As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
We have are a month into a new year, both liturgical and calendarial. With this shift we move from our Gospel readings coming predominately from Matthew, to predominately from Mark. Mark, the first of the Gospels to be written, is a short but cutting document. Mark does not waste anytime in telling a story about God coming to earth to deliver us from our sins, and to lead us into a community unlike any other. Christ was the king apart from Caesar, the Church was the gathered people apart from the polis, the Gospel is good news unlike any other.
Mark opens his Gospel in the preceding verses of chapter one with the ministry of John the Baptist, then with Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, and then the exorcism of a demon possessed man in Capernaum – the hometown of Simon Peter. Walking through the town, we are given the image of a ministry that was constantly on the move. The watch word of Mark’s Gospel is, “Immediately.” To go out and to do and to not be caught up in a single thing for too long.
Jesus’s ministry was public in scope. In all things, the actions Jesus took were oriented toward the communities he worked within. People were healed and allowed to live out normal lives, but more than that the ministry of Christ allowed for all people to go beyond what was and enter into a new life – greater than what was before. The brokenness of our world is repaired through the mere visitation of Christ, our soul healed by his loving works.
Our scripture recounts three acts of Christ – the healing of a single person, of many people, and then the retreat of Jesus to an empty space to pray. All three of these are examples of different ways that we must do good in the world around us, and all three of them reflect the fast-paced work of Jesus and of his Church. We never cease the work of Christ, even and indeed especially when we rest.
The first act of Christ in our scripture is the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Laying in bed with a fever, the family told Jesus about her condition. A fever in the ancient world was never as simple as taking an aspirin and waiting it out, the family was likely unsure if she was going to live. Yet, Jesus lifted her up and her fever broke at once. While we are not able to instantly heal people, Jesus here models ministry that directly works with individuals.
This sort of direct care for one another is something we can easily neglect in the church. To visit with the sick and to pray with them and give them company (digitally or otherwise,) to find those struggling and to lighten their load somehow. The work of Christ should, when possible, be conducted face to face and person to person. There are few things so wonderful in life as just being with another person, and connection in itself can heal.
The impulse of the Church, however, can be one of distance and depersonalization. We are fine with donating to causes and sending supplies to other people, but not in doing work ourselves. We do not want to see the faces of those in need unless they are smiling in photos that are sent to us for our participation. We do not want to see the brokenness of our neighbors unless they have already come out the other side. Still worse, if we do help people one on one, we begin to expect certain kinds of gratitude in response.
To work with someone one on one is to acknowledge their personhood. To shake the hand of someone in need is to acknowledge their dignity. To be silent in the house of mourning is to show someone their grief matters. While there are ethical and practical boundaries we all must maintain, we must not make barriers of excuses between ourselves and the people we serve. Even lack of gratitude is no excuse not to serve – while Simon’s mother-in-law served Jesus a meal in gratitude, many others chased Jesus out of town – still, Jesus served the people.
Personal connection does not keep us from corporate acts of mercy. Jesus’s second act in our scripture is to heal the multitude that gathered outside Simon’s home. Capernaum was not a large city, housing less than two thousand people at its peak. All the same, the crowd outside the house was not small, especially for the tiny group of people inside to deal with. Yet Jesus was able to minister to them all. Large scale acts of mercy can still maintain personality and be efficacious, indeed, they are the only way to meet the many needs of those around us.
What we must be watchful for in participating in and supporting large scale ministries is whether or not the initiatives we support truly produce fruit. Recently, I heard of a massive clothing drive a church invested in every year, gathering palettes worth of clothing. Some years into the program, they engaged directly with those they had been sending clothes to and found out that 80% of the clothing was unusable and needed to be disposed of for one reason or another. However, when the church learned this, they worked with those in the community they were serving and began another large scale mission that met the needs of that community. They succeeded because they involved voices in the community to guide their efforts.
Beyond personal connection in terms of working with people directly there comes working with people to find what they really need. We must not presume we know what someone needs unless we have first spent time among them and their community. Practically, this means we should look to the groups we support and ask a simple question – when we read about what a group does, and the results, are we hearing and seeing people from the community they serve or people who are claiming to know better than them? Corporate acts of mercy are delicate things, and we must treat them with the same care we treat individual ministries with.
Finally, Jesus shows us that in order to keep moving forward in ministry we must rest. Rest is not simply cessation of work, but recuperation of our body and soul. Jesus sleeps, then rises earlier than anyone else to go into an empty space and pray. Rest occurs in the quiet, in solitude, and most importantly, before God. In praying, Jesus found strength to carry on – to leave Capernaum and continue to minister throughout Galilee.
Too often we define rest as either leisure or as the absence of career work. I myself am especially guilty of taking a day that is meant for rest and filling it with anything but. While it is sometimes therapeutic to engage with our passion projects, we often spend time we should be resting running errands or cleaning or making up for what we see as lost time. Rest should be total, and it should be deliberate. It should be rooted in prayer and oriented toward God.
In normal times, we take a special moment each month to simply acknowledge God’s goodness and to take in the Eucharist as a corporeal reminder of that goodness. Somehow in taking it we are brought to be present with Christ, joining in the salvific work of calvary. Though we are unable now to join together and to take of bread and of the vine, we must be sure to take time to be alone with Christ, present intentionally with God.
The work of the Church, personal or corporate, relies on a foundation rooted in Christ. Let us commit that we never stop moving forward in our ministry and let us keep in mind that sometimes we travel the furthest distance while we rest. – Amen.