A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of the Epiphany
Today’s lesson from Mark must be read along with last weeks’ lesson, which was about Jesus Preaching in the Capernaum Synagogue on the Sabbath Day and his casting out of an unclean spirit from the middle of the assembled congregation.
Today’s lesson begins with the words: “and immediately” (right from the synagogue service). Jesus went to the home of Peter and Andrew. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever, he went to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to serve them. Evening, the end of the Sabbath Day doesn’t come until verse 32. “When evening came, after the sun and set.
Working, healing on the Sabbath is always an issue, especially highlighted in Mark. In a lesson like this there is much more going on than is obvious to a modern reader. If Jesus were simply curing the physically sick and disturbed why would this upset all the local religious and political authorities? We need to look with an ancient eye if we are to capture again the power and authority of these stories.
Jesus in today’s lesson went upstairs to the bedroom of a woman not related to himself, on the Sabbath Day, took her hand, while she was sick and therefore unclean, thereby committing multiple social offenses.
Peter’s mother-in-law gets up, on the Sabbath and serves them. Jesus does not see the touch of a woman, even a sick woman as defiling him. Everyone else would have.
In our time we see disease as the malfunction of a person’s body which can be fixed, assuming that the cause and cure are known. The focus is on restoring the sick person’s ability to function and do.
In the ancient world a person’s being or status was more important than their function. In the ancient world a sick person was disvalued and excluded from their social networks. So when Peter’s mother-in-law was with fever she could not fulfill the role of preparing and serving a meal to the guests which would have fallen to her as the senior woman in the household.
Jesus’ healing restored her to her social position within the household. For her to serve was a matter of honor and pride not servitude. To read feminism into this would distort its meaning. For example, my Grandmother always prepared our family's meals and served them to us, but her place in our family was first and she had the most honor and status.
We also need to examine the Greek word aphieme. The fishermen aphieme their nets. The fever aphiemes Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus does not let the demons aphieme. Jesus later aphiemes people’s sins.
The word notes a drastic change from what was the case before. It is a letting go of something in order to move on. Whether it is a person leaving or letting go of family or job or sickness or sin leaving a person. Family, job, sickness or sin are not supposed to control one’s present life. They should be left behind.
How about this for a new definition of forgiveness: not letting what happened in the past control my life in the present. With the emphasis on leaving the past behind. It is letting go so that we are no longer controlled by the past but are opened to Jesus future.
In these beginning lessons at the start of Mark’s gospel he declares the social and religious barrier to be ineffective. There is no holy place or un holy place. There is no clean and unclean. The only power effective against the unholy and unclean is the man Jesus.
Jesus ministry will challenge the reigning boundaries of power by continually transgressing these boundaries. As in touching a sick woman, a leper and eating with sinners.
How do we let go of the past that binds us and transgress the boundaries so that we and everyone else may live in the freedom of Jesus’ life and faith?
If Jesus has taken down the barrier between heaven and earth, between clean and unclean who are we to put it back up? But we do and I think we do it most destructively to ourselves. God does not love you when you are good and ignore you when you are bad. He simply loves you! The rest of the barriers we throw up. Instead of worshipping Jesus’ loving father we worship Plato’s god who loves only what is good and punishes the bad. We sometimes think we have a good side and a bad side. Again this is our friend Plato and not the one God who loves what we are, not some idea of what we should be.
This is what Luther meant when he said sin boldly. The demons and their chief Satan, want to keep us separated from each other and from Jesus’ Father. By making false distinctions between clean and unclean, between in and out between sacred and ordinary. Did not our God make everything in the world and pronounce it to be very good?
At the heart of all our human institutions is our religious belief in false gods who tell us who the bad people are who must be kept out. Often we cast our very selves out, becoming the classic “house divided against itself that cannot stand.”
From the very beginning of his ministry Jesus came to challenge the structure of the way we do things. That is why the political and religious leaders were all against him. He came to challenge all the boundaries that separated people from each other. Class, status, race, nations and religion. These are the demons which killed Jesus, which sought to cast him out by executing him on the cross. The keepers of the holy declared Jesus unholy and in order to cleanse themselves from Jesus uncleanness they needed to kill him.
This is the sickness that Jesus death on the cross exposed. It is the sickness of sin that runs so deeply into every fiber of our culture that we set up all kinds of boundaries that keep us divided against ourselves and each other.
Those demons have been in place for centuries and they don’t go away overnight. Even Jesus couldn’t drive them out as easily as he drove out unclean spirits from individuals.
But Jesus’ resurrection begins a power of forgiveness that runs deeper than our culture. It comes with a love so deep and unconditional that not even the boundaries we set up can keep him out. Jesus will not stop, he will not go away, he will not get angry or cranky or impatient.
The power of the resurrection gives us the ability to examine ourselves even in the depths of what scares or embarrasses us. Jesus can bring all our parts back together so we are whole and integrated and not a house divided. That is healing and health.
We get that healing today as we line up to receive Jesus body and blood. Which is given for us and to us so that we each realize and proclaim that it is God who makes us and keeps us and because of that we are each as worthy and unworthy as the one who stands next to us. Each of us eats a meal of wide-open unconditional grace, which knocks down all our walls and offers healing and life and health.