The past few weeks we’ve been exploring the beginning of Jesus’ ministry during this season after Epiphany. Following his birth at Christmas and the coming of the Wise Men on Epiphany, the church year moves through things like Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the disciples, and some of Jesus’ first miracles. The theme of these weeks is the revealing of what Jesus’ ministry will be about and we read from the early chapters of the Gospels. The question we should ask ourselves during this season of the church year is: what does this scripture reading teach us about the ministry of Jesus? How does what we read here set the tone for what’s to come?
Today’s Gospel reading is still in Mark’s first chapter. It’s set in Capernaum, the hometown of the first disciples like Simon who’s later known as Peter. Jesus has called Simon and Andrew and James and John; and he’s taught and healed at the local synagogue. Now they go into Simon’s home and his mother-in-law is sick. And the text tells us that Jesus took her by the hand and the fever left her. It is the personal touch of Jesus that heals her.
Mark also includes mention that after she was healed, she began to serve them. This might cause a bit of an eyeroll that of course after a woman is healed, she immediately gets to work. And considering ancient patriarchal societies, it’s a fair point to raise. But I think there’s an important reason Mark included this detail here. Perhaps it’s because Mark wants to illustrate that what this woman does after she’s restored to health, is what we’re all to do in response to Jesus: she serves. The story demonstrates that when we are restored by Jesus, we are called to respond with service. We can expect that when we are so touched by Jesus, we will be inspired to extend the gift of hospitality to others. We will be inspired to serve those in need. We will be inspired to follow God’s calling in our lives—to discover our gifts and live out whatever God’s will is for each of us.
Simon’s mother-in-law is a model for us to emulate. Someone who is touched by Jesus, restored to wholeness, and then responds with service and hospitality. Likewise, when we are touched by Jesus and restored, we too will respond with lives of service. Whatever form that takes will be different for everyone, but the call to service is a vocation for every follower of Jesus.
Now something else happens as we move through this story. We see that after Jesus spends a lot of time and energy healing many, very early the next morning he goes off on his own to pray. This is another key feature of the ministry of Jesus and the life to which he calls us. A life of prayer. We don’t know much about what Jesus’ prayer practice was like. But he often would go off by himself and pray. Father Thomas Keating, one of the founders of centering prayer, suggests that during these periods of personal prayer time it is likely Jesus practiced what we call contemplative prayer. That is, sitting in silence with God. Not asking for anything, not saying anything, not doing anything. Simply being. Being in God’s holy presence. What we might call meditation today was traditionally called contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition. It’s something the medieval mystics often say is the highest calling of a Christian. Intentionally spending periods of silence with God, opening yourself up to God and being fully present to the Holy Spirit’s action and presence within. It is not verbal prayer or any kind of activity. It’s simply surrendering to the Holy and resting in God.
This is also something all Christians are called to do. To have an interior spiritual life. Maybe you can’t sit in silent meditation for very long. But I encourage you try to it. Maybe you take it up as a daily practice during Lent (which starts a week from Wednesday!) You can join our centering prayer group that meets Thursday afternoons at 2:00 pm. And if you can’t come at that time but are interested, let me know. And even if you don’t feel called to silent prayer, there are many other forms of spiritual practices you can take on as a Lenten discipline. At the root of them all is the practice of emptying the mind of thought and emptying the will of desire, so that we become aligned with God. So that the Holy Spirit may flow through us freely. Whatever we do with our lives, becoming attuned to the divine—to the mind of Christ as St. Paul puts it—is the goal of all spiritual practice.
It's both of these models, Simon’s mother-in-law responding with service and Jesus setting the example to pray, that encompass the calling of Christians to action and contemplation. A life of service and a life of devotion. The outer expression of our faith that manifests in service of whatever kind. And the inner expression of our faith that manifests in spiritual practices that deepen our relationship with God. These two feed into each other and inspire each other.
And they need each other. Even if we’re the most energetic activist in the world—if we’re not staying rooted to God in prayer, then our action can be ego driven and we can become attached to the need for results rather than understanding our action as an expression of the divine will manifesting in us. And if all we do is sit in silent prayer and meditation then we face the danger of spiritual gluttony. But if we’re faithful to our prayer practice, I am certain God will eventually inspire us and drive us out to do positive action in the world.
These two things—action and contemplation—are keys features of what it means to follow Jesus. And there is a final third thing we see evidence of in this passage as well. After Jesus’ disciples find him in prayerful contemplation on the outskirts of Capernaum, they ask him to come back into town because everyone is looking for him. But Jesus says, no let’s go on to other towns and proclaim the message there also. So they leave Capernaum. And as this passage ends, Jesus and his companions are on their way to proclaim the kingdom message throughout the whole Judean countryside.
What we see here is a third feature of discipleship: spreading the message. We might call this evangelism. Sharing the good news of the kingdom of God. If you remember from a few weeks ago, this kingdom message is a call to see the world in a new way. To a transformed way of being. The kingdom is not heaven out there, but heaven embodied in the world. The divine way being manifested on earth. Heaven’s always been there. Now, in Jesus, the incarnation of God, the spiritual realm is made manifest in the physical realm. And he calls the disciples and eventually the church (us!) to continue this manifestation of the divine will on earth. So that “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The divine presence is revealed in Jesus Christ, and it is the mission of his disciples of every time and place to spread the good news that kingdom is at hand and that all people are invited to live in alignment with the divine flow.
So there we have it, three parts of the story revealing three features of Jesus’ ministry. Setting the tone for what following him means. Three inter-related callings of Christians. The call to an outer life of service. The call to an inner life of prayer and contemplation. The call to spread the message of the kingdom. And remember, none of these callings are things we have to do in order to earn God’s love and approval. We are already loved and accepted absolutely unconditionally by the God who is love. And because of God’s love for us, we get to participate in this amazing journey that is Christian discipleship. This life of service, prayer, and evangelism is what God created us for. As we grow in relationship with God, living this way becomes the most natural way of life ever. It’s what mature, grown-up children of God will naturally do just like a mature, grown-up tree naturally bears good fruit.
Prayer, service, and evangelism is also our congregation’s tagline: In Christ, we are digging deep, reaching out, and changing lives. In this passage we see that when we take time to pray like Jesus did, we dig deep and grow closer to God. And when we are touched by the hand of Jesus and restored, we are inspired to serve—to change lives. And when we follow Jesus, we will be inspired to the Christian call of evangelism, of reaching out and sharing the good news of the kingdom to neighboring towns and to the ends of the earth. This is what we’re signing up for when we follow Jesus. And it’s the life baby Ripken will be baptized into in a few moments. A life of digging deep, reaching out, and changing lives in Christ’s name. A life of being loved and accepted and redeemed and made holy, a life of following Jesus, a life of Christian discipleship.
Thanks be to God for calling us all to be disciples. For taking us by the hand and restoring us. For inspiring us to spiritual practice and to service and to sharing the message. Thanks be to God for the privilege and blessing it is to be followers of Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian | February 4, 2024.