Sunday, January 28, 2024

Sunday 4 February 2024 - Epiphany 5

Theme(s): Healing / Restoration / Obligation to preach / All things to all people

Sentence: Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up (Mark 1:31)


Healing God,
in the touch of Jesus the sick were healed,
the chains unbound.
Freedom is before us.
Set us on a new path of wholeness,
deliver us from all that binds us,
turn us to embrace that life giving love
offered through Jesus Christ,
who is alive and lives with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.


Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39


Isaiah 40:21-31

Isaiah 40 is the beginning of the second part of Isaiah which is (so to speak) a charter for the future restoration of creation (i.e. the kingdom of God), including the restoration of Israel from its Babylonian exile (the immediate issue facing God's people at the time of writing).

In this part of the beginning of the charter, the prophet paints a verbal picture of the transcendent might and power of God, yet a power and awesomeness which is personal: the weary in Israel will receive new strength and power from the Almighty God (27-31).

These last verses are the particular connection with the gospel reading today as we see new strength come to Peter's mother-in-law.

But the first part of the Isaianic reading reminds us that from Isaiah onwards 'God' in Israel's theology was re-envisioned as God of the whole world, not just of Israel. In a context where nations had their gods, and even tribes had tribal gods, the 'theological achievement' of Isaiah is not to be under valued.

When Jesus comes, the kingdom of God which he proclaims is not only the new rule of God over Israel but also the rule of God over the whole world.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

This psalm sets a context for the compassionate miracles of Jesus recounted in Mark's Gospel. What Jesus does is God in action, as anticipated here: 'He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds' (3).

One phrase particularly links with Mark's story of the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law: 'The Lord lifts up the downtrodden' (6b, see Mark 1:29-31 where Jesus takes the woman by the hand and 'lifts her up').

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Paul's letter is a series of responses to situations in the church in Corinth, and one situation appears to be Corinthian Christians questioning Paul's status as an 'apostle' (see verses 1-15).

Possibly there were multiple questions such as, 

Is Paul really an apostle like Cephas? Does he have the status of the (real) apostles and the brothers of the Lord? He's paid too much, isn't he? 

The last question (it seems reasonable to presume such a question was being asked, see verses 6-14) invokes intriguing talk of "rights", otherwise a concept which we might think to be recent and modern!

Out of a defensive rejoinder to the grizzling about him (1-15) Paul hits a purple patch about the special character of his apostleship in our passage.

(1) Whatever anyone says about him, 'an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel' (16). Paul can only do what he is doing because there is no alternative: the will of God constrains him to one and only one direction of life.

(2) Preaching the gospel is its own reward (17-18, also 23).

(3) Short of changing the essence of the gospel, Paul will do anything in order to win people to Christ. If he needs to be Jewish 'in order to win Jews' he will be Jewish (20); if he needs to be a non-Jew 'so that I might win those outside of the law' he will become 'as one outside the law' (21). In fact, cutting to his own summary, 'I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some' (22).

The great question for declining churches in the world today is what must we become to be 'all things to all people'?

Mark 1:29-39

One of the theories about the authorship of Mark's Gospel is that it was written by John Mark but what he wrote down was largely the teaching of Simon Peter, perhaps as he taught in the churches in Rome in the 60s AD.

(We have the theory because ancient church history attests to this explanation, but we cannot prove that it is fact - the theory is not as ancient as the likely time of writing of the gospel itself. There may be an element of wishful thinking on the part of ancient church historians because they had to justify why we might think a gospel according to one who was not one of the Twelve can be considered a reliable gospel. A challenging question if Mark's Gospel is more or less Peter's memoirs of Jesus is why so little of the teaching of Jesus is not included, compared with Matthew and Luke).

If Simon Peter is the author(ity) behind the author then it is understandable that this passage includes an intimate family story: Simon's mother in law is ill, Jesus comes as a guest to her house, heals her and she repays the favour by serving Jesus and the disciples (29-31). But Mark tells the story in a manner which is theological as well as biographical.

First, a healing with names highlights the general point Mark will go on to make: Jesus healed many people (32-34) and these healings were integrated into the mission of preaching the kingdom of God is near (1:15, 38-39). Always in this gospel, deeds back up words and words are accompanied by deeds. If the kingdom of God is near we would expect illness to be overcome, since illness is a denigration of the original kingdom of God, creation itself; and we would expect demons, antagonists against the rule of God, to be expelled (34, 39).

Secondly, Mark makes a theological point when he tells us that Jesus physically led her out of illness to new life: 'he took her by the hand and lifted her up' (31). Illness has cast her down but Jesus lifts her up. There is a hint here of resurrection. There is more than a hint of a work of restoration. Healing is not simply the removal of illness from a person's life but a work of renewal of life.

Thirdly, by telling us that when she was lifted up, Peter's mother in law 'served them', Mark also makes a point that the work of the kingdom, the restoring of health, is purposeful for the ongoing life of the kingdom in which the hallmark of relationships with one another is that we serve each other (see importantly 10:45). Yes, we can also observe that the story viewed in the 20th and 21st centuries reinforces a stereotype about women: their role is to focus on household tasks, in particular serving the men in their lives ... even immediately after recovering from illness!

Finally, note that Mark picks up another 'marker' in the life of Jesus when he interrupts his telling of the progress of the preaching of the kingdom by recounting an intimate detail of Jesus' life with God: Jesus took time out to go out to the wilderness to pray. Here, Mark is saying, is both the secret of Jesus' power (his relationship with God) and a model for disciples reading the gospel (we too, like Jesus, should go to quite places for quiet times of prayer). 

1 comment:

  1. In NZ's Anglican Church of Or, following Mother CofE & Northern Europe's extended 40 days Christmas/Epiphany/Candlemas celebrations to brighten bleak winter days, Ordinary Time begins at Candlemas - which can be Friday OR last Sunday (when the Sunday sequence of readings of Jesus' baptism and calling his disciples is interrupted by another baby-Jesus story). So - while this coming Sunday is the First Sunday in NZ Anglicanism's pretty-unique "Ordinary Time", we're not calling it the First of two Sundays in our Ordinary Time prior to Lent, but suddenly the "Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time" - with no sign of what happened to the previous four Sundays in Ordinary Time. If we were going to continue Sundays after Epiphany (or as our NZ Lectionary booklet calls them "Sundays of THE Epiphany), your calling this, above, Epiphany 5 would be eminently sensible. I prefer counting ordinal numbers from 1, and would start - with most Christians - counting from the Baptism of Christ, and acknowledging that some things are appropriate in the Northern Hemisphere but not in the Southern.
    Thanks for your weekly reflections which I always link to from my liturgy website.