Sunday 8 February 2015 – Parish Eucharist, 11.00 am
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Looking at the readings for this morning, it was quite difficult to know which one to tackle. Should it be the words of Isaiah, about God, the mighty creator of the universe, and ourselves its inhabitants who are mere grasshoppers? Or should it be St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, with its difficult contrasts between being free and a slave, and Paul’s puzzling determination to set aside his right to be paid for preaching the Gospel because he can’t stop himself from preaching? Or should it be the reading from St Mark, which seems quite straightforward?
However, St Mark is also a man of mission of deep insights, not just a simple story-teller about Jesus. And he uses action to express the urgency of his message. Just before our reading opens, Jesus has been teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and has cast out a demon from a man who was possessed by it. Then, as our reading opens, the action continues. Jesus visits Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and heals her from her fever. Then he heals all the sick and possessed who are brought to him from across the town. Early next morning he goes off alone to pray. Then Simon Peter and the others hurry off to find him to take him back to town because the people are clamouring for him. Jesus refuses and instead goes on, with Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, to Galilee, to proclaim his message there.
Is St Mark just recording a couple of busy days in the life of Jesus, or is this account woven in as a vital part of the whole fabric of the Gospel? St Mark tells us his purpose at the very beginning of the Gospel: He is writing to announce the Good News, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. The Greek word for Good News is “Euangelion”. In the context of the Roman empire it meant a major public announcement about something good which affected everybody in the empire, rather like an announcement from Parliament saying that income tax had been abolished.
So what is the Good News which St Mark is proclaiming to us in every thread in his Gospel? What News is so Good that it can change the world? Where do we find it in the tightly packed events in Capernaum? Well, I could hold out to the end of the sermon before saying what I think the Good News to be, but your patience might not hold out for so long. The Good News is of course that the Kingdom of God has come through Jesus Christ, the Anointed One of God. It is here and it is now and it is open to all who believe in Jesus as the Son of God.
Seen in that light, the events in Capernaum are more than simple anecdote. In our reading, the first action of Jesus is to heal Peter’s mother-in-law. This is the second of Jesus’ healing miracles which St Mark tells us about. The first one was the curing of the man in the synagogue possessed by a demon. For St Mark, the significance of the healing miracles is not just that they are an indication of Jesus’ compassion. They are symbolic of his divine power to heal and save, and point us to his true identity. His power to cast out demons is symbolic too of his power to overcome all evil.
But there is more. St Mark want us to see that the miracles have yet another purpose. They show how an individual can be drawn into a trusting and saving relationship with Jesus. Faith can heal. Once we have faith, and recognise Jesus as the Son of God, our relationship is established and we can be saved, healed and enable to go with him into the Kingdom of God.
You may have noticed that when Jesus casts out a demon, he does not allow it to speak “he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). If Jesus had come to proclaim the kingdom of God, would it not be helpful if the demons at least testified to his identity and purpose? But this is the point. The demons could not help but recognise Jesus for who he was, but their recognition of him had no transforming effect upon them, as faith does on us. There is no compulsion. We can choose of our own free will whether or not to recognise the Good News of Jesus and to accept the sure transformation that will follow. From then on, we will be continually moving Godwards, not manwards.
So while the demons recognised Jesus for who he was, no one else does. The townsfolk and even Simon, Andrew, James and John, do not. They all see him as just another healer. Jesus went off alone to pray the next morning. Simon and the others clearly thought he as missing a golden opportunity and track him down in his quiet place. And Jesus refused to go back with them to Capernaum. Jesus did not want to be sought out as another miracle-worker. Healing was certainly part of his work, but it was not his main task. Simon, Andrew, James and John ,came to him, not as his disciples, but as messengers of the townsfolk of Capernaum. They did not understand his main work was to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel. Their perspective too was still manward, not Godward.
It might have been tempting for Jesus to continue his ministry in Capernaum where he was welcome and needed. But after his time of prayer, he came to the decision to move on. This was a turning point in the history of the world. Jesus says to Simon and the others, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1: 38). Jesus was not choosing between a ministry of healing and a ministry of preaching. He continued to heal throughout his life.
Because of who he was, he knew his work was not to be limited to one particular place. The proclamation of the Good News was for a wider area than just Capernaum. The decision at that remote spot near Capernaum meant that the proclamation of the Euangelion, the Good news of the kingdom of God began its journey through the whole world. It has reached us here, even in Madingley. And of course the Good News continues its journey from here onward through the world.