Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
What is ours to do? What in this age, in this culture mostly hostile to religious faith, does it mean to be the Church?
Australia, as we know, is currently one of the most secular countries in the world. We know the Church has, with very real justification, lost credibility as a moral authority. Sexual abuse in the church has been a horror that the courage of survivors and supporters has brought to light enabling actions to be taken to prevent such violence occurring again. Shrinking congregations in many places have caused great anxiety and parishes are struggling to find enough in the offering plates to pay wages for clergy and other staff and to maintain buildings. In some parts of the Anglican communion, clericalism has led to an active suppression of what could have been vibrant lay ministry and there is a need for an empowering of the whole church.
The social fabric of society has changed dramatically in the last fifty years and even in the last twenty. Society is increasingly disconnected, with a lack of the kind of cross-generational supports and extended family and kinship groups known in the past and that other cultures maintain. The challenges for the church seeking to nurture connection and belonging in these times is great.
This is the Year of the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, most likely the first written and the one which points more than the other three to the presence of pain, suffering and struggle as part of the way of following Christ.
John Alexander Shaia writes that each of the four Gospels has a central orienting question. He suggests that the question of the Gospel of Mark is “How do we move through suffering?” Whether we find ourselves in a place of struggle personally this year, or if we are tuned into the sorrows of those we love or the suffering of the church and the world, this Gospel speaks a response. The audience of the Gospel of Mark would have identified as Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah. In Rome, with the persecution of Emperor Nero, they had been scapegoated and betrayed by fellow Jews who were also being threatened by Roman persecution. The apostles, Peter and Paul, had been martyred and their friends and family were being murdered in the annihilation of the Roman Messianic community. Into this atmosphere of terror, shame and abandonment, the writer of Mark’s Gospel tells the story of a Messiah who enters into their troubles, and is indeed, in the very midst of them as they suffer.
In today’s Gospel we witness a scene of Jesus there, present with those who suffer or are enslaved by evil spirits, and he comes with healing and strength. We can imagine how the original audience, living in fear and persecution, would have found hope in this image. In the usual sparse language of Mark, we are told that Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever. Jesus comes directly up to her and takes her by the hand. In this time of virtual presences, it pays to remember the power of touch and of being physically “with” one another. The text then says that Jesus “lifts her up”. In the Greek this is the same word used for resurrection later in Mark, so we could say Jesus ‘resurrected’ her. The text then tells us that she immediately began to serve them – diakoneō– from where we obtain the word Deacon, meaning both a spiritual and/or practical ministry. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is recognised because of this as the first Deacon- she is there, alongside Jesus the Messiah, serving the suffering people of God.
The miracle of Christ’s presence is found in transformed lives, set free from all that hinders and the fears that divide, to love and serve one another in ways that are utterly counter cultural in a society which leans more toward self-obsession and self-interest. The miracle of the incarnation is that we too, are called to incarnate the living Word. We are resurrection people, taking another by the hand and inviting them to life.
Are we incarnating miracles here? We can probably all speak to moments of grace and light as we worship together and commit and recommit to each other in loving relationship. Some can point to true liberation and transformation. Others may tell the story of moments when our community touched the lives of another, whether through the dignity of new clothes, an attentive conversation, a cup of tea, or time spent with the sick or dying. But we can also speak to the struggles of being community. Mark’s Gospel, more than any other, reminds us that the way is difficult and often painful.
In Rob Bell’s new work of fiction Where’d You Park Your Spaceship? we hear echoes of what the incarnation means in this soliloquy from one of its characters; (transcribed from the most recent On the Way podcast)
Love must be incarnated in space and time, and to do that it must empty itself of its infinite boundless formlessness in order to be present in bodies between people. In these people we choose to love is the limitless vastness of the universe. We die to everything else we could do, and everything else we could be, in order to love the ones we are with here and now. It is the death of all those other futures that makes the present the world-opening wondrous gift that it is…heartbreaking and maddening, but wondrous.
You cannot do it all. You cannot have it all. When we tell children “you can be anything you want”, this positive-sounding message can become, if taken literally, a dangerous philosophy that does not help them deal with their own finitude. Any choice we make necessitates other choices that we deny. To truly love, not as a sentimental idea but as something we enact with our hearts, minds and bodies, requires attention and presence which flows into service amongst a particular group or groups of people in a particular location or locations. Many of you have a sense of the way your service extends to community groups like Probus or Rotary or in your work environment even as you nurture relationships in the sacramental life of this parish community. All are part of the one flow of life and through the life of the Christian, Christ is there, present in all.
Yet sometimes I think while we are busy looking for improvements or solutions, we do not honour this present wonder of incarnational community as we should. Sometimes I think our anxieties can prevent us from recognising the miracle of Christ in our midst, still teaching and healing, still moving amongst us with love and acceptance as we seek to build communities of respect and belonging. Sometimes I think our plans and programs that seek to find new forms for our future can neglect the power of what the church has always done- a particular group of people gathering to break bread together in a particular time and place. Even though there is need to consider how the Spirit may be leading us to be responsive to a changing world, we should not lose sight of how the scandalous particularity of the incarnation continues to call us to the simple ministry of ‘being with’ a certain group or groups in love and service.
The local parish model will need to change and adapt, but it also brings a great strength in the way it helps us to see that when we can find Christ in amongst this particular group of people, we also are glimpsing the vastness of the universal Christ. When we live lives of loving service in one place and time, we sense the enduring, eternal nature of love and the power of life found in self-giving so that others may have life and belonging. The Creator of all came to us in self-emptying love, embodied so that Jesus the Christ could abide in us and with us always. In order for “infinite boundless formlessness” to take shape in love, you…me …us all… are needed to make present that love in a world hungry for its visibility, its touch and the sound of its gentle, insistent call to intimacy and belonging. When love’s presence is felt and received in this healing way, we are indeed incarnating miracles.
 As quoted in On the Way podcast, Episode 99, “Finding the Way Forward”