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....

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