Jesus -- The Healing Revivalist? -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5b
Mark 1:29-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
I spent the early part of young adulthood (late high school through college years) walking in the company of Pentecostals. The denomination that I found myself part of was founded by Aimee SempleMcPherson (known by her followers as Sister Aimee). Sister Aimee was a powerful preacher (very dramatic) and her healing ministry. In her mind preaching and healing went together. Although most of my fellow “Foursquare Gospelers” didn’t give much thought to Sister Aimee (my youth minister told me that she wouldn’t even be allowed in the church of our day), I became fascinated with her story. Here was a woman preacher who gained the attention of millions at a time when most mainline denominations didn’t ordain women. She was adored by the masses and derided by religious leaders on both the left and the right. She also garnered the opposition of the political establishment, and not only because of her famous disappearance. It seems she had a tendency of stepping on the toes of the powers that be. Does that sound somewhat like Jesus?
Reading the Gospel lesson for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany triggered thoughts of Sister Aimee because like Jesus she combined preaching and healing. For both of them, these were two sides of the one coin. Sister Aimee, like Jesus, was an eschatological preacher (though the way they constructed their theologies differed). Like most Pentecostals of her day, she believed that she was living in the Latter Days. Her message was fourfold: Proclaiming Jesus to be Savior, Baptizer (in the Holy Spirit), Healer, and Soon Coming King.” Although many Mainline Protestants are uncomfortable with this eschatological emphasis, Jesus also thought of himself as a preacher of a soon to arrive eschaton.
Perhaps Rudolph Bultmann is correct when he suggested that Jesus wasn’t preaching a universal ethic, but rather he offered an interim ethic that called for complete obedience to the will of God in the face of the in-breaking of the realm of God. Now is the moment of decision [Jesus and the Word, Scribners, pp. 130-131]. Living as we do two millennia after Jesus began his ministry, we want to see Jesus’ vision as something more rational and universal. Just follow Jesus and life will be wonderful. But that would seem to be far different from the vision Jesus offers, especially in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is in a spiritual battle.
Jesus and his followers left the synagogue in Capernaum, where he had been preaching with authority. He had tossed out a demon, who apparently recognized him when everyone else did not. Now, it’s Saturday afternoon. Jesus is tired. He’s ready to have lunch, but when they arrive at Peter and Andrew’s home, they find that the hostess, Peter’s mother-in-law, is sick. Did you get that – Peter had a mother-in-law, which would seem to mean that he also had a wife, though she’s not mentioned here. In any case, Jesus heals the mother-in-law, who then gets up and serves the group. It is often said that Jesus didn’t use his powers to benefit himself. After all, he wouldn’t turn stones into bread, but on this occasion that would appear to be part of the appeal! She’s healed, he’s fed!
By evening word gets out. Jesus is at Peter and Andrew’s house. Let’s bring our sick to him. In contemporary circles, we talk about setting boundaries. Days off are supposed to be inviolable. On Sunday evening, unless it’s an emergency, let your questions wait till the next day. The pastor needs to rest and regroup. The idea that the pastor is on call 24-7 has come under critique – at least that’s what pastors have been led to believe. As for Jesus, no one observed the boundaries. They come in droves. In fact, the whole city appeared at the door. Jesus, being Jesus, couldn’t help but oblige them. He healed all who came to him, even casting out demons, though he warned the demons not to say anything about him. You see, while the people couldn’t figure out who he was, the demons understood. Why is that? Ah, the demons see things in spiritual terms, while we look at externals.
Finally, after Jesus tended to the sick and broken, he goes to a deserted place to pray. This is another occasion where we Jesus going off by himself to regroup. Tending to the sick and the broken can be hard work. He must have been physically and spiritually exhausted. He has to recharge his batteries. Again, we who are preachers know this to be true. As Meg Jenista reminded us in her sermon at the recent Calvin Worship Symposium, we are jars of clay – and thus ordinary and fragile.
As is so often true in the ministry of Jesus, his opportunities to get away are few and far between. It didn’t take long for Simon (Peter) to go looking for him. After all, the crowd is lining up outside the house once again. They don’t see themselves as prepared to take on the responsibility of this ministry. They see themselves as support personnel. Preaching and healing and casting out demons – that’s Jesus’ job. Or so they think!
Jesus is not a settled pastor. He’s an itinerant preacher. While even Aimee Semple McPherson had a home base (Angelus Temple), Jesus never set up shop in any particular place. When he felt like he’d taken care of business in one spot he moved on to the next town. So, with people lining up to see him, he suggests they move on to new towns. There he would continue the ministry of healing and preaching – always telling the demons to be quiet. Perhaps he didn’t think demonic testimony was appropriate or perhaps he just didn’t think the timing was right. After all, even those closest to him (the disciples) didn’t seem to truly get who he was. They were in as much awe as anyone in the crowd!
What do we do with Jesus? John declares him to be the Word of God. That’s workable. He seems to be a rabbi (a teacher). He has prophetic tendencies. He’s compassionate. But, he can get a bit testy with certain groups of people – perhaps the people he thinks should know better. Whatever the case, Mark tells us that Jesus went on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee, spreading the word of God’s realm. After all, Jesus is an eschatological preacher. There is no time for settling in and building an institution. He has to get the word out. The question for us is – do we have a sense of urgency? Or is there plenty of time to get things done? After all, Jesus was taking up this revival circuit two millennia back.
My youth pastor suggested that perhaps our church couldn’t handle Aimee Semple McPherson. That may have been true. My sense from listening to latter-day participants in the church she founded, most don’t understand her genius. Could it be that if Jesus were to walk into our churches we couldn’t handle his message and ministry either? After all, he had dirty feet!