Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 8 2015)
Reading: Mark 1: 29-39
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.
I could begin this morning by asking you what sort of week you have had and your response to that might be a kind of curious bemusement – as if to say ‘Well, what has that got to do with the gospel?’ In turn my response would be ‘Everything’. You see when we gather in the Cathedral and we hear the scriptures read our response will be influenced by everything we bring with us. We bring our culture. We bring our memories and associations; we bring all the other times we have heard this scripture read or preached; we bring our past and we bring the week we have just had; we bring our prejudices, hobby horses, foibles, foolishness and our dogmatism. We bring the person we would like to have been but have failed to be; we bring also that other person, that other self, that keeps getting in the way and tripping us up. Despite our best intentions, what we do not bring is a truly open mind or a clean slate!
For example one detail in the gospel story might play into our cultural prejudices and stereotypes: the fact that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick, then healed and immediately starts to get dinner ready for these men. I can imagine wry looks, knowing smiles from the women in our congregation; and possibly a general sheepishness – at least on the part of the men. On the surface reading this detail of the story presents a scenario that we seem culturally conditioned to be sensitive to and suspicious of.
So, does the gospel this morning culturally irritate us with what appears to be an example of patriarchy and the subjugation of women? It is quite likely that somewhere in the world this Sunday a sermon of that kind on this text is being delivered or prepared. Although I think that approach to this gospel may be misdirected, nonetheless an attempt to connect the gospel with our culture and our time gives strength to any sermon.
To that there is also a counterweight: we need also to be keenly attuned to the gospel itself and its deep connection to an early church where apostolic witnesses of the resurrection were still alive; a church that was rapidly growing in numbers and evolving in the organisation of ministry; and that in its mission was expanding across the Roman world.
So, for example, there is this moment of encounter between Simon’s mother-in-law and Jesus and we read: that Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” Elsewhere in Mark we encounter something similar: there is the case of the possessed boy (9:27) and in Luke, the dead daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:54). In each instance we encounter the same phrase, and the same action: being taken by the hand and lifted up. In each instance we find the same word being used: (egeiro) one of the words used in the New Testament for the resurrection.
The minute we pay attention to that detail we have the verbal equivalent of an icon in which we see the dead person being drawn firmly from the grave by the risen Christ; or in this instance the encounter with Christ restoring Simon’s mother in law to health and to a new life.
The difference is the encounter with Christ – and held firmly in the heart of the gospel is this living memory of the encounter with Christ and the transformation it effects.
Simon’s mother in law gets up and serves them. But again the word used is quite particular (diakoneo) – the particular word taken over by the church to denote the work of a Deacon. At the very least this word is being used to signal that this woman is now a follower of Christ and this serving is an act of love, an offering, a response to the redeemer.
So, in your imagination, see this as an icon – the Christ reaching out his hand and taking the hand of this woman on her sick bed, raising her up to life and wholeness.
That is the image we are to lay hold on as we read this gospel and as we come to this Eucharist.
As I said at the start, we come here with everything, encumbered with so much on our minds or in our hearts that we may feel overwhelmed by it all. Yet here the image applies to us: Christ reaches out toward us to take us by the hand and raise us up, to restore us to life, to hope, to purpose. That was the experience of the first Christians. That is the experience of the Church. That still happens. In this Eucharist Christ reaches out toward us.