“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.”
“At once”, “immediately”, are phrases that occur often in the gospel of Mark. Today’s passage contains many of the themes found in Mark, and I will look at these specific verses more fully in a bit. First though, I want to mention an opportunity that will be coming up during Lent at Emmanuel this year.
Here is some background. Twice a year the clergy of this diocese come together to worship, reflect and learn. Often one of the gatherings follows a retreat schedule with periods of silent reflection while the other is more of a learning conference. At this past November meeting, since this is year B in the lectionary, we experienced more about the gospel of Mark.
The first evening of the conference was a solo performance by an actor from New York City, Tom Bair. (Tom is also a clergy spouse, the husband of Bishop Geralyn Wolf.) Tom has memorized the gospel of Mark, the King James Version, and this is what he did for us. He recited the entire gospel from memory, with only one short intermission. Now to be honest with you, after a three hour afternoon drive and a somewhat heavy supper, I thought I would have to really work to stay awake. Not so!
Tom had us mesmerized. I think it was the first time I had heard the entire gospel. I have read it in its entirety on many occasions but I had not heard it spoken aloud, all the way through.
Part of the intrigue, of course, was how did he do that? I asked him the next day how he did it and he said that he had memorized the book in a particular church space that had different pictures and objects on the walls. He associated specific parts of the story with those different art pieces. When he did the presentation in other places he would turn to a part of the room and visualize what was on the wall where he had done that memorization, and then he could remember what came next in the story.
As I said part of the intrigue was how he did it, but very quickly it was the story itself that kept us interested. Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life on earth in a very action packed way. Common phrases and themes come through by hearing it all at once. Even though we all knew the story and how it came out, as Tom told it, we were drawn into the action; we wanted to know what came next.
I mention this today because during Lent, you will have a unique opportunity to hear this gospel of Mark in its entirety too. It won’t be a memorized version but on Sunday evening February 18, beginning at 6:00 pm the gospel of Mark, from start to finish, will be read here. I encourage you to take advantage of this experience. Listening to the story of Jesus’ active ministry, from start to end, as one of the early Christians might have, will be worth it. Put it on your calendar.
The scriptures on Sunday morning are heard it in chunks. Taken together over the course of three years, (with regular attendance), we do hear it all, (well most of it anyway.) And there is an advantage by listening to it in this way. For one, we aren’t here all day long! But also, by breaking it into smaller passages we get a chance to reflect on the gospel in a manageable way.
What we heard this morning is fairly typical in how Mark writes. In it we see a picture of a day in Christ’s ministry. In this section, there are four things told about Jesus actions on that one day. He restored Simon’s mother-in-law to wholeness; he healed many people who lived in Capernaum; he prayed alone separated and in quiet; he carried his public ministry to other areas of Galilee. Jesus restored; Jesus healed; Jesus prayed; Jesus carried. Action, action, action, action.
This is characteristic of the gospel of Mark. Things happen at once, immediately, and things happen quickly, one upon another. There isn’t a whole lot of explanation or building up to it or reflection. It is as if Jesus knew that his time of active ministry would be short and so he needed to pack a lot in. Action upon action.
It is really up to us to do that reflection. Mark gives us the events and we put things together. One such reflection in thinking of the entire gospel is that love is an action. God loved us and because of that love, and in and through that love, he sent his son to us. Love is action, a verb—even more so than feeling or emotion. Carrying out love by what we do is a reflection of Jesus as told in Mark’s gospel.
Now back to this particular passage. This day’s worth of happenings followed Jesus calling of the fishermen, and a period of his teaching in the synagogue. Jesus must have been looking forward to some rest at Simon’s house, but that did not happen, not then. More and more people sought him out needing the healing he had to offer. There was more and more for him to do and it all was important. It might have been easy for Jesus to be caught up in that work and to have spent his ministry in Capernaum as an extraordinary physician. Yet that is not what he did. Rather, he took time; he made time to get away by himself. He found a deserted space and took the time to pause and reflect. He stopped the business of his work and responsibilities to refocus and reconnect with his Father.
Spending time alone, away from others, in prayer helped him to remember his main purpose on earth. Jesus came to bring his message of salvation to everyone. To everyone. The miracles he performed and the healings that he accomplished were to bring attention to that message. The miracles communicated that the kingdom of God had come to the people in his person. These miracles were not the purpose of his ministry; they were a means to achieve that purpose. And when he was worn out by the people and their needs, he would withdraw to gain strength and to put that purpose freshly in his mind.
We do well to pattern ourselves after Jesus in this action. Our times of prayer and focus on God’s kingdom are the most important things we do. They are not “add-ons” or extra things to do when we have the time. Our times of prayer are the foundation, the grounding for all of our actions.
Let’s look more closely at what Jesus did in healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus went against the conventions of his time by being in the same room with a woman who was not part of his family. Being ill, the woman would also have been considered “unclean”, and yet Jesus came to her. He came to someone on the fringe of what was acceptable by his society’s rules. And he not only came into her presence, he offered his hand to her, he physically touched her. That was an action that was even more unheard of. His actions were an expression of love, God’s love, to her.
Her response was also an action of love and gratitude. Upon being healed today’s version says she served them, which most likely meant she made a meal for them. That is what the matriarch of a family would do, offer hospitality to her guests. Some modern versions of the gospel actually use those words. The King James Version says she ministered to them translating the Greek word, diaconeo, as to minister. What happened is that this unnamed woman who received the personal touch of Jesus in turn gave her personal touch to those in her house.
She was the first to model what Jesus calls all of his followers to do: to love others and to express that love in action—by serving them.
She received love and she in return gave love. We can follow her as an example of how we are to love one another as Christ loved us. We are to offer ourselves, our work, and our lives to the service of God and his people. Our actions are a response to the Love we have been given. To serve in this way is not a demeaning act. This is a mutual love. Christian service is a freely given response to what we have received.
Getting back to the morning’s passage what happened next is that people heard about Jesus and what he was doing. Many with illness were brought to Simon’s house to see if they might also be healed. And seeing the need Jesus did heal them but then Jesus stepped away for a time to evaluate what was happening. After his time of prayer, his purpose on earth came back into focus. And then he left to carry his message of healing love to other people and other places. For this is what he had been sent to do.
Giving and receiving are the messages from this passage this morning. The actions that are such a part of the gospel of Mark are today summarized in these two: giving and receiving. We receive first and then we give what we have received. This is the action that is love. We receive from God and we give the healing love we have experienced to others. And the urgency often expressed in Mark is true in this giving and receiving also. Immediately, and at once, following Christ’s example we are to spread God’s love to the world.