I Corinthians 9:16-23
I was thinking, as I looked at the lessons for today, that the author of the gospel invites us to enter a story that is moving quickly. This gospel has no birth stories; this gospel has no lofty prologue. It starts with John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the Messiah as he calls people to repentance. Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness. Then he started his public ministry, proclaiming the good news that God’s realm had come near.
The word proclaim occurs frequently in the beginning of Mark’s gospel. So, I think we are to see that his proclamation of the good news was in both his words, that is, his teaching, and in his actions. Last week, we heard that he taught in the synagogue in a way that was unlike the scribes’ teaching. He also cast out an unclean spirit. This week is a continuation of the events of that day.
He went to Simon’s house. And, Simon’s mother-in-law was sick. Now, I have to admit, that I find this story a little difficult. Jesus healed her. And then she served them. It’s easy to get angry at the ways the church has, through the centuries, treated women. She got up and served the men. But, Mike Graves suggests that there is a different way to read and hear this story. She is a positive example of service. Throughout Mark’s gospel, even those closest to Jesus, the disciples, got it wrong. They rejected the notion of the “servant” Christ, the One who came not to be served, but to serve. So, the goal of Jesus’ healing is not selfish – that he wanted someone to serve him. Jesus heals her so that she has the ability to serve. And she used that ability. I’m guessing it was an act of thanksgiving and praise. She knew in her body that this man was unlike the teachers she had known. He had restored her.
P.C. Ennis notes that teaching and healing ministries are not separate. They are manifestations of Jesus’ call to proclaim the good news of God’s realm at hand. Scholars of ancient languages tell us that healing could easily be understood as “salvation.” Simon’s mother-in-law’s illness isolated her. She had no value in her society. When Jesus healed her, he restored her to the community. And, in that community, she was able to express her thanks by serving those who had gathered in the house.
Paul’s words to the church in Corinth also focus on proclaiming the good news. It is typically Pauline in style. It sort of goes around and around. “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!...To the Jews I became as a Jew…to those under the law I became as one under the law…To the weak I became weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
“I have become all things to all people.” Paul, it appears, was deeply sensitive to the notion of context. For the most part, Jesus’ context was the culture in which he had been raised. As the early believers began to take the gospel into the world, they had to learn how to proclaim that gospel in different contexts. And that is not always an easy thing.
Consider how it is the church sometimes treats the Biblical witness. For many, it’s tempting to think the Biblical witness speaks directly and clearly to the world in which we live. When that happens, we are ignoring the context of the world in which the words emerged and the context in which they are being heard. Sometimes, thoughtless appropriation of ancient words and assumptions does more harm than good.
Years ago, a woman told a story about a young boy who had been invited to attend Vacation Bible School. During that particular VBS, children were asked to learn the Lord’s Prayer. The teacher began, “Our Father,” and the boy became visibly upset and angry. His experience with a father was filled with violence. If God was a father, he wanted no part of God! Fortunately, someone knew this child’s context. She knew of the boy’s father. She also knew that an aunt had welcomed him into her home and showered him with love. “You can pray, ‘Our Aunt,’” she told him.
What Paul describes is hard work. It’s easier just to have a message that we blurt out and expect people to hear and understand it. Much more is asked of us if we are to strive to learn the context in which we share the good news. It’s often been noted that the church is, frequently, out of step with the culture around us. Perhaps we see that as providing a solid rock in the midst of the roaring seas of change. Instead, we become isolated – celebrating a message that speaks little to the world in which we live. I remember a colleague, in the early 1980s, said that he had finally decided it was OK to drop thee and thou from his liturgy. Since no one had been using thee and thou in regular conversation for years, that seemed like an appropriate decision. I still keep in mind what one of the denomination’s worship experts said, “Worship should draw help us develop strong connections between what happens here and our everyday lives.” (Something to that effect!) When our communal life ignores the context in which we live, we do not serve ourselves, the world around us, or God well.
Finally, I think Paul’s words are a reminder that the complexities of the world require many gifts. Today, we ordain and install our elders. This formal rite celebrates the fact all of us are needed to fulfill God’s call to proclaim the good news. It is a shared obligation and responsibility. And in responding, we are blessed.