Home > Homily, Sermon > Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law (or: Jesus’s First Deacon?)

Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law (or: Jesus’s First Deacon?)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The last few weeks we’ve hit upon one of the themes woven into Epiphany – that being how we hear the call, each in our own way – and are expected to respond to this call. Last week we even ventured into how we call upon Jesus and how he responds in kind to our requests. The same words keep coming up over and over; call and response. But not just a response of “okay, I hear you, Lord”; but a response that moves us in a manner that we change our behavior and start in a new direction, begin a new way of seeing and hearing. And most often it’s a response that calls us to serve. And that is where today’s gospel begins.

For Mark, two things stood out in Jesus’s ministry. He heals the sick and feeds the hungry. In Matthew he preaches and teaches a lot. But here it’s what Jesus does that is supposed to get our attention. In a few lines of verse there is a call, a response, and we head in another direction. A condensed version would be; Simon calls to Jesus to tell him about his mother-in-law and he responds without question. The word get out to the entire town and when those people are healed Jesus restores himself through prayer and they head out in a new direction to spread this ministry of healing to all who ask. Tucked in there is another response that some may have been taking the wrong way. And that is the response to serve after receiving a gift. Some have interpreted the act of serving that Simon’s mother-in-law jumps into as a menial task of serving lazy men. After all, she has been in bed with a fever, and in those times a fever was no small ailment. Many died because remedies were not well known and recovery times were often long and dangerous. So when we read of how she immediately jumped up and started serving we can be misled into the thoughts of a patristic and misogynistic society where male domination meant everything, even to the point of disregarding someone’s health.

Allow me to present another rendition. Jesus was just beginning his ministry. He had left the synagogue where his authority was revealed through his new teaching and the healing of a man possessed by demons. He arrives at the home of Simon Peter and without question, without words, without ceremony or ritual, touches a woman and she is healed. At once – or ‘immediately’ as Mark so often says – she gets up and serves him. … How often do we respond immediately to the healing moments in our lives? The ones that come out of the blue without any notice; without being requested? When all we might do is mention to someone that a friend is sick and we find out that person is on the prayer chain and begins calling people to pray together. Or we sit anxiously awaiting the news of a loved one who is hospitalized, only to have a stranger sit next to you who begins humming an old forgotten hymn that at once comforts and soothes you. What is our reaction to those moments? Do we sit quietly, absorbing it all for ourselves? Or do we accept the gift of peace and love and mark it in our hearts to do the same for another when given the opportunity?

I truly believe that in this case, the un-named woman realizes the gift of Jesus’s healing power and acts in the only way she knows of to give thanks; she takes on the role of being the first servant to him. She has a servant’s heart and she is now serving the one who came to serve, the Messiah. It will be a long time until these lazy men understand the concept of what Jesus is preaching. For many of them it won’t be until after he’s gone from this world that they fully understand what servant-hood means and what their response to a new calling will be. But for a moment, long before Peter and John and James and the rest of the apostles select seven of the disciples to serve the needy while they continue spreading the gospel; long before these seven were selected to be the first deacons in the new church; Simon’s mother-in-law demonstrates what true diaconal ministry is by leaving her old ways behind and serving Christ, Himself. She is the first of his servants and therefore arguably the first deacon to serve in his ministry.

Now if you’re saying, all well and good, but Jesus isn’t here, we already serve him in his church, I have to say, yes that’s true… but… If you’ll humor me a bit here, let me take you to another situation in another time and place. The year is around 1200 ce. We’re in Italy were a monk named Francis is walking around the countryside. He hears the clanging of cans approaching, the cans tied to the legs of lepers who wear them to warn others that they are in the area. But for some reason Francis doesn’t run. He doesn’t hide. He immediately feels overcome with compassion and runs over to great the leper, hugging him, and kissing his sores.  When Francis looks up, instead of the leper, he sees it is Christ himself who has been welcomed and loved! And this humble saint realizes that to serve others is to serve Christ. From that moment on he saw each and every person he met as a means of serving his master while serving all of his brothers and sisters on earth; yes, even seeing earth as it is in heaven.

There is no difference between us and that first woman who served Jesus. We have been blessed with having the history, the stories, the theology, and the mystical experiences handed down to us from those who were the first to be called, the first to respond, and the first to make that change that called them from within; that knowing that can’t be turned away from. They may be the first who saw and the first who believed, but as I said, it doesn’t mean that just because the physical being of Jesus is no longer with us, that we don’t still have that call. The call is there – one way or another – for each of us who have discovered Christ in our lives. Will we, or should I say, “how” will we choose to respond and serve him in today’s world? Perhaps Christ will show up in the most unexpected person or place when we let go of ourselves and open up our compassion and become the servants we were called to be.

Citations: RCL; Year B, 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Mark 1:29-39)

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