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Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

 




Saint Margaret’s 

Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary


Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39


“The fever left her, and she served them.”   Mk 1







It is probably fair to say that the ministry of Jesus begins with healing.  This becomes particularly apparent already in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark from which our account this morning is taken, which includes the famous story of our Lord healing of Simon’s, the Apostle Peter’s, mother-in-law of a fever of some sort.  This story, keep in mind, follows immediately upon the healing of the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit and is itself followed in turn by the healing of all sorts of people brought to Jesus’ doorstep.  All this and more, and we are still in Chapter One.


The account of Peter’s mother-in-law also occurs, by the way, with slight differences, in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, so seemingly important was it to the early Church’s understanding of our Lord’s “message,” as Mark here calls our Lord’s teaching.  And it is a particularly moving account.  To begin with, having a fever in the ancient world was a big deal.  There was no aspirin or paracetamol back then.  We can assume therefore that the mother of Peter’s wife was seriously ill, essentially unable to get up from bed and unable to engage in the activities of daily living to which she was no doubt accustomed.  


She is clearly not a stranger to our Lord and his disciples; she is family, after all, which adds to the poignancy of the tale.  Jesus’ encounter with her takes place not out in the open, as is so often the case with his healings, nor even within a public space such as a synagogue.  It takes place at home.  I suppose we could almost call it a pastoral visit, arguably the first ever.  No words are exchanged between Jesus and the woman, who herself remains curiously unnamed, perhaps simply because everyone already knew her.  And if I am not mistaken, this is the very first time our Lord is described as touching someone, quite literally lifting this dear woman from her sickbed.


Healing was central to Jesus’ mission of course.   And it was understandably important to the people whose lives he touched, literally and figuratively, whether they were close to him and his disciples, such as in this case involving Peter’s mother-in-law, or whether they were perfect strangers, such as those here also described as gathered outside the door of the house where our Lord was.   For all of them, healing meant a second chance, freedom from debility and pain, and hope where there had been no reason for hope.  In an instant, healing brought change and transformation, wholeness and strength.   No wonder everyone was looking for Jesus.


Healing of course was not an end onto itself in the ministry of Jesus, though for those healed I suppose it hardly mattered.    Healing heralded rather the coming of the Kingdom of which Jesus so often spoke, although it is not specifically mentioned as such here.    The Kingdom our Lord proclaimed transcended this world of pain and death and mortality.   And, most importantly, it was at hand, within grasp, never far away.   The Kingdom offered spiritual wholeness and integrity in a world of frailty and death.


We remain today in need of just such transformation, no matter at what stage of life we may find ourselves: at the peak of our physical ability and vitality, or already made vulnerable by disabilities of our own or old age.    That is, I suppose, the epiphany in today’s lesson.   For paradoxically, healing itself reminds us of our ultimate mortality.   Even those healed by Jesus, including Peter’s mother-in-law, became at some point sick again and eventually died.  But in their moment of healing, they glimpsed God at work in their world.   The eternal became a moment in time.     Without his healing ministry, it is hard to imagine that Jesus’ message would have resonated with the people of his day, much less of our own.   


For Jesus, healing was not so much about breaking the laws of science or medicine, of which he as man could have known little or nothing.  Healing was about the power of God transforming lives and making all things new.  In this regard, it is interesting to note that, at least in our own English language, the words healing, health, wholeness, wellness, and even holiness all stem from the same etymological root, meaning in some sense full or complete.    


And at whatever stage of life we may find ourselves, we also know ourselves as somehow distinctly incomplete, as in need of something or someone other, something more, something beyond ourselves.   In other words, we need healing not only to make us well, but to make us whole, to make life make sense.  Healing, however we may experience it, makes it possible to encounter God at work in our own lives.  Indeed, for those in pursuit of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, wholeness comes only in the pursuit of oneness with God.   


So, how do we know when we have been healed?   Seems like an odd question, I suppose.   It should be obvious.   When the pain is gone.   When the fever has come down.   When the disease is no more.   But I suggest that healing is much more than the simple absence of visible disease and hurt.    After all, there are a lot of very healthy-looking specimens wandering about among us who are anything but intact and whole on the inside.   The Gospel account today gives us, I believe, a fuller and better answer to the question of what healing is.


“The fever left her,” we are told of Peter’s mother-in-law, “and she served them.”  She served them.  While some feminist theologians see this in a negative light as a return to female servility in a patriarchal society, I think we can agree to interpret it more broadly and positively.  For, servanthood is what we are all called to.  As Peter’s mother-in-law experienced healing in her life, she in turn offered service to others.   That, it seems to me, is always the sign of true healing at any age.    


When you are ready once to again focus outside yourself you are healed, even if you are still sick.   When you are no longer a slave to your own hurt and pain and sin, you are healed.  Jesus touchingly takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and raises her up at the very beginning of his ministry, reminding us that he himself will be raised up from human frailty and death at the conclusion of his ministry, at his Resurrection.   And it is in that final raising-up of our Lord that we are healed for good and for ever.   In Christ’s Resurrection, we too come to experience not only God’s healing power, but eternal life itself.  


“Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also,” says Jesus at the close of this Gospel passage, “for that is what I came out to do."  Having ourselves been healed by our Lord’s message, proclamation of his Gospel becomes now our task as well.   It is now time for us to join Jesus on that journey “to the neighbouring towns”.


Amen.


The Revd Canon Dr Frank Hegedűs

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