February 7, 2021
One of the things I’ve struggled with most over the past ten months is the helplessness I often feel when pastoral concerns arise. I’m unable to visit people in their homes, or hospital beds, or hospice. Phone calls or emails are no substitutes for a face-to-face conversation, for being present with someone who is suffering or struggling, to offer prayers, words of consolation and comfort, or communion.
I’m not alone in this. It’s something clergy talk about when we gather but it’s a general problem as well. We have been cut off from each other and in spite of all of the ways that technology enables us to worship, to have fellowship, to continue to do our work, we miss the simple pleasures of being together with friends, family, coworkers, other members of the body of Christ. We feel the sense of that loss every day.
The little gospel story we heard today seems straightforward, perhaps even uninteresting but hearing it in our context brings out new themes that speak to our situation.
Recall that we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Earlier that day, he had visited the synagogue in Capernaum where he taught (with authority) subdued a man with an unclean spirit. Now he is going home with Peter, where they discover that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever.
In moving from the synagogue to a home, Jesus is not only going out for lunch after services. He is moving from the public, male-oriented space of the synagogue to the private space where women could act as agents. But in this case, Peter’s mother-in-law is incapacitated by illness and unable to fulfill her traditional and important role of offering hospitality. Jesus heals her and Mark says that she got up and served them.
That little detail might be something we overlook, or it might be something we notice and even offend us. Think about, one could interpret this story to mean that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law so that she could get up and fix dinner for him and his disciples.
There’s more to it than that, of course. First off, the word used here for “served” is the Greek word diakosune—from which we derive our word “deacon.” Significantly, Mark uses it at the very end of the gospel to describe the women who watched from afar as he is crucified. There, Mark is contrasting the behavior of these female disciples with Jesus’ male disciples, all of whom abandoned him at the end and left him to die alone. For Mark these women are models of discipleship. It’s appropriate, then, that at the very beginning of the gospel, Mark shows a woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, modeling discipleship by serving Jesus.
That’s not the end of the story. As evening falls, ushering a new day and the end of the sabbath, the townspeople bring all of their sick and those possessed by demons to Jesus. Mark says that he healed many of them—not all. And then Mark tells us that Jesus went off to a deserted place to pray. When his disciples caught up with him, they told him that “everyone was looking for him” implying that he was wanted back in Capernaum, to continue his ministry of healing. But Jesus demurred. He told them his work was elsewhere, to proclaim the good news, heal the sick, and cast out demons in the towns and villages of Galilee.
Packed into these few verses are some important lessons for us. We see models of both ministry and discipleship. For Mark, one key theme discipleship and ministry is service—Jesus will later tell his disciples in 10:45 that he came not to be served but to serve (using the exact same Greek word here). While healing is central to Jesus’ ministry, it’s important to keep in mind that healing was not only about a physical illness. In the ancient world, illness affected the whole person, body and soul, and to be healed meant being healed spiritually, and restored to the community. Peter’s mother-in-law was isolated in her bed. When Jesus healed her, she was restored to her place in the community.
In addition, in Jesus’ actions we see an important reminder to us as well. In the first place, while all the sick and those possessed by demons were brought to him in Capernaum, Mark says he healed many, not all of them and that he left to go to a deserted place to pray. Even Jesus couldn’t solve all of the problems of the people and he needed to take a break, get away from it all, to pray and recharge.
I’ve been inspired as I’ve watched Grace members come together over the last months. In spite of the challenges facing us all, in spite of the many limitations on what we can do, we are still caring for each other, preparing meals, praying, reaching out to those in need. We are doing ministry in all kinds of ways, sharing God’s love with each other and with the larger community. The phone tree, the healing prayer team, pastoral care committee, the nourishing community group are all working hard to keep us connected and to respond to needs as they emerge.
But we should remember that even as we seek to do ministry, to follow Jesus’ example in serving others, healing and restoring them to community, we should not lose sight of our own needs and limitations, that we can’t do it all, and we can’t do it by ourselves. Our work needs to be centered in prayer and in our relationship with God. The prophet’s words should inspire us:
“but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”