Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it below.
I’m not sure why, but recently, it seems I have been engaged in more than my fair share of conversations about our mission and vision. It was just a few weeks ago that I based an entire sermon on our mission statement, so I don’t really want to rehash all of it here, but this week, I realized something that I feel I need to share with you. After more than six months of living with and speaking aloud our mission statement, I came to the realization that it is strung together with an “and” and not an “or.” We are a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, AND radiate God’s love to all. This means that in addition to our mission being a statement about who we are as a community, I think it also serves as a call for each of us as individuals. It isn’t that some are over here doing the worship bit, while others worry about learning and growing, and still others are in the kitchen radiating God’s love. Rather, we are each called to engage in all three areas of mission and ministry here at Christ Church. Worship is the proper response to God’s grace. Being a disciple literally means being a student of the teachings of God. The fullness of our life in Christ is exemplified in the ministry of service, reaching out and radiating God’s love to all. Sure, each of us is maybe better equipped to fulfill one part of this mission than the others, but the truth of the matter is that all are called to serve God by way of worship, discipleship, and outreach.
In my experience, it is most difficult to convince people to engage in the outreach component of the life of faith. We get showing up for worship, and most of us enjoy learning about God, but for some reason, many have been convinced that the call to serve is reserved for a small group who are particularly gifted in some way. “Oh, I can’t cook.” “I couldn’t possibly help with Room in the Inn.” “I wouldn’t know what to say if I visited someone in the hospital.” Most members of most congregations are quite content to write checks so that somebody else can radiate God’s love on their behalf. Here at Christ Church, however, we are not “or” Christians. We are “and” Christians. Our Gospel lesson for today makes it clear that following Jesus requires us, all of us, to serve.
This story immediately follows last week’s lesson about Jesus healing a demon possessed man in the Synagogue at Capernaum. As the crowd buzzed with excitement about the authority of Jesus’ teaching and his ability to cast out demons, Jesus and his disciples retired to Simon Peter’s house for the evening. Upon arriving there, the group was made aware that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had taken ill. The substantial news coverage of the number of people who have died from the flu this year might remind us that a fever isn’t as innocuous as we have come to believe. In a world before antibiotics, Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever could very well have been a death sentence. At the very least, and like every other illness and demon possession in Marks’ Gospel, her fever had rendered her as good as dead by keeping her from the fullness of her ministry and setting her outside of her relationships.
Here I feel the need to pause to make mention of how this text has been used very poorly in the past. Too often, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has been told as a story that was meant to “keep women in their place” by highlighting that her ministry was a ministry of service. Some translations say that after she was healed she “began to wait on them” or “prepared a meal for them,” and while that was the traditional role of women in first century Palestine, what Mark describes happening is of much deeper significance.
First, we should note that Jesus did not heal Peter’s mother-in-law in the same way he healed many in the crowd later that evening. In the Greek, Jesus did something far greater than heal her. Jesus raised her up. It is the same word John uses to describe what happened to Lazarus. It is the same word that Mark will later use to describe the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Day. What Jesus did for her was far more powerful than the many healings he would do that evening. He turned her weakness into strength. He raised her from her as-good-as-deadness and restored her to fullness. It didn’t take her any time at all to recuperate. Immediately she got up and served them.
As I noted just a moment ago, it is upon this word “serve” that plenty of bad theology has been built. Rather than being a proof-text for why women shouldn’t be ordained or preach or teach in seminaries, what Mark is actually saying here is that she ministered to them. The Greek word translated as “serve” is diakonai, from which we get the word Deacon. It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way. Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support. Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work from the very beginning.
Even more important is how Mark uses this word elsewhere in his Gospel. While Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil after his baptism by John, Mark says that Angels waited (diakonai) on him. When Jesus was crucified, Mark tells us that all his male disciples fled. Judas turned him over to the Temple Authorities, Peter denied him three times, and the other ten were nowhere to be found. Yet, in that moment of pain and sadness, several women were there. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are named, but there were others. These were the women, Mark tells us, who had accompanied Jesus as disciples while he was in Galilee, and who had provided for him, served him, ministered to him, diakonai’d for him, along the way. It is not unreasonable to think that, even though her son-in-law had failed his Lord that day, maybe Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was still there, supporting Jesus in prayer and grief.
Finally, Jesus even uses diakonai to describe his own ministry in Mark 10:45. My New Testament Professor, John Yieh, called this verse the key to understanding Mark’s Gospel. “For the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonai), but to serve (diakonai) and to give his life as a ransom for many.” For those who follow Jesus, service (diakonai) is the basic building block of discipleship. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, then, is not healed simply to fulfil her role as a 1st century woman or to serve as the exemplar of what women are called to be in the church, but in being raised up to serve, she is the first true disciple of Jesus Christ.
Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from her fevered bondage in order that she might live fully into her identity as a disciple through loving service. We who have been set free from our bondage to sin are called to the same. We are called to worship by acknowledging the holiness of God in word, song, and sacrament. We are called to learn and grow by engaging in practices of discipleship and Christian formation so that we can deepen our relationship with God through Christ. AND, we are called to serve, diakonai, by working for justice and peace; by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger; and by visiting the sick and imprisoned. We may not perform the same sort of miracles that Jesus did, but we can serve with the same goal in mind: joining with God in restoring all people to right relationship with God and with one another and living into the abundant life of grace. Ultimately, we worship, we learn, AND we serve because it is who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ. Amen.