In Capernaum, after teaching in their synagogue, Jesus visits the home of his disciples, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law of the fever that has laid her up. Throngs gather that evening outside the house, people whom Jesus also heals or releases from demons. Next day, after praying in solitude, he moves on to continue his ministry in other parts of the Galilee.
According to NT scholar Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, this story is symbolic of the early church community’s experience of faith. Specific words in the story, carefully-chosen are repeated in other episodes. As they reappear, they reinforce the overarching meaning of Jesus’ healing ministry. For instance, the word here translated “lifted up” recurs in later healing stories. Importantly, it is the same that Jesus uses in foretelling his own destiny, being “raised up” in the resurrection. Kittredge concludes that in Mark healing is resurrection. She wrote: “The healing of Peter’s mother in law is the first resurrection story in the gospel.”
Along with health itself, healing means being restored both to activity and to community. Peter’s mother-in-law, after being “raised up,” begins to serve her guests. The Greek for that is diakonein—root of our “Deacon”. And it’s the same word with which Jesus describes himself when he says: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” Service is ministry. In Mark, service is the “paradigmatic response of faith.”
Like Peter’s mother-in-law, others whom Jesus heals will also be returned to their place in society–“raised up” again to the fullness of life, work and service.
Because the nameless woman is healed, then serves, Kittredge sees that with her Mark creates “an icon of resurrection and a paradigm of Christian ministry.”
These healings don’t just touch individuals; they affect the family, the household, and eventually the larger community. So, in Capernaum that evening, “the whole city was gathered at the door.” I imagine their being drawn to Peter’s house by a healing energy that was palpable.
In the gospel stories, Jesus’ healings are compelling, dramatic, usually instantaneous transformations—very different from those we’re likely to experience. And though they lead to the repair of relationships and restoration of community, they are first and foremost physical cures. Healing and cure are synonymous in the gospel story.
Not at all necessarily in our own.
Throughout your life and mine our bodies are healed and cured of injuries, illnesses with (and mostly without) modern medicine. Still, sooner or later everyone will die from an injury, an illness, or simple old age. The body will fail. But healing can continue right to the grave—and even beyond. That’s because “healing” embraces spirit, psyche, and relationships.
One vexing issue is how we continue to play our part, to “minister” or to “serve” as we decline in health, strength, or ability ourselves. When my mother began to fall late in life and needed in-home care, my father confided his sense of frustration and failure with his own limitations. “I can’t do anything to help your mother,” he said. I told him he was wrong. While he couldn’t care for her physically, neither could I. We didn’t have the training to do it properly. But he, alone, could care for her as her husband and companion—continuing “to love her, honor her, cherish and keep her,” as he had vowed to do on August 31, 1946.
Loving presence itself is healing. Loving presence is service. Loving presence is ministry.
Believe me, your simple presence in church on Sunday is part of your ministry to each other and to me. It matters that you are here! Service, ministry, begin with the simple act of showing up. “Show up. Pay attention. Play your part. And trust God with the outcome.”
Show up! It matters.
Back to the gospel. Jesus’ healing begins with the woman and her family, then radiates out to the whole village. The people want him to stay there. But Jesus is called to leave the comfort and confines of that place, to go on, to continue to share the message of God’s healing, reconciling love in unknown places. He hears that call in the prayer, the solitude that are the pivotal point in the story.
What does that example mean to us, to our ministry at St. John’s?
St. John’s is a healthy congregation. We thank God for that blessing. And, like Jesus, we are called to carry it beyond the comfort of this sweet space, to share God’s gift of health with this broken community, this broken world.
Reaching out is in St. John’s DNA. Even before our forebears built this Sanctuary a hundred years ago, they were already engaged in mission. In every generation, we have renewed and expanded our common commitment to serving our neighbors.
That’s what the Centennial Fund for Social Justice is intended to do in this one—giving us the means and the impetus to engage in new, deeper ways with our neighbors locally.
The needs are enormous! Racial inequality, generational poverty and trauma, discrimination against immigrants, sex trafficking are just some of the injustices that plague our city. We cannot heal any of them completely—much less all. Even Jesus didn’t do it all. But, like him, we can show up and play our part.
There are two other things Jesus did in this first healing for us to keep in mind. He started out on a small scale. And he prayed. Let’s be sure to emulate the rhythm that Jesus kept, moving from action to contemplation to action to contemplation.
Let us prayerfully seek out the places and the partnerships with and through which we can best bring our gifts to the healing of our community. Between us we have all of the gifts we need to do the work that God gives us to do. Trust in that.
A final word, the greatest gift we bring always will be our loving presence. And, to quote the title of The Rev. Becca Stevens’ new book: Love Heals.