Saturday, 25 February 2012

1st Sunday in Lent - Being chased by a Wild Goose

1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’


This time of year I love the birdsong. I sit in my study first thing in the morning and as the first glimmers of the daylight wash the sleep out of my eyes it is to the accompaniment of the world being woken up by the birds’ greeting of the new day. It’s not quite a dawn chorus yet, after all it’s still only February, but it is one of the most special moments of the day.

The trouble with nature, though, is that we can get all gushy about it and use it as unhealthy overly romantic metaphors for God. We love the sound of the sweet little bird song, but what about the unearthly racket a drake makes when it’s chasing a duck in the mating season. That’s birdsong to raise the dead by!

And that brings me to the vision of the Holy Spirit that we have of a white dove, a vision which is birthed in the accounts of the baptism of Jesus. Mark has a particular writing style which is to just give us the bare bones of the story. Matthew and Luke fill in with a lot more detail. Whilst they build the story slowly, Mark’s account, particularly in the first few chapters, is full of, ‘and immediately’, ‘and then’, and so on. You can get quite breathless reading it.

So it is with today’s account of the baptism and temptation of Jesus. There’s no extra detail to get lost in, just a simple account of Jesus coming to his cousin John to be baptised. As he comes up out of the water he hears the voice of God saying to him, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’, and he sees the Holy Spirit coming and descending on him like a dove.

And there’s our problem. From here on in we forever imagine the Holy Spirit as being like a pure white dove, all soft and fluffy, a bird with an accepting and loving smile on its face, and I’m sorry but that image is nonsense!

So why did the Holy Spirit manifest like a dove? Our first inclination is to think of the dove as a sign of peace. This probably comes from the image of Noah sending out a dove after the violent storm and flood. When it returns with an olive branch it is to show that the flood is receding, and that the wrath of God has passed. We still talk of offering an olive branch to someone as a way of describing trying to make peace with them.

Our first inclination may therefore be to think that this is the Holy Spirit showing that there is peace between us and God. God is offering us an olive branch. Well maybe that is a part of it. But the dove has other meanings in the Bible, some of which have nothing to do with peace. The dove was also a bird used for sacrifice in a ritual described at the beginning of Leviticus in which the priest wrings the dove’s neck, drains it of blood and tears off its wings.

That’s not such a nice cutesy image for us. Yet maybe it is closer to the truth, with the Holy Spirit offering a prophetic image of what was to come because this could be a description of what Christ went through. If we think of his life in sacrificial terms, the violence a priest did to the dove offering bears strong metaphorical similarities to what was done to Jesus at the instigation of the priests.

Far from Jesus getting a dose of feeling all warm and fuzzy when the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove, he might instead have felt a cold shiver of fear at the reminder from his heavenly Father of what he must accomplish.

There is also a reference in Isaiah 38 of moaning like a dove, with the dove being a symbol of human lament. And then at the other end of the scale the Song of Songs is littered with references to the lover as being like a dove. Again there we have potential symbols for what the Father was saying to the Son with this symbol; calling him the Beloved with a dove.

And then there is one more image, perhaps the most potent of all, which is from the beginning of the universe, when everything remains without form and still languishing in the primordial chaos, and the writer of the first chapter of Genesis describes the Spirit hovering, bird-like, over the waters, over the chaos, brooding about what may yet be but is still only dreamt of and unformed, like a pregnant mother with her hand over her swelling belly, pondering what is to come.

Can you see that with all this symbolic richness we should not simply imagine the Spirit of God as a soft white downy lovey white dove. The Holy Spirit is not safe, and that is proved by what happens next. Jesus scarcely has time to breathe before Mark tells us that the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.

That’s pretty intense imagery. The other Gospel writers smooth the edges off this rather a lot, saying that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. But Mark, the earliest writer, is quite emphatic. Jesus wasn’t led, he was driven.

The Celts have a very different symbol for the Holy Spirit. Have you ever had the misfortune to come up against a wild goose? Actually I’m not sure there is such a thing as a tame goose. And the worst of all is a wild mother goose who thinks you may be a threat. If you’re lucky you might get a hiss to warn you that you’re too close, but then you’re in trouble as she chases you, as she drives you off.

And with that imagery in mind the Celts refer to the Holy Spirit as the Wild Goose. Those of you who have read or used any of the resources from the Iona Community may have noticed that they call their publishing company the ‘Wild Goose’, and that’s why.

So let’s stay with this idea of being driven into the desert to face the temptations that the devil was about to throw at him, because that was the action of the Holy Spirit. We usually imagine the Holy Spirit as keeping us safe, and again it’s because of that lovely white dove image. But that is so very far from the truth. One of the first things I ever said to you is that a ship is safe in a harbour, but ships weren’t built for harbours.

Those of you were here on Ash Wednesday will remember me talking about how Lent has the potential to be a forest fire, burning up the deadwood if we give the Holy Spirit the space to light the first spark. Well the same kind of thing is going on here. We know the stories of what Jesus faced in the wilderness, but he didn’t. He had no idea what was coming.

He had to live with being driven by the Holy Spirit into a very vulnerable place. And that’s what I’m asking you to do for Lent. If we are to grow and move on as a church it will be because we are willing to take risks. Some of you have already come back to me about the choice of study leave that I’m taking later on this year. I’ve been asked what I’m expecting to accomplish.

The truth is that although I have some hopes and ideas, I don’t actually know. But one truth that I do feel is that it is the Holy Spirit of God driving me into the encounters I’m hoping to have. All that I ask of you is that you be willing to be driven out of your comfort zones. I am so heartened that I have had people come to see me over the last year or so ready to step out into the scary world beyond the harbour. And remember, the harbour is always here when some of need to come in for a rest.

So that’s what I think we should all be preparing to do. I sometimes look around our congregation and I wonder at the breadth of latent and not so latent giftings. I wonder at what you might accomplish in the community in God’s name. And then I wonder whether you will.

I’m sorry if that’s an uncomfortable question, but Lent is a time for asking uncomfortable questions. You see unlike what we may think of Lent as a time of trying to be extra disciplined and extra good, I feel that all that usually accomplishes is to make us feel like even worse sinners when we fail. Or perhaps we get cocky if we manage to keep our discipline.

But what if instead we looked at how willing we are to be driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, to take risks and see what we might become? You all have so much to give, but will you take the risk? I wonder....

I want you to close your eyes now and imagine you are on a canal towpath with water to one side, forest to the other, and trees surrounding you in the quietness. You’ve been walking for some time, maybe several hours, and now you’re beginning to feel tired.

Up ahead the path is beginning to become overgrown. It’s a beautiful path, but the canal is nearing a bend and you can’t see what’s around it because of the way the greening trees are bending closer and closer to the water.

You look over your shoulder, back the way you came. That’s a familiar path to you, but you have never walked any further than this - so now you are faced with a decision. You can go on or you can turn back to the familiar places. It seems like a fairly easy decision to make.

And then off to the side of the towpath, behind you, you hear a disturbance in the forest. You stand stock-still, wondering what new wonder may walk into your presence. And then you hear the hissing. Walking through the undergrowth and on to the path behind you comes a large white goose.

Her head is down and her neck stretched out in your direction, aiming down the path ahead. She’s hissing at you, and now you have a choice. She clearly wants you to go on, but you sense that if you try and go back the way you came she will reluctantly let you pass.

The choice of what to do is yours.

So in the silence, ask yourself, what may God be asking you to do now.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Ash Wednesday - Ash and New Life

2 Timothy 1:5-10
I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life--not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Luke 3:15-18
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


The fire starts small. They always do. Whoever heard of a fire that started as tall as an oak? And who knows what it was that triggered that small spark in the first place? But something did, and before long that tiny spark caught on the dry leaves, and little orange and yellow flames began their quickstep across the forest floor.

The dance engaged with twigs and briar - old weeds dried up and stifling the life out of the earth. Dry brushwood picked up the halting rhythm and before long the crackling pace took hold of the oldest, driest trees as the smallest, tiniest spark became an overwhelming force. The old wood burns.

It rages on for forty days and forty nights and at its conclusion all that seems to be left is a smouldering ruin. But wait. Just for a few days. Maybe just two or three. Then look again. Green shoots dot the forest floor. Now the green blade riseth.

The forest, once dominated by stagnant old growth finds new life as forever smothered shoots see the light and warmth of the sun for the first time. Nervously poking their heads through the ash, engaging with the elements they have never before seen, fire gives way to life, and ash marks the ending of the old to make space for the new as something fresh and vital springs from the flame.

Let me give you a bit of natural history. We all love our forests and woodland. And we hate the idea of fires burning them up, but a few years ago it began to become clear that forests have actually evolved not only to cope with fires, set naturally by lightening, but actually to depend on them.

Did you know that some seeds actually require the heat and the smoke generated by a forest fire simply to germinate? Other new plants simply cannot get the light and water they need unless old dry dead underbrush is burned up. Hold on to that thought because it’s vital for this Lent.

But have you noticed how we often think of fire in such negative terms? We are afraid of it because it remains uncontrollable, able to burn through those things we hold most dearly. The biggest problem with fire is that we cannot control what it burns up, all of which brings us to Lent and Ash Wednesday.

The Bible is full of metaphors about fire and many of them strike fear into us; the fear of judgement and hell. Who can forget the words of the writer to the Hebrews who refers to our God as a consuming fire? But the metaphors are most definitely not all negative. In Exodus 3 the Lord revealed himself to Moses in a bush that was on fire but not consumed by the fire. When the Lord led the people of Israel through the desert it was in a cloud by day and by a pillar of fire at night.

When Elijah was carried into heaven in 2 Kings 2 it was in a chariot of fire. In Zechariah 2 God offers his protection as a wall of fire. And perhaps the most important one is that when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost it was as if there were tongues of flame upon their heads.

The two readings that we have used tonight also make clear uses of the positive yet scary nature of fire. In St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him to fan the gift he was given into flame. The reference to Timothy’s timidity suggests that he was scared to be all that he was called to be, and maybe that his young age meant leading his church was difficult for him.

When you fan something into flame you really don’t necessarily know what it’s going to do next, so it requires courage and a step of faith. At some point in their lives most children will play with fire, and most children will be burned by it and learn that it is not something to be played with. Likewise we can be scared of the gifts God has given us and the possibilities of where they may take us if we fan them into flame.

Then in our Gospel reading John the Baptiser refers to Jesus as baptising his followers with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Why fire? Well maybe it’s because of that reference to burning up chaff. We normally associate the wheat and the chaff with God’s people and those who have put themselves outside the kingdom. But what if there’s another meaning here?

What if the wheat and the chaff also refers to what is going on inside each one of us? And this brings us back to our opening motif of the forest fire. In order for there to be space for new growth it is necessary that we put the old dead wood, the chaff, that which is dried up and useless in our lives, to the torch and let it be burned up.

When we do that we find a very different meaning to the use of ash. In addition to its traditional use as a sign of repentance, it also becomes a sign of willingness to let the flame of God, sent by the Lord himself, to turn to ash those parts of our lives that are getting in the way of the potential for growth, for us to be able to give back to the community of the gifts that have space to grow within us.

And so that is what we’re going to ask you to do this Lent. After you have received ash on your foreheads, take a piece of paper from the pile in front of us which poses a question, ‘What is God asking me to offer up to the fire of the Holy Spirit to be turned to ash in order to make way for new growth?’

You may well have various disciplines that you’re doing over the course of this Lent, but we would ask you to keep this sheet with your Bible and bring it out every day, asking God in prayer what it is that you should be offering up. What is getting in the way of you offering your gifts? Write on to the paper the things which come to mind and let God make it clear to you. And talk about it with someone you trust.

It may be, for example, that your fear of being noticed stops you from doing your very best with a public gift. Or it may be that your love of talking stops you from seeking the silence of God’s presence. Maybe it’s your fear of what people might say about you that stops you from offering yourself for a ministry to which God is calling you, or perhaps it’s the way you treat people that is stopping you from growing in loving relationships.

It could be anything, and the hardest part of that is that if you make this offering to God you don’t know where the flame will stop, and you don’t know what will be left.

But that is the point of Lent, that we allow ourselves to be challenged by God and changed, that the old is burned up to make way for something new. Whoever said that a forest fire could be anything but painful. But that is why you should be prepared to talk with someone you trust about the process. We’ll make ourselves available to you as well.

So when you receive ash shortly, with those timeless words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn away from sin and be faithful unto Christ’, remember that you are receiving ash also as a prophecy, that the ash represents that you are willing to let the Lord set his fire on the dead wood in your life to make way for new growth.

The Sunday before Lent: The transfiguration within


2 Corinthians 4:3-6
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


The transfiguration did not happen just once. If we permit it, because we are given the choice, a transfiguration can be taking place right now within us. It may be a slow process, or it may move along in fits and starts, in moments of revelation and periods of quietness, but nevertheless a transfiguration, if we so choose, can be happening right here and right now.

Listen again to the words that St. Paul wrote:
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
We are all here because to one degree or another we know the truth of this, that within us, within our very hearts, the light has begun to shine in the darkness. I believe that we can use the Gospel narrative to help us understand and grow in this phenomenon simply because the story of Peter, James and John can also be our story.

To understand what I mean we need to dissect the elements of what took place. When we do this the first thing we find is the deliberate work of Jesus. The writer explains that after six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and they went up a high mountain. This was not an accident. Jesus took them with him.

There are three names attached. This was not like some of the other miracles which took place. Jesus was going somewhere important and he wanted them specifically to be witnesses to what he was doing and what would take place. He chose them by name. Why them? To be honest we really don’t know, but for us the significance is that he chose these people.

And that is our story too. You are not here today by accident. Jesus took you with him too. He called you by name and invited you to come and travel with him. You have come here because at some point in your story, in your journey through life, Jesus took you with him. You may find that you can look back at the decisions you made, or the decisions others made for you, and at the mistakes you made, either accidental or deliberate, and what you find is the grace of God.

Interwoven into your story is the same story of Peter and James and John. Jesus was going somewhere and he wanted witnesses, and he has taken you with him to witness to what he is doing in this world, and more importantly in the context of what takes place in this story, he wants you to be a witness as to his true nature.

You are not a believer by accident. Jesus took you with him. Your part was simply to agree to come along. How sad for those who ignore him tugging at their sleeve. How unfortunate for those whom he calls but who find other things to be doing. Imagine what these three disciples would have missed if they had said they were too tired to climb with him.

Let’s go on. Not only did Jesus take them with him, he took them away from everyone else, up a high mountain by themselves. For many of us we like to take this literally because it is when we go up a high mountain by ourselves that we feel able to get away from the world. But this here, this building in many ways has the potential to be our local high mountain.

You have come here, some of you away from your families or friends. They’re out shopping, or still asleep, or eating or doing something else. You are here, up this high mountain, doing something extraordinary. You are dwelling in the presence of God. Now you can do that anywhere but the fact is you have chosen to come here, or more correctly you have chosen to be led here, up this high mountain, with the sole purpose of being in the presence of God.

And when we get here we find that we are not the only ones who are witnessing to who Jesus is. Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. What you know of God through Christ is true not just because he has revealed himself to you personally, but also because he has revealed himself through scripture long before he was born into the world.

But what I find most interesting in this encounter is the response of Peter because once again this is our response too, Peter gets into this most holy place and he starts talking. A witness cannot be aware of the truth of what is taking place around them if they spend their whole time trying to speak about it and make sense of it.

The whole point of a mystery is that you observe it, that you let the beauty and wonder of God fill you. And the same thing can and should apply to some of our worship. Many of our services are filled with lengthy liturgy when all that is really needed is to be still and in God’s presence. That’s one of the reasons why I encourage people over and over again, to come and to be still.

I find it vital to knowing the presence of God that I stop, slow down, cease to speak and simply dwell with God who has come to dwell within me. But I wonder how often we do that? Do we arrive at church and look for who to talk to? Do we find ourselves offering a commentary to what is going on around us. Peter and James and John are about to hear God speak, if only they will be still enough to hear it.

How often do we practise that kind of stillness? How often are we happy to just sit? Are we content to make space for awe? You see when we do, slowly but surely we become aware of the voice of God within us pointing at Jesus saying, ‘Here is my Son who I love; listen to him’. We don’t have to just do this in church. Indeed if this is the only place where we are trying to be still then our stillness will not be very far-reaching.

This story of the transfiguration then can be the story of our lives and of our worship. It is a story of how each of us is called by name to accompany the Lord. It is a story about how that journey will require effort. It’s not like sitting in a taxi where Jesus is the driver; it’s a climb up a mountain where he is our guide.

It is a story of how, in our worship and in our stillness we are called to find that place where we begin to see who Jesus really is by being still enough to become aware of the transfigured Son of God within us. Finally then it is about being changed by that presence. As the Lord unveils himself within us so we will be changed, and those who are seeking for truth will know that change within us and be drawn towards the Lord.

The transfiguration of Christ can take place within us, and its far-reaching consequences can reveal the Lord to us and to the world. But first we must learn to be still and aware. Amen.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Third Sunday before Lent: Healing is about Community

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.


About ten years ago Ali and I went to a wildlife park, and we found there a large glass enclosure with a black puma in it. The puma was at one end and we were at the other, and in between were lots of trees; it was a big enclosure. As we watched we saw the puma turn and look at us. Immediately she dropped down and gradually worked her way towards us, staying low on the ground. It was a most eery feeling because we suddenly realised we were being hunted.

It got to us both on a really primal level, that sense of being rooted to the spot and unable to escape. And I think that’s a feeling that most of us will have had at some time or another. Have you ever had the kind of dream that you’re being stalked? There’s that sense of inevitability, that there is going to be no escape from what’s coming.

I have to admit that from time to time I get scared like this of God. I find myself wondering about all the power that I see in the universe, and about it ultimately being impossible to evade God. In the final analysis, every one of us is ultimately going to have to face God. And then we get a passage like today’s Gospel and I find myself wondering why I was so worried.

You see throughout this passage we have evidence of Jesus raising people up, and that verb is the key one; to raise someone up. It begins with Peter’s Mother-in-Law. Now for us, having a fever is not so serious. After over two weeks of coughing I finally went to the doctors’ this week to get antibiotics, but what would have happened if I hadn’t?

Well hopefully I would have eventually have got over it, but not without possibly having had to take some time off. Or maybe it would have continued to worsen. We pretty much take it for granted that modern medicine will get us off the hook if we’re ill, but for Peter’s Mother-in-Law it was different. For her having a fever was far more serious and it meant two things.

In the first place it might simply kill her. Mortality was much higher for them than for us, and an unchecked infection can be fatal. But secondly it stopped her from taking her place in society. You see she had a role to play, a defined place, which was to look after her family. Now immediately this will begin to get some of our hackles up. We live in a culture of emancipation for women from servitude to men, at least that’s what we hope for.

So what good is there in this passage? It almost seems as if Jesus is a bit hungry and the person who could get him some food isn’t well so he raises her up in order that she can fix his dinner. There is a part of us that feels that this miracle leaves a bad taste because Jesus seems to be doing a miracle out of self-interest.

So let me remind you of the verse later in Mark 10:45 where Jesus says this:
“...For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s the same word for serve, diakonos, that is used in both contexts. Jesus raises Peter’s Mother-in-Law so that she can serve them, just as he will serve them, except his service will demand his life...

What happens then after Jesus raises Peter’s Mother-in-Law?

The next thing is that a whole bunch of people turn up at the door at Peter’s house in Capernaum. It’s interesting to note that it’s at sunset that they bring the sick and the possessed to Jesus. Why? I think it’s probably because it’s the end of the working day. Everyone had tasks to do which could only be done by daylight, and then they bring those in need to Jesus.

They couldn’t bring them earlier in the day because they had work to do, and maybe if those who were sick or spiritually oppressed were raised up, there’s that verb again, then they would all be able to pull together better as a community because there would be more people available to do what was needed. There is a strong sense here of people being raised not just so that they are well, but so that they can retake their places in society, in the community, to do the jobs that they were supposed to be doing.

And that, I think, is the point of healing that we miss in our culture. For the most part we have much of what we want and all of what we need. When we’re ill the state looks after us. We may not think enough money is being spent on the NHS, and there are undoubtedly people who fall through the net, but compared to 1st century Palestine, or even to most of the world now, the safety net that we have would have been beyond their wildest dreams.

But for the people who came to Jesus there was no safety net, and they needed everyone to be well so that they could play their part. In other words they were all meant to be serving each other, and it seems to me that the reason Jesus was casting out demons and raising up the sick was not simply so that they could be better.

No, I think that the reason they were healed is as per the example of Peter’s Mother-in-Law, so that they could resume their place in society and so that society would be better for all because they were there. Which, of course, brings this back to us. Illness in the time of Jesus bore a social cost. If one person was ill, others suffered. If one person was not taking their place in society, everyone suffered, and so Jesus restored people to community.

Jesus restored people to community, and he so in order that we could serve each other. So how about us? Do we need to be restored in a way that allows us to serve each other, the local community and the church community? It can be very difficult to get people to commit to a task these days, yet the context of these readings is very clear - the people are meant to be serving each other, and Jesus restores them so that they can. It was assumed that people served each other and the community.

I wonder whether that’s why we don’t see so much restoration at the moment, because we’re looking for it for selfish reasons. It is a given, in Gospel terms, that we are meant to be serving, but do we see it as such in our own lives? This whole passage is about how Jesus removed physical and spiritual barriers so that people could rejoin the community and serve each other, and I wonder what are the barriers he needs to remove for us.

If you remember I started by considering how God chases us down, and that to be chased by God is good news, not bad news. But I wonder whether we treat it as good news. Because God catches us in order to show us how to serve and set us free to do so. But do we really want that? If the Son of Man came to serve not to serve, and we’re created in his image, what does that say to us? Trouble is, being a servant seems rather beneath us doesn’t it....