The Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany

There is a scene in the movie ‘Forest Gump’ where Buba’s mother receives a rather large cheque which was Buba’s share of the shrimp business venture and she faints. The next scene however is quite telling. You see she no longer has to be a worker, a domestic, a servant to anyone any more – in fact she now sits at the table and a servant comes and serves her. One of the marks of success, having made it is that you are served – you are no longer the servant.

Today we hear how Jesus leaves the synagogue after his teaching and his driving out of the demon and he goes to Peter and Andrew’s house – and it’s an extended family arrangement there because Peter’s mother-in-law is there and she’s burning up with a fever. What you don’t get in the English is the sense that the household tells Jesus about Peter’s motherin-law straightaway – she is not well. And guest though he is, Jesus just goes to wherever she is – probably her room – do not forget the scandal that is occurring – the bad manners, the unease Jesus is generating by just going in – and then he takes her by the hand – again be aware that this is not usual behaviour – firstly you don’t know what sickness she’s got and he could be catching it himself and secondly she’s a woman and maybe she is post menopausal but you don’t know – you can’t politely ask – and he a teacher, a rabbi and it’s still the Sabbath remember – takes her hand and literally raises her up. The fever goes and she began to wait on them. In the Greek you’ve got the strong idea of serving at table or we would just say ‘serve’.

Mark only uses this word on three occasions – when the angels serve / minister to Jesus after his 40 days in the wilderness – when Peter’s mother-in-law serves the household – and when Jesus describes life in his kingdom, he says of himself “for even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve, and to give his life to redeem many people” (Mark 10:45).

You’d think that if God was going to rescue humanity or help people, even heal them, and describe what he was doing, I wonder how many would choose the image of waiting at tables or being a servant, putting out the plates, collecting them again, handling the food scraps and washing the dishes? How much of this sort of work was even allowed on the Sabbath is open for discussion but we’re talking about the basic stuff you need to do to eat and drink and live. And Jesus uses this term to describe how he lives and how he expects his followers to live.

A study of the history of the church reveals that the people of God have sought ways to serve those around them. This service gave Christianity credibility in the eyes of the world because it was practical, it often wasn’t linked with money, and it often involved personal sacrifice. Tertullian (end of 2nd century) wrote of the church providing the early forms of welfare to orphans, the poor, old slaves, prisoners. During a plague in Carthage in 252AD, the bishop, Cyprian, gave instructions to his flock – don’t panic, help all in need whether Christian or not, bury the dead, tend the sick. They risked the plague to help – and there were no guarantees that Christians wouldn’t get the plague (some probably did). When a famine struck Antioch in 312 causing disease to become rampant, it was again the Christians who organised and then provided relief. They did it in the name of Jesus – that’s all that counts – and how people respond is between them and the Holy Spirit.

Luther held two sentences in tension. A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. (The Freedom of a Christian, 1520) No matter what status the world gives you, the Christian is free – loved by God who declares you to be a precious child of God – and the response remains that of service.  — GS