, to all the people who are searching for him, who want a piece of his resurrection power, of his healing grace. No. This is what he says to his disciples who want him to return to the crowds. He says, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.”
Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come. He didn’t stay in one place. There was certainly more for him to do in Capernaum. He had not exhausted all the work that could be done there. But he kept on moving, going to new places and new people who had not yet heard his message of good news.
And I can’t help but think about the church. We are here because we have received God’s resurrection power in some form or another. We are here because God has touched us, made something new in our lives, sent the right person to help us just when we needed it. And on our good days we do respond to that grace through ministry to the world.
But Jesus does something harder. Things were going fine in Capernaum. People were flocking to him. Ministry was being done. But Jesus leaves it behind in order to reach new people in new places. Jesus leaves not only his comfortable sanctuary in the desert, but also his thriving ministry, in order to begin something new.
Now, in the church we tend to spend a lot time focussing on our inner life. We often want to stay up there on the mountaintop outside of town, continuing to work on our relationship with God, but oblivious to the fact that everyone is searching for Jesus, everyone is seeking that healing grace, and we have the ability to share it.
But even when we do come out of the retreat of our sanctuaries, are we ready to take that next step, like Jesus did? Are we ready to make the riskier move of reaching out to new places and new people who have not yet heard the liberating, transforming message of the Gospel?
It’s much easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s familiar; it’s comfortable. But God is calling us forward to a new level of boldness. God is calling us to expand our field of vision, to seek new areas of mission and ministry. God is calling us to go boldly where no Lutheran, no Methodist has gone before. And in some cases, God is calling us to leave behind the old ways of doing things in order to reach new people.
Of course it’s easier to keep on with what we’ve been doing, especially when it seems to be working. But if we are ready, if we are willing, God asks more of us. God asks us to courageously step out in faith, to do the things that are uncomfortable, to blaze new trails, to make new starts, to do something bold and different. God calls us to strike out, like Jesus did, so that we can share God’s love and God’s grace with new people in new places. How ready are we to follow?