5th Sunday after Epiphany

February 9, 2003
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 40:21-31
Reading 2: 
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:29-39
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Continuing in the season of Epiphany, we may begin our thematic study of this week's texts by asking ourselves the Epiphany question, "How do these texts propose a manifestation of the divine?" In Epiphany, we have already celebrated manifestations of a star, the Lord's baptism, the Lord's first miracle, the calling of the disciples. These are the great "mysteries of Epiphany."
This Sunday we encounter the manifestation of the divine mystery of Jesus' healing. Much has been said of healing in our process lectionary studies, and I refer the reader to Bruce Epperly's rich commentary on these texts from prior years on this web site. Perhaps healing and mystery should guide us in our hermeneutic this week as it did with Jesus' healing the man with the unclean spirit last week.

This week's gospel text includes Simon's mother-in-law healed of a fever. How is that a mystery of Epiphany? Actually, Mark's account does not focus on the healing event as much as it does on Jesus' reputation spreading more widely due to the healing. The typical formula for a healing story has been telescoped or truncated to facilitate Mark's purpose of pre-disclosing the Messiah: we have little about the details of the condition (presumably this is not a 101 degree fever, but a life-threatening situation!), the request to be healed, the action of the healer, and the proof the person has been restored to health (see Pheme Perkins' comments on this structure in The New Interpreter's Dictionary, Vol. VIII, p. 543.).

Certainly one proposal to elicit faith and free the Spirit to work in our hearing the text would be in raising the issue of how do we as a Christian community support those with life-threatening illnesses? We may engage our congregations of how we do this in worship. We may want to explore the rituals on what was symbolized by the laying on of hands in prayer and anointing with oil. Some of our congregations may view these ritual activities as foreign to their experience and traditions. Yet, we may point out, they may evoke the same experience of faith Jesus evoked when he touched the woman with a fever. What is an appropriate way for us to touch one another today in a healing ministry? It is by request only; yet, many need to be freed from a certain self-consciousness, especially within the worship service, to admit need and ask for healing ministries. If worship is in the context of sanctuary and defines a "safe place" for us to be most freely ourselves, then worship may need to define a safe way to indicate a need for healing. We may do our communities of faith a great service if we raise these issues and elicit community reflection and response to them.

Another aspect of this proposal is "How do we as a community deal with the caregiver and the family of the one with the disease?" Many of us have been asking that as we receive training to minister to the families of Alzheimer's patients, for instance. Our text does not deal with Peter or his wife's feelings about their extended family member's illness. Yet, we know this situation creates a strain on the family which at times, unfortunately, can be unto the emotional death of the family, not the "patient." The emotional resources of the family may be taxed to the point of exhaustion and breaking. We have this ministry to alert the family of resources available from the church and community to surround them at such a time, to help them feel less than ashamed or embarrassed at experiencing this strain, anger, and need to strike out at each other, God, or the universe!

Our gender-specific awareness teaches us we have a problematic resolution to this healing story when Peter's mother-in-law is healed only to get up and serve dinner! We may free the text to make its original point by suggesting that this stylized version of the healing story uses re-integration of the restored member back into the community as a means of verifying the healing has occurred, not a suggestion that the church heals in order to keep the kitchen staffed for table fellowship. This woman was seriously weakened, healed, and restored to normal service to the community. Those of us who are healed have a similar need to feel useful and included once again, but not to be taken advantage of just because we are no longer the center of attention for our disability!

We may wish to point out a different thematic implication in this week's texts. If we deal with the epistle lesson, we encounter a potential Jesus-Paul dichotomy. Jesus has ministered to the body-mind-soul continuum in healing Simon Peter's mother-in-law.
Paul, in the I Corinthians text, is wrestling with how he handles his own body as a metaphor for spiritual preparation for ministry. Paul, as we know, is sarx-adversive. He provides us images of subduing his body to the greater need of the gospel. We think of how the church throughout its history tried to own these proposals with spiritual disciplines even of self-denial through self-flagellation and mutilation. Today, this seems abhorrent to us. Perhaps we should be free, without validating them, to explore with our congregations more richly what these disciplines meant to those who practiced them. Paul's point, however, seems to focus on self-control. That point still needs to be underscored today. Given our emphasis on freeing our emotions and owning all aspects of our desires even for the purpose of letting them be transformed by the sufficiency of the power of Christ, what responsibilities do we have for self-control? What about boundaries to our speech, our touching, or anger, or even our rage? Might Paul not help us achieve an integration of freedom within boundaries?