Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
This Gospel passage gets quite a bit of criticism from many different people. Much like Lazarus, Jesus hears about a friend who is really ill. But in today’s passage, he doesn’t delay. He is already there in the house with Simon’s mother-in-law. We tend to jump from her illness and healing to her domestic duties of serving the boys. After all, the passage says “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” We are taught that in that day in age, and maybe for some today, one of the main roles for women was to be in the kitchen. This is not an unfair perception especially of the way hospitality was understood in Middle Eastern culture. But as the old adage tells us, the devil is in the details . . . or maybe it is the Holy Spirit in this example.
The mother-in-law does go from being healed to serving but it is this word “serving” that we need to look at more closely. The word to serve is “diakonein.” This Greek word means to serve as to wait tables but it also can mean to serve in ministry as in a deacon or as the angels did for Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus literally raises the mother-in-law up. Her illness leaves; and I believe she is now moved by a new faith, a faith in which she full recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. In faith, she now serves her guests, much as those of us at the altar today will serve you. This type of service isn’t, or shouldn’t be drudgery. It is something we enjoy doing because we enjoy serving the Lord. Look not only at the acolytes, but also the altar guild, musicians, readers, and yes even the vestry. If they are serving out of duty, that is great. If they are doing it out of joy to serve, that is even better.
But this story of the mother-in-law doesn’t stand alone. Earlier in the day, Jesus exorcized a demon out of a man in the Synagogue. Later in the day, he heals his friend’s Mother-in-law. And now that evening he has come he does both, healing and exorcising the people of the city. This story is a transition that shows us that Jesus doesn’t only have power over the demons but he has power over those things that cause death and even death its self.
After Jesus heals and casts out demons with people lined up at the door, he has to call it a night. It appears they close the doors and the people come back first thing in the morning; anxious to be touched by Christ. This is where we get to the second difficulty in our story. After the disciples hunt down Jesus they find him praying in a desolate place. He doesn’t go back to the throng of people just waiting for him at the threshold of the house. Jesus decides to move on, seemingly ignoring those in need.
We shouldn’t be surprised by his action. The passage says why he moves on. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” When we look at Jesus’s ministry we know that he did not come to heal a few people here or there. His ministry wasn’t to set up shop in one town and have everyone come to him. Healing our physical bodies is not Christ’s mission or his message. He says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[i] His message is to bring the Good News of God’s grace in which through Christ we have eternal salvation. Jesus can’t stay in one place; he cannot spend all his time healing. His acts of healing may be a tangible or visible way for people to understand who Christ is, the Messiah, but it isn’t the most important way. We need to understand the Messiah through faith. Through Christ’s movements, moving from town to town, we find that his message is for all the people. There are no borders. There are not people that or in or out. God’s love is unbounded by anything let alone geography.
I think this is where we can pick up Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We, who know Christ, know that he is the perfect example of how we are to live our lives. St. Paul does a great job modeling his life after Christ. His faith and determination is an incredible witness to the Gospel. And today he is trying to impress upon his congregation, which includes us, how we are to spread the Gospel message.
Much as we found with Simon’s mother-in-law, Paul experiences tremendous joy in serving others. Paul says there are two ways in which we can serve. One is out of a sense of obligation and the other is by a sense of commission. But “woe to me if I do not spread the Gospel.” The distinction Paul is trying to make is that an obligation is self-imposed whether from feelings of pride or guilt, obligation comes from within our own desires and hopefully from Joy. A commission, on the other hand, comes from someone else. A commission is imposed upon you. He says that spreading Christ’s message with a sense of imposition is OK, but we will receive the greatest reward if we do so out of our own desires.
But what I find most interesting is why Paul claims to be doing any of this. He says “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Or I think it would be fair to say, he does it so he can be part of the gospel that he is sharing. He isn’t imposing the Good News on others; he is inviting them to take part, an active part, of the same Gospel that he is a part of.
This is the same gospel that we are invited to be part of; where we can be free to serve others without concern of payment, reward, or feeling burdened; where we are invited to go beyond the walls of our house or this building into a kingdom that has no boundaries or borders. You are a part of this Gospel. You fit into this story, but it is only through telling others the Good News that you can explain how you fit into this same story that they are also a part of. Christ invites us to go beyond our comfort zones to serve others and spread the Gospel to all the people.
[i] Mark 1:14 NRSV