February 02, 2018
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
The distance between the synagogue at Capernaum and the house of Simon and Andrew is a relatively short one.
It’s about as far as the apse behind me to the back wall of the church.
And from that house on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, one can see so many of the locations where miraculous things occurred in the gospels.
To the right is the place where Jesus multiplied the fish and loaves to feed a multitude, and the hill or “mount” from which he delivered the Beatitudes.
On the left was Gentile territory, the place where the Gerasene demoniac was released from his chains, and the steep hill where the possessed herd of squealing swine were driven into the waters below.
At the other end of the Sea lied the Imperial city of Tiberius, the seat from which Rome exercised control over the surrounding countryside and which served as a Roman spa town and center for trade.
Yes, the distance between the synagogue and the home of Simon and Andrew is geographically a small one, not unlike the one between their house and these other, now famous, sites.
And yet, when speaking of the spiritual distance between the old world…a world characterized by collaboration between religious hierarchy and imperial interests…a world marked by systemic oppression of the many for the benefit of the few…and the new creation ushered in by Jesus, the distance between the two is astronomical.
Take for instance this seemingly simple scene from Mark’s Gospel today.
On the surface we hear of Peter’s mother in law being incapacitated by a fever.
Much like Jesus did earlier when he exercised power over the man possessed by a demon, Jesus goes to Peter’s mother in law and lifts her up.
But digging deeper under the surface, it turns out there is a lot more significance to this healing story than at first meets the eye.
The Greek verb translated as “lifted her up” is used extensively later in the Gospel of Mark.
It is the same word used for the term “raised,” making this the first time in any Gospel, since Mark was the first one written, in which Jesus’ power of resurrection is on display.
Jesus will go on to raise many others up, but Peter’s mother in law is the first.
At the very end of Mark’s gospel, when Jesus himself has been raised from death to new life, the angels at the empty tomb instruct Jesus’ female followers to tell Peter and the other disciples to head back to Galilee, the place where he first showed them what this resurrection from the dead was all about, because “there you will see him, just as he told you.”
In fact, Mark’s Gospel is all about preparing us to witness the marks of resurrection in the midst of the wilderness of this life and the old world that constantly surrounds us.
Peter’s mother in law is raised to new life, and because she has made the crossover from the old world to the new creation in such a dramatic fashion, she responds through service.
Now, it is important to say here that this is no forced service…not some old world gender role that she is being pigeonholed into performing.
Generations of bad theologians and preachers have used this amazing scene in order to justify harsh treatment of women and gendered subjugation and slavery cloaked in the name of service.
Especially in this world in which #metoo moments are too many, I feel called to proclaim that such preaching has no place within our church.
In fact, it misses the entire point of the story, which is that Jesus raises us to new life to be free from the demons, shackles and contagious fever of the old world.
As I said before, the gap between the old world and the new creation is a great one…as great as the distance between life and death.
Peter’s mother in law’s service is the direct and freely chosen response to being carried across such a great divide by Jesus her savior.
Like the Israelites delivered by God from slavery, she too has been liberated for a purpose.
It is the same purpose that Jesus himself has, because he has shared it fully with her in this moment of resurrection, and the kind of service that flows from that purpose has nothing to do with slavery, obligation, or coercion.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The word for this kind of service is diakonein, from where we get the word deacon, and it is characterized by a free will giving of one’s life for the sake of another from a place of thanksgiving and wholeness.
Such service can take many forms, from waiting on others at table, to washing another’s feet, to standing up to injustice on behalf of another.
Peter’s mother in law is a paradigm of the new creation…and all of us who have been freed by Jesus and raised to the new life of resurrection are called to respond in like fashion.
To serve the world, the uplift each other, and contribute to the wholeness of the new creation in whatever way we can.
This happens in our families, in our church, and in the neighborhoods and communities of which we are a part.
Did you know that the service that you freely render is a primary way that the old world experiences the resurrection of Christ, and is a primary channel through which others are raised to that resurrected life themselves?
It can be a little daunting to let that sink in…God has faith in us and loves us enough to entrust this ministry of transformation and “transportation” to us.
Of course, we are not abandoned in these efforts, God’s help always underpins our service, guiding and strengthening it, whether or not we acknowledge that help.
But it is still a free will choice to serve or not serve…the ultimate requirement of any true love…freedom from coercion.
Whether we exercise that free will and choose to respond faithfully in diaconal ministry— is up to us.
Whether we give of our talents to build up the body of Christ called the church, whether we seek out and serve the lost, the imprisoned, the sick, the weak, the hungry, the blind and the lame, whether we embrace our role as harbingers of the resurrection or keep our light hidden within the haunts of the old world.
Jesus raised Peter’s mother in law to the new creation of resurrection, and each of us who have been buried with him in baptism have been raised to the same.
If for some reason you aren’t “feeling that” or still feel caught between worlds, then please make an appointment with me and let’s talk about it.
Because at the end of the day, being raised and freely serving are what being church is all about.
And it’s what the entire Gospel of Mark is trying to communicate to us, through this episode and through many, many, more.
May Jesus continue to raise us up, may we find the grace to respond to resurrection through service, and may we help this old world move from the trappings of its former self into the new creation and kingdom we have experienced and witnessed in the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.