- Epiphany 5.18 “And She Served Them” Mark 1:29-39
“And she served them.” An apparently harmless little line, but it has generated a lot of chatter over the years, especially recently in our society so concerned with the roles of men and women, and much of the chatter has not been flattering to Jesus. The more cynical commentators (and this would be the vast majority of the scholarly establishment) sneer at this. The harshest reading is that after a rough morning casting out unclean spirits in the synagogue, with a lot of questions and comments (not many of them positive) Jesus is ready to kick back and relax, enjoy a nice meal with friends. Simon and Andrew invite Him to their house, promising a fine meal because Simon’s mother-in-law is a fabulous cook.
But when they get to Simon’s house, roh-oh, Scoob! Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever and no dinner on the table. Liking a hot meal as much (or more) as anyone, Jesus takes her by the hand, heals her by His touch, lifts her up, and shows her the way to the kitchen so she can hop to it and get dinner ready in a jiffy. And everyone is happy. Except the feminist critics who object strenuously to the reinforcement of outmoded gender stereotypes and oppression of women. So, no good deed goes unpunished in this reading and Jesus is not lauded for his compassion and healing power but docked for being a patriarchal oppressor who thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen (and they wonder why the liberal mainline churches that favor such a cynical reading are increasingly empty? I mean, if you bite the hand that feeds you like this, well… duh!). I will only mention in addition that this reading owes a great deal to the way the Pharisees read Jesus’ deeds of power—as sinful breaking of their good, old, holy Law.
The second reading, the missional reading, very popular in Missouri Synod circles these days, is not fussed much over society’s gender roles. But it embraces the general logic of the first reading. The missional reading (and I’ve heard tons of sermons from LCMS leaders, even recently on this) says the whole reason Jesus heals and saves is to get us busy working for Him in building His Kingdom. He doesn’t save us so that we can just sit around and Feast with Him. No! He saves us because He’s got a really big job for us: converting the lost, building the Church; and He heals and saves so that we will get out there right away and tell others about Him, and build His Church for Him. I’ve heard this final versicle tacked onto to the end of contemporary “worship” services. After the recessional hymn, the pastor intones from the back of the church, “The worship is over!” and the congregation replies “The service begins!” Or as the sign at the end of one our daughter church’s parking lot reads—“you’re now entering the mission field!” Which is to say, you’ve had your hour or so to relax, now get busy and work for Jesus or else!
The first reading’s popular in so-called “liberal” churches; the second in the so-called “conservative” churches (like the LCMS). But both drink deeply from the legalistic well. Jesus doesn’t do anything for us for free. There are stings attached to everything He does. He doesn’t heal and save just for grins, or merely to see us happy, but to get something from us. To make us fit for the hard work of kingdom building…
I’ll level with you guys: I heard an absolute ton of sermons like this from about 12 years old and on through college (and I still hear them at pastors conferences and district conventions and installations of new clergy). Jesus saves us so we can save others, or build the Kingdom for and with Him. The Lord’s Supper is not a free lunch. The Gospel has strings attached. The Church is not a haven for sinners to rest but for the saints to get busy in productive labor—more like a work camp. And it nearly wrecked my faith. I figured Christendom is just another market-driven scam to control me and I was pretty much done with it by the time I was 20 years old. Ready to move on.
Fortunately then, I ran into some teachers in grad school who made me actually read the Story the Scriptures actually tell. And I remembered that even in my darkest days of despising the church, Jesus remained always a compelling Figure. I could never really believe that He was like this. And the more I read the Scriptures and learned the theology of the ancient church from Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, the more I realized I’d been sold a bill of goods, a cynical, Pharisaical marketing scheme designed to prop up the faltering institutions of Christendom that have hardly anything at all to do with the True Church of Christ Jesus.
Luther was right. If the Law does not drive you to the Gospel Word that Jesus has forgiven all your sins, for free, with no works of yours required, not so that you can work for Him but as He says: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you…REST!” then punt. If anyone tells you Jesus has any other plan in mind for you but to rest and feast with Him at His Table as kings and queens forever—tell them to learn to read, and find some better friends who can understand that, as God Omnipotent, Jesus doesn’t need anyone’s help with anything!
This is why I love the old liturgies of the Church—because they tell the scandalous Story that Jesus came into the world to save sinners so that we could rest and enjoy His Paradise free and clear, forever! This is why churches that hate the old liturgy and replace IT with contemporary drivel inevitably hate the Gospel and preach law, law, law, works and missions—Jesus saves you only so you will work for Him in saving others to enrich Him.
No. A hundred times, NO! Isn’t this how the story goes: “As soon as they came out of the synagogue Jesus entered Simon and Andrew’s house and Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Jesus says “I hate that.” Goes into her room, takes her by the hand, lifts her up, speaks kindly to her, makes sure she’s feeling better. And she feels better than she ever has in her life! She’s ready to run a marathon, slap an addition onto the house. Cooking is her great love and it would mean the world to her if Jesus would let her prepare her specialty for Him. To share a meal both their hands touch would put her joy over the top…”?
The faithful naturally, freely, unselfconsciously serve Jesus. Notice how the demons and the crowds never serve Him, they just leave or forget Him? The faithful serve Him not because they have to but because they get to. Because in His Majesty’s Service is the power and the glory and the life and the joy of the Sons and Daughters of the King. Nothing is more restful than entering His service. Remember when you were a kid and you dressed up and pretended to be your favorite super hero? Remember how the hours flew by, delightfully, then? This is what the service of Jesus is like. Getting to pretend for a while that we are He and He is us, and in that pretending, miracles happen, lives change…
Real worship is ever, always, only “Divine Service”—God serving us—giving us His all, Jesus, His body, blood, forgiveness, life, salvation; not to get something back from us, but only so that by Faith we’ll be utterly enraptured by His Gifts, lost in wonder, love, and praise ‘till Peace surpassing understanding guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.