Monday, February 5, 2024

Hidden details in a familiar story. . .

Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (B), on Sunday, February 4, 2024.

Though we tend to look for the big point in Jesus’ miracles and teaching, sometimes the details themselves are quite important.  For example, in the Gospel we heard read today our Lord heals Peter’s mother-in-law.  The joke is be that Peter would have been okay without this miracle but the hidden detail here is that Peter was married.  Though we never hear much about the families of the apostles, we can presume that most of them were married.  You cannot have a mother-in-law without having been married.  The hidden detail is that although the Western Church developed the discipline of celibacy, it was not well known at the time of Jesus and the idea that you need to be unmarried to serve the Lord is equally foreign to the Scriptures.  The disciples had families and they did not have to choose between family and service to the Lord.  St. Paul admits this when he mentions the wives and families of Peter and other disciples.

Our world is not so sure family is a good thing.  More and more folks are choosing never to marry and those who marry choosing never to have children.  God created us for family.  Sure, sin has added its trouble to family life but the answer to that trouble was not to ditch the idea of family.  No, our Lord answered the problems sin created for husbands and wives and parents and children with forgiveness.  Where forgiveness reigns, love flourishes and where love flourishes forgiveness reigns.  I suspect this was as true for Peter in his home as it is for your home and mine.  Though this is obvious, it is easily and often forgotten.

The illness of Peter’s mother-in-law was likely an infection of some sort.  She suffered from a fever, a high fever.  St. Luke was a physician and he adds a detail not present in Mark’s account.  He tells us that Jesus rebuked the fever.  This means that Jesus did not ply the woman with homemade cures or apply the normal treatments of the day.  What Jesus did made it clear that her healing was by His action and His action alone.  This was an interruption of the laws of nature.  Our Lord intervened in the natural course of an illness to bring healing to the woman.

Jesus rebuked the fever as He had the demons in the account just prior to this story.  This shows us that just as demons were contrary to God’s will and purpose, so was illness a reflection of the corruption of our flesh caused by the introduction of sin into God’s creation.  We were not meant to suffer.  Suffering comes to us because of sin.  Illness and affliction are the enemies of God just as they are our enemies.

Another hidden detail is that as soon as Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, she got right up out of her sickbed and she served the family.  We live in a culture which loves me time, enjoys leisure, but merely tolerates work.  That is an alien concept to the New Testament.  Work is not an enemy of life or even of the good life or especially of the redeemed life.  We were created for work.
The fact that we live in such an individualized life in which our wills, desires, wants, and needs dominate obscures the fact that love serves.  Indeed, service is the shape of love.  Later in Mark’s Gospel our Lord will put this in blunt clarity.  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”  Peter’s mother-in-law used the gift of healing to enable her to fulfill her calling.  Indeed, all healing is given by God to us not so that we can get on with our lives and do what we please but for the sake of the Kingdom.  So that we might serve one another as Christ has served us.

Here is another detail often missed.  Healing is not God’s reward or special favor for those He likes better than others.  Nor is it something bestowed because we ask in the right way, with the magical words.  There is no reference to anyone asking Jesus to intervene.  Our Lord heals the woman not because she was special or He received a special request or even because of Peter.  Healing is a sign and mark of the Kingdom.  Jesus heals the woman to display the kingdom of God.  He heals to show that He is who He has claimed to be.  Jesus heals to show that He is the true Savior and Redeemer who has brought true life into the world.  It is as if each and every healing were a way of announcing who Jesus is and why He has come.  In contrast to the way we make miracles about the person – their worthiness to be healed or what they did to get God to heal them – God makes healing to be about the kingdom.  This healing is the precursor to the ultimate healing – whether you are the mother-in-law of the one who is supposedly the first pope or not, healing of an illness is a temporal and temporary gift.  The eternal healing comes when we wear the new and glorious flesh in the resurrection – bodies that can no more be corrupted by illness or affliction than they can by held prisoner in the grave.

The healing of our mortal bodies whether by the miracle of medicine or the direct intervention of God will not last.  We have made everything about the moment – what we want, how we feel, and what we think we deserve.  But Scripture points us always to what lies behind the present, to the eternal prepared for us in Christ that we might be where He is forevermore. 

If we pray earnestly and our loved ones are not healed, that does not mean that God is against us or we don’t have enough faith.  We want a rational explanation, a sort of cause and effect reasoning why some are healed and given longer lives and others are not.  But this is not about reason or even about magical words that enable you to get what you want.  It was and is about faith.  Within that faith we are reminded that healing begins with forgiveness for all our sins, that healing is an eternal gift and blessing which we can know now only in part, and that both have their source in the cross.  The wounds of Christ are our healing.  

As hard as it is to know that not everyone will receive the momentary healing of the body for today, it is hard to comprehend that all who believe in the Lord Jesus will receive the perfect healing of everlasting life.  This too is a truth hidden not just here but in every account of Jesus healing the bodies or diseases of people.  Our Lord does not pick and choose but gives to all Christians the perfect healing of redemption even while only some have the cancer go into remission or live to recover from their surgery or have hearts that will beat a normal lifespan or birth defects that will be corrected.  Whether we live or die and no matter how long we live or when we die, we belong to the Lord.  He has owned our sins upon the cross and our weakness in His own flesh.  He bestows upon us the eternal healing of forgiveness for our sins and the eternal promise that those who live in Christ by baptism and faith today shall dwell with Him eternally.

Hidden details and the profound truth – By His stripes we have been healed.  Until the day our Lord has appointed, we focus the strength of our redeemed lives upon the Lord in thanksgiving for His salvation and upon our neighbor as Christ has loved and served us.  When the Lord comes in His glory, we focus upon the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting – fully known, comprehended, and realized by God’s grace and favor.  Amen.

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