“Healing and Wholeness” Colchester Federated Church, February 7, 2021, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Mark 1:29-39)
Our story this week in the Gospel according to Mark is once again about Jesus healing people. Jesus leaves the synagogue in Capernaum after healing the demon-possessed man and goes to the home of Simon and Andrew (alongside James and John) and finds Simon’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. The disciples tell Jesus about this poor woman being sick. Jesus wastes no time—coming into the home and taking her by the hand, raising her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to serve them right away.
That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus more people who were sick or demon-possessed. Mark tells us, “The whole town gathered near the door.” Jesus continues his ministry of healing. And early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Modeling for all of us that self-care is necessary after working for the benefit of others. Because sometimes our bodies get tired and our souls get weary and we need rest, to be still in the presence of God and away from the whole town gathering near the door.
These are once again stories about healing and wholeness. Jesus was known for his healing ministry, so it makes sense that Mark’s Gospel begins in this way. Though sometimes the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law can seem a bit sexist to our modern ears. We hear that the men come home, and poor mom’s sick in bed—who’s going to make us dinner? We’re hungry. She is in need of healing, so she can get to work taking care of all of us. In an ideal (perhaps more enlightened) version of our story, Simon’s mother-in-law would get healed of her fever and then be able to drink some tea and just chat with Jesus. She’s been fighting this terrible fever for who knows how long, let the poor woman rest and relax a bit. Meanwhile maybe Simon, Andrew, James, and John could get some dinner going. They’re grown men, they’re not completely helpless! And some men are great cooks anyway, come to that.
Now we have to be aware of the history and culture in which Bible stories were written in order to begin our interpretation and figure out how God is still speaking to us through these stories today. The mother was always going to be the one in the kitchen making dinner for everybody after Jesus heals her given Jewish culture in the First Century. Though we’re missing something important if we don’t go further than that. It ends up that even in this historical and cultural context no one commands Simon’s mother-in-law to get up after Jesus heals her and start making dinner for everybody. She responds to Jesus’ healing of her own initiative by serving others. She has some real agency here.
Of course she’s still a woman living in a patriarchal culture. Of course she’s conforming to stereotypical gender roles by serving the men who are present in her home (or Simon and her daughter’s home, the text doesn’t specify.) We don’t even get to know her name in this Gospel story since her identity revolves around a man. She is Simon’s mother-in-law. But let’s keep in mind that Jesus heals her in the home where she’s probably living with her daughter and son-in-law. So even though we will never know her name, this woman shows Jesus the compassion and hospitality that he has just shown her. There’s mutual ministry going on here, and that’s part of what’s remarkable!
Remember how Jesus said that if you want to be great, you will be a servant? This nameless woman is great because she’s a servant leader. Jesus constantly redefined who a family is throughout the Gospels. This woman is showing how much Jesus’ idea of family will expand because she’s being like a mother to everyone who has gathered in her home. Can we imagine how grateful she must have felt to be healed? Just like the man who was healed of his demon last week and just like all of the people who gathered near the door to be healed of their sickness or demon possession—Jesus restored this woman to herself and her community. It’s another marvelous example of Jesus’ ministry being about healing and wholeness. And the woman responds with immense gratitude by extending hospitality to Jesus and his disciples.
This hospitality is not something to take lightly. It’s a mark of our Christian faith and a spiritual practice. Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis reminds us, “Hospitality was indispensable in the ancient world. There were few restaurants or hotels along one’s journey on the dusty roads of Palestine. Little travel was possible without the assumption and expectation of hospitality . . . according to Jesus, discipleship demands dependence on hospitality.” Jesus and his disciples traveled from town to town and depended on people like Simon’s mother-in-law providing hospitality. Just as Jesus taught that we must extend hospitality to one another. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Remember that Christian communities began in house churches, in small groups of the faithful who cared for each other. The Church would have had no home in the beginning if it weren’t for people who opened up their homes to fellow believers. House churches and worshiping God at home may be something that we’ve thought about more during this pandemic. Instead of thinking each week that I’m just talking to my phone on a tripod, it helps to think of our church family gathered in your homes to worship God. No, we aren’t in the same physical space of our church sanctuary yet—but our connection to one another and God is still here. That’s the beauty of being part of a faith community.
This morning we can remember that hospitality and table fellowship were important aspects of house churches. Jesus’ ministry was known for table fellowship and he was radical for eating with all sorts of people. The meals that the earliest Christians had in their house churches were Agape Feasts (Love Feasts.) The Sacrament of Communion was part of the Love Feast and enabled people to both serve and be served. We continue on with that tradition today when we gather at Christ’s Table.
In the end, Simon’s mother-in-law is Jesus’ first servant leader who responds by serving others in her home. Some have even called her the first Deacon because through her willing service and hospitality, she helped Jesus announce that the realm of God is here and that serving others is what Jesus’ teachings are all about. Even though it would have been nice for her to get healed, put her feet up, and quietly drink some tea with Jesus—she has other ideas for how she’d like to show her gratitude. If we seek to be Jesus’ disciples, we must live lives of service. May we take to heart this woman’s story, and go out and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Mark 1:33, Common English Bible.
 Karoline Lewis, She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, 177.
 Ofelia Ortega, Theological Perspective of Mark 1:29-39, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, 334.