Closer and Closer (and Closer)
We pick up today, right where we left off last week, in Mark's gospel. But, it seems to me that there's something different about today's passage. We're still moving at the same wild pace that we were before. The beat that's been propelling the good news forward is still striking in time. Mark's favorite word, euthys, "immediately" continues to ring out, as he moves us forward at lightning speed from one Jesus-defining moment to the next.
Immediately, Jesus rises out of the baptismal waters, and the Spirit descends; immediately he's "cast" into the wilderness; immediately he calls, immediately the fishermen drop their nets and follow; immediately they enter the Capernaum synagogue; immediately there's a man with an impure spirit; immediately his fame grew everywhere;
And now, immediately they left the synagogue and entered Simon and Andrew's home; immediately they tell him about Simon's mother-in-law. It sounds awfully familiar. But the thing that changes, the thing that's different is that suddenly, is that we're not just being dragged along behind as the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God is launched out into the world (remember: that's what Mark's showing us c.f. 1:1), but that this good news has been coming towards us the whole time; suddenly we see that it's been coming towards us with the same intensity that it's been pulling us along.
Up until now, we've been sort of watching Jesus from a safe distance. At his baptism, at his temptation, as he strolled along the beach messing up family businesses and calling impetuous fishermen into service of the kingdom of God, even as he taught in the synagogue, there's a kind of distance. After all, this is the One at whose presence the heavens are torn open, who battles Satan in the wilderness, who calls and teaches with authority quite a bit beyond us. Up until now he's seemed to be always on the move and out of reach; he's way out in front and all we can do is sort of hope to keep up. "Come! Follow me!" he says.
But here, all of a sudden, immediately, we find him in a home. All of a sudden, heaven's good news himself has stepped into the most intimate of places. He's moved, almost without us noticing, from John's strange preaching and all its possibility, from the mysteries of heaven, from the wide open space of the wilderness and shoreline, from the public and still appropriately separate and religious space of the synagogue, and now, all of a sudden, to the door of a house, to the bedroom of a sick woman, close enough to take her by the hand and lift her up. The good news gets closer and closer and closer.
Let's pray: Holy God, draw near. Open us up to what you have for us this morning, to what you want us to hear, to who you want us to be. May we know you more, and make you more fully known. Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds, that they might be true to who you are and acceptable in your sight. Through Jesus: Amen!
I think this movement towards us that Mark describes is really important. One of the main concerns (if not the main concern of Mark's gospel), is the formation of disciples. The point of it all is not information, but the formation of a people who won't worship from a distance or in vague abstraction, but who will follow this One who comes, heaven-tearing and Spirit-blown, becoming like he is, doing what he does, walking in a kind of holy intimacy we haven't seen since Eden.
So it really matters that the One whom crowds are oohin and ahhing at--the One who comes with authority, who is confirmed by the divine voice and the Holy Spirit, who outmatches evil, and disrupts the way things are, and commands the obedience of impure and rebellious spirits--is perfectly comfortable in the intimacy and ordinariness of a home. It's a remarkable thing: the One who comes in the authority of heaven's kingdom refuses to stay high and lofty; the One who commands spirits refuses to stay at a safe and heavenly distance, but walks through the door, comes close enough to touch, takes his seat at the table, gets mixed up in the everyday details of a household: closer, and closer, and closer.
When we find Jesus in Simon's house, we catch a glimpse of the One to whom no part of our lives is off-limits. When he goes, without hesitation, immediately, to the bedside of the sick woman, we see that there's no part of our lives that is beneath his presence and authority. When he takes her by the hand and raises her up (the same verb used to describe his own resurrection), we see that there is no distance he won't overcome. Everything about the next few verses is close, physical, intimate. The story tells us not just an interesting tidbit about moment in Jesus' life; it tells us about the kind of God we're mixed up with, the God who's gotten all mixed up with us. It tells us something about what it means to be caught up in this good news life.
I want to consider three things in this part of the story that are important for us who will be shaped in the ways and means of Jesus. The first thing happens when he goes to the bedside, and takes authority over this thing that has laid Simon's mother-in-law out. (In her culture, "fever" had a sort of spiritual dimension; we might see this as Jesus overcoming the spiritual stuff that incapacitates; a sort of poetic image of his capacity to lift us out of spiritual paralysis; perhaps the woman's namelessness is an invitation to imagine ourselves in her position, to pay attention to the stuff that has us "laid out," and to let Jesus pull us up out of that...) [The important thing is] When he raises her to unexpected life, her first response is service, self-giving.
There's no hesitation. Right away, she serves. The intimacy and generosity that we see in Jesus is returned, and even increased: she doesn't just serve Jesus, to kind of even things out, but the rest of them too. There's something worth paying attention to here. It would be easy to think that her service is kind of a matter of expectation, the woman's role in a patriarchal culture. It's not hard to imagine that these five guys show up, unannounced, and she's expected to wait on them. Like Jesus healed her because someone's got to make dinner. But it's got to be more than that. Because, in fact, she's not doing what's expected; she's doing what she ought not to do. It's still Sabbath. She shouldn't be doing any work. Mark is quite clear that none of the rest of the neighbors respond to Jesus until after sunset, when Sabbath is over. I don't think she's keeping with convention; I think she's breaking it.
This service is a spontaneous overflow of the grace that she's received. She's the first true disciple. Sure the boys left their nets behind, but it's going to take them quite a bit longer to realize that self-giving, lavish generosity, joyful humility, gracious attention to others, is the appropriate response to Jesus. She seems to get it right away. I think it's no accident that Mark uses the same word to describe what happens to the woman and what happens to Jesus on Easter Sunday, this raising up. Her response is the framework of a resurrection life, a truly Christian life--life in which grace, and love, and generosity, and self-giving for the sake of others overflows.
The scriptures are pretty clear that that will be the most obvious sign of the Holy Spirit at work; that will be the mark of the kingdom Jesus has come to proclaim. The woman is set free from the thing that binds her, raised intimately into new life, and the grace that she has received she shares, even against the rules. In the presence of Jesus, she is perfectly free to give and to serve, without qualification. She's embodying what St Paul insists years later: We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand (before we knew any better!) to be our way of life. Her response, her service, is the appropriate and free response to grace. This is the ways and means of heaven, the intimate rhythms of God's kingdom, taking shape in the body of this unnamed woman. It's unstoppable and beautiful.
That's the first thing to pay attention to. Grace received becomes grace given. The scene is probably worth some meditation and prayer (your mission, should you choose to accept it).
The second thing to pay attention to is what happens when the sun goes down: the whole city shows up at the door. This is close contact: the whole town is gathered around the door, pressed in together--they're not on a wide open plain, they're jammed in to see this thing that's happening. And it seems to me that this underlines a consistent gospel point: that the intimacy of God is unrestricted. Because it's not just the religious and pious, the well-to-do and the powerful, the spiritually gifted and the evidently holy who clamour around the doorway. They might well be there--it sounds like everybody's curious about this resurrection movement that's arrived in town. But the ones who Mark wants us to see are the sick and the demon possessed, the physically unsound and spiritually hobbled. The whole city shows up, but the only ones we hear about are the least and the lowest, the bound and the broken.
It's worth a second to think about how strange this report is. If one was trying to make a case for a new king and kingdom (that's been the message so far), this is not the kind of publicity we'd expect. We'd expect to hear that this guy has the ear of the movers and shakers, the backing of the well-off, the approval of the educated, the blessing of the spiritual leaders. But, the credibility of this king has precious little to do with that stuff. The credibility of this king has everything to do with his willingness to give to those who can give nothing back, to be intimate with those who can have no expectation of it. The foundation of his kingdom isn't worldly merit; it's unmerited, unlimited grace. This king loves when we're unlovable, wants us when we're unwantable. That's the good news pattern that will shape his followers, the pattern we've got to learn to move in. Standard measures of worth aren't applicable in heaven's economy.
That brings us to the third thing, which comes to light before the sun's up the next day. Jesus has gone off to pray, before anyone else is awake. He's gone off, by himself, to be in the presence of the One who named and claimed him at his baptism--another pattern for his followers. It's a different kind of intimacy than we've seen so far, from Jesus. But it is the primary one, the intimacy with the Father and the Spirit, the unfathomable love of the Trinity is the love that bursts into the world; it's what sustains everything else, what closes the distance between heaven on earth. That's why we pray.
Jesus goes off to pray, but meanwhile, Simon wakes up and panics. Jesus is gone! A search party is organized, and they fan out until they find him. And when they do there's a sort of relief mixed with frustration, like a parent with an absent minded child, that Jesus would have the nerve to just take off without even telling his hosts. I mean, how dare Jesus do something without letting us know first? "Everyone is looking for you Jesus! Let's just go back and settle everyone down. You can do some more healing, a little more teaching. For heaven's sake, Jesus: don't go wandering off like that without checking with us."
And I have some sympathy for Simon. Clearly, this thing that is happening is good. Last night was great--the whole city was at the door! This is turning out to be well worth having left their day jobs for. But, almost predictably, folks want to control what won't be controlled. They want to pin Jesus down. They've already got him a great rental in Capernaum. They're having signs made up for "Kingdom of God Ministries." The HQ will be Simon and Andrew's house! The people are going to flock in, for sure! And instead, Jesus tells Simon to get his stuff together, gather the others, because they're heading off to the next place, and the place after that.
And I think that this is a good reminder for us that the intimacy that we've seen in Jesus, the closeness of God won't be contained. I think this undoes any convenient and well-crafted notions that we can deal with Jesus in private, or at least only in safe and familiar spaces, with people we know and trust. The One who is happy to take us by the hand, and to have a seat at our tables, is also the One who leads us out: into the next place, beyond our comforts and certainties. The story doesn't end when Simon and company leave their nets on the shore; it doesn't end when his mother-in-law is back on her feet. That's the beginning. It's the beginning of a lifetime of learning to move in the rhythms of grace, to live in radical self-giving, to begin to bring to life in their bodies--in our bodies!--all the hope, peace, joy, and love of heaven for this world.
In Christ God enters our spaces: the Word that made heaven and earth became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, as one of Mark's colleagues puts it. In Christ, by the Spirit, God gets close enough to take us by the hand, close enough to take authority over the stuff that binds us and lays us out, close enough to care for our brokenness intimately, and personally, close enough to care about the everyday details. But that's not the end; it's the beginning. It's the beginning of the good news taking shape in our lives, the beginning of the wild truth that we don't choose Jesus, he chooses us and has the audacity to lead us into the world as signs and symbols of heaven's kingdom drawn near, and nearer still. He comes close, raises us up, not so that we can have a private and personally enriching spirituality (lovely as that is), but so that we can be what we're meant to be, what we're created to be: images of God, beacons of God's love and grace, healing and mercy, service and generosity, forgiveness and joy, wherever and whenever we find ourselves; wherever and whenever we find ourselves, to be evidence of God's good news for this broken and beloved world.
God give us grace and guts.