Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany, 2018.
In our Collect this week, we are asking God to set us free from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which He has made known to us in Jesus. This is what God wants to do. He came down from heaven not to call the righteous but sinners—not the righteous but those separated from Him, for “sin” means separation. Those who are separated from God, and hence are sinners, have that relationship not because God has separated them from Him, but because they have separated themselves from God because of their choices, which often become or lead to habits.
Typically, people are separated from God when they do not pray to Him, do not call upon Him, do not bring some part of their lives to Him. And what do we keep from God but often that which we keep secret? And what do we keep secret but that which exposes us, makes us feel vulnerable? And what makes us feel vulnerable but that which has wounded us, or that we are wounded, bleeding, hurt? And so God became man, took on our human vesture, became fully man—a fully religious man—and he lived and then after being nailed to a cross, died so that all could glory in the crucified God, glory in how weakness and woundedness become by God’s grace radiant and holy. He has come to us not to be served, but to serve, to give His life as a ransom for many.
And so He coaxes us, invites us, almost induces us to pray to Him, to pray that He send the unction of His healing grace to us to heal our wounds. He wants to be our refuge. He wants to release us from the prison of our isolation. The way to be released by God is to become aware of ourselves, and in becoming aware of ourselves, we understand how we are wounded; and in understanding how we are wounded, we then take the action to ask God specifically to help those wounds. Specificity on our part is crucial.
What does the final clause of our Collect mean—“give us the liberty of that abundant life”? It means the freedom to act according to our nature. But what is our nature? Our nature is that we are made in the image of God, and so our nature, before it is distorted by sin, is not to be served but to serve. God’s nature is to serve, and therefore so is ours. Sin impedes our nature, and distorts who we are. Sin, therefore, prevents us from serving. Being healed, on the other hand, liberates us and gives us freedom to serve abundantly.
This is what Saint Mark is describing in the healing of Saint Peter’s mother-in-law. The drama of this moment is obscured both by its brevity and the translation we have from the original Greek. The Greek word to describe the woman’s condition is commonly used to speak of people already dead. And the Greek word used to describe how she is cured—that Jesus “lifted her up”—is really “raised her up.” This is the same word Saint Mark uses to describe Jesus’ own resurrection in chapter 16. And finally, that upon being raised up, the woman “served them” in the Greek is the same word that relates to being a deacon—not to serve them tea and cookies, but to serve God in them, and to be an agent for the healing He brings.
So even in this first chapter, Saint Mark is introducing remarkable teaching. The dead is raised, is resurrected. She has been set free and given the liberty of abundant life, and to participate in the abundant life showed forth by Jesus is to serve others, is to minister to others, is to be God’s hands and voice in the love of those in need, those separated from God’s love, those who do not know God’s love, and even do not yet know their own nature, because their wounds tragically prevent this knowledge.
Saint Peter’s mother-in-law, then, has been raised up both to health and to a new spiritual status. She becomes who she was created to be—a minister for Christ. She is the first person in the Gospel is act as Jesus does. And this miracle of healing, which comes in a group of three miracles in Mark’s first chapter, are forerunners of Jesus’ resurrection—previews, to be sure, but more importantly, they are keys to interpretation. To be healed is to be raised up—raised up to the stature of Christ, to the stature of who we were created to be, to the stature of a person created not to be served, but to serve—to serve those separated from God, and to remove that separation through the love we offer them, which is God’s love.