Community and healing.
February 5, 2012
A couple of months ago I was on a train and fell into conversation with a delightful woman who was involved in the children of Chernobyl charity.
She told me about her visits to Russia, staying with families who lived on the margins of poverty in the villages around Chernobyl. This woman was disabled and walked with crutches. She told me: “So many people in the village remarked on the fact that I was disabled and yet was out and about and doing things. You see, in rural Russia, you never see any disabled people out and about. They’re all shut away somewhere, behind closed doors.
The disabled people are shut away somewhere behind closed doors. It’s chilling to hear that. And yet throughout the world and over the centuries, we human beings have found lots of ways of keeping ill and disabled people out of sight and out of mind. In the early days of my social work career I got to know Alice. In the 1940s aged around 20 Alice had a baby and suffered what we would now call an episode of post-natal depression. She was admitted to Middlewood Hospital and spent the next forty years of her life within the walls of that institution. In the eighties Middlewood was closed and I helped Alice, now in her sixties try to adapt to life outside it. It was tough for her, and for the hundreds of thousands of other Alice’s.
We human beings are fearful people. We fear illness, we fear disability, we’re fearful of our own mortality, and we like to keep the things that remind us of our fears well out of view. So that means that ill or disabled people are not only coping with the symptoms of their illness, they’re often also left feeling isolated, excluded, shut out. That we create societies where this happens is surely a marker of our sinful nature.
Our gospel passage today shows us Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry, getting on and healing people. We see him healing Simon’s mother in law, and then healing a whole crowd of people that flock to his door when the news of his healing power gets out. I’d like us today to think about Jesus’s healings in Mark’s gospel, why they’re important and what they tell us about God and God’s kingdom. I want to suggest that Jesus’s healings are about more than curing disease: that that they’re also a challenge to our world in which the effects of illness means many are shut out, isolated and excluded.
The place is Capernaum. A woman, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law lies in bed, in the grip of fever. This is no small matter in the ancient world. A fever was not only debilitating, but was often a symptom of a condition that would lead to death. Jesus appears, fresh from the synagogue where his authority has caused such astonishment. And what does he do? Mark tells us that he simply “raises her up.” The NIV translation in our pew bibles is weak here, it says “he helped her up”. Mark in his Greek text uses the word egeiro, raise up, exactly the same word that uses of Jesus’s resurrection. What’s suggested is that the power of God in raising Jesus from the dead is the same power that is at work here. And then what? Mark tells us that ” the fever left her and she served them.” Simon Peter’s mother-in-law “served” immediately after having been raised. The verb for this serving is diakoneo, the same verb Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry . The Son of Man comes not to be served, but to serve.
What is implied here is not only that Mum in law starts bustling about and making cups of tea although maybe she does do just that. This is also a story about discipleship. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus is calling disciples, calling people to join with him in a new servant community. Simon’s mother in law is raised up to serve, and really the story of her healing is the story of every Christian: for each one of us is called in Christ to be raised up to serve. Which is not to say, of course that each one of us will be cured of every illness. Healing and cure and not one and the same thing. but that’s another sermon!
As Jesus’s ministry continues so do the healings. A paralysed man let down through the roof of someone’s house is healed. A woman with a stigmatising flow of blood is healed. A madman, ravaged by inner demons and living wild among the tombs is healed. The daughter of Syro-Phoenecian foreigner is healed. A blind beggar is healed. The list goes on. It’s striking the list includes so many people of “low social standing” as it was understood in Jesus’ day: women, children, foreigners. These people were nobodies. And their illness and disability made them doubly nobodies. They have no place in ordinary society. They are shut out, excluded. The Pharisees think, wrongly, that the paralysed man is disabled because he is a sinner. His supposed sin means he is shut out. The woman with the blood flow lives with huge shame, embarassment and stigma. The stigma means she shuts out. The man with mental illness is literally shut out living among the tombs, the Middlewood hospital of first century Palestine. Lots of people shut out, edged out of society by reason of illness. And each of these shut out people find themselves welcomed in by Jesus. For each of them, Jesus raises them up to wholeness of life in a servant community in which they have a part to play.
“The Kingdom of God is near” is Jesus’s message. God’s new world is here, now with the coming into the world of Jesus. But what does God’s kingdom look like? Jesus doesn’t answer this question with words but with action. His healings show us what the kingdom looks like. It’s like a community in which the excluded are made welcome. The Pharisees are baffled by the company Jesus keeps.”Why does he eat with the tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus is very clear why: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have come to call not the(so-called) righteous, but sinners.” Jesus comes to be alongside the limping, struggling people, for whom life isn’t quite working out. And if we’re honest, that’s probably most of us.
Up to a year or so ago I served as a faith representative on the Sheffield Health and Wellbeing Board. The job of this meeting was to monitor the health of the whole City of Sheffield. It was essentially about public health. We looked at how speeding restrictions had helped cut child mortality in the city, measures to support carers, and ways of encouraging employers to employ people who had suffered mental health problems. This meeting always reminded me how much of our health and wellbeing depends upon how we organise our life together in community.
Jesus’s healings tell us something about the shape of the new community that comes to bring about. This is a community where the mad, the funny-looking and the socially awkward are not merely tolerated, but welcomed, affirmed and included. Jesus’s new community is a truly healthy community, not in the sense that everyone in it is illness-free, but in the sense that healthy relationships exist between the members of the community. Our spiritual health, our spiritual wholeness is not something we work out in isolation with our God. No: our spiritual wholeness is to do with the quality of our life in community with God’s people. As God’s people we are one body, we belong together in him. We are one in Christ and our relationships needs to enact that belonging,
In our last PCC meeting we looked again at our statement of purpose for St. Columba’s. One of the statements reads: the purpose of St. Columba’s is to be a community of mutual care and acceptance, growing in the love of Jesus Christ together.” As we looked at it , we realised that acceptance is actually a weak word. We are called to do something more than merely accept one another. The love of God in Jesus is pro-active: we see Jesus getting alongside people, raising them up in tangible and practical ways. I suggested that we should substitute the word “hospitality” for acceptance. Acceptance is passive, hospitality is tangible. Hospitality is an invitation for a cup of coffee, or maybe a beer, hospitality is the giving of the gift of time. Hospitality requires that we let ourselves open up a bit more to receiving the Christ in one another. If we really want to grow in the love of Jesus Christ together we’re not going to do that merely by being polite to one another. We’re called to take the risk of being real.
So this week let’s stay with the question of what it means for us to be a healthy community, a whole community, a community of hospitality in which all are welcomed to serve and be served. Let’s pray that God will take us and shake us and raise us up to be the people he is calling us to be.
Preacher: Revd Frances Eccleston, 05.04.2012