The nearness of the kingdom of God is made known by teaching with authority, healing on the Sabbath, eating with friends and family, and seeking alone time with God. All of this is the first day of Jesus’ public ministry that is described in any detail by Mark. (Revised Common Lectionary Mark 1:29-39)
We might understand this as a typical or archetypal day in the life of Jesus in that first three years before he comes to Jerusalem for the completion of his great work. If we back up a little and read from verse 21 through to 39 we have what may have been a fairly typical pattern of ministry: come to a town, go to the synagogue (if a Sabbath), teach with authority, heal by exorcism or hands on, swear people to secrecy (which they disregard), heal some more, try and withdraw for quiet time alone with God in prayer, and move on as the crowds move in. Let’s explore what this says about Jesus and then what it might mean for us as followers.
Firstly let’s talk about what the Kingdom of God means in Mark’s gospel because it is after all the very first things Jesus says. Verse 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The good news according to Jesus is not Jesus himself but the nearness of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a concept that is spiritual, political and social. It is an acknowledgement that God is king or sovereign ruler or the creator of all that is and dreamer of all that can be. The kingdom of God is about everything in life here now on earth. It is not a distant one-day-maybe world but the world the way that God desires it to be. Every week we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The kingdom of God is not about after this life (although it does not dispute that there is more after this life) but about this life being lived as God wants us to. As John Dominic Crossan, a contemporary scholar says, heaven is in great shape – earth is where the problems are and where the change is needed!
The kingdom of God is political and social as well as spiritual. That is, God dreams for the world a way of peace, justice and abundant well being for all, if the witness and emphasis of the Old Testament is to be believed. The Old Testament is mostly not about individual salvation or rescue from the world but a call to the whole community to live according to godly principles of justice and to enjoy the abundance of having been led to the land of milk and honey.
The second thing to note about Jesus’ typical day is that for him teaching with authority about God and healing people by the power of God are related. To make it really clear the first healing is in the synagogue itself. In the first century world in which Jesus lived and ministered people understood good and evil to be vying for control in the world and that this was not only manifest in the social and moral world but in the body of the sick person. That is physical health, especially sickness and mental health issues rather than injuries, was often seen as proof of having come under evil attack. So Jesus often heals by exorcism, or casting out the demons or evil spirits. Other times such as with Peter’s mother-in-law it seems to be by physical touch and compassion. The teaching and the healing are both ways of making the nearness of the kingdom of God apparent, of making real the dream of God for a good, kind abundant life for all.
So why then the reoccurring theme of secrecy in Mark’s gospel (which is not nearly so prevalent in the other gospels)? One of the best comments that I have heard is that Jesus didn’t want them to jump to the wrong conclusion. Remember that the demons “out” him as the Holy One of God. And the people are so desperate for help and restoration of their health that they swamp Jesus by the sheer number who want physical healing. Even the disciples who are with him all the time take time to work out who Jesus really is and what his message really is, and even then they get it fairly wrong. Jesus seems to have understood that people need time to understand his message and that if they get dazzled by spectacular healings they will come to him out of physical hunger and not spiritual desire.
Galilee, the region where most of Jesus’ adult life and ministry happens, is also a region that tends to have a lot of people looking for a saviour/alternate military leader who will help the people rise up against the Roman occupiers. Jesus seems to have walked a tight rope between their need for God’s loving-kindness and compassion and their desire for a worldly leader exercising a different sort of power.
It is interesting for us to note that Jesus did not wait until people had passed a theological test before he healed them or fed them. Rather he met there where they were and then tried to help them join the dots; make the links with his reasons for caring. Often those healed did not seem to go any further. Other times they were so excited they told everyone about it. The few followed him. Jesus was generous with those who were in need of a shepherd, a physician, table fellowship. His strongest judgement was reserved for the religiously powerful who should have known better.
Which brings us to the story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law which in some ways is an example of how we should respond to the healing that is offered us through Jesus. Although only a few verses long this story has so much rich detail. Verse 29-31 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in a bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
It is interesting that Jesus is busy healing on the Sabbath again! (presuming that they had been in the synagogue because it was the Sabbath). Once again that connection between the message taught about the nearness of God’s way of life and physical healing so that one can participate and enjoy life fully. The reign of God for first century people, and their Old Testament forebears, was very practical. There are no formulaic words of exorcism on this occasion rather just a tender touch and a raising up, quite literally assisting her to get up, but with allusions to resurrection as well in the choice of words.
It is her response that is challenging to us. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (oh how I wish these women had been given their names in these stories!) does not simply say thank you she begins to diekonei – to serve. Now in Greek there are a range of words that relate to serving, especially to the domestic serving of food, but this uses the word from which the title Deacon comes. This word means a range of things but really is about a role of service which is recognised, honoured and understood as to be about a ministry of serving. This word is used only once in Mark, a few times in Luke and Acts and frequently in Paul’s letters and is always related to having a ministry.
This unnamed woman is restored not only to her previous duties and valued place in the home; she assumes a ministry of service from her experience of being healed and restored. As it surely is for us, that out of our experience of being healed and touched by Jesus, we are raised up to have a ministry of service – whatever the particular aspects of that ministry are. Being a Deacon with a capital letter and a licence is for some but being one who has a ministry of serving is for all who are saved from sickness of body and/or spirit. We are called to serve one another and to serve our community in ways which will make visible the breaking in of the kingdom of God in our everyday world.
And in full circle Jesus ends his day in prayer, this time not in synagogue but out in the wilderness looking for alone time with God. This is the model for us – time in worship with others and deep alone-with-God time in which we can rest in our beloved father, mother, source, and creator. In which we can be restored and replenished so that we can continue to serve and live fully. For we are not asked to give out of our little but out of the great source that we are connected to.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and restore us to the fullness of life.