Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
In this election year, the headlong scramble for power is front and center. Candidates, political parties, and super PACs climb over one another to gain access to the levers of power.
Could it be that the church is little different in its craving for potency? Waning influence in American culture, declining membership, or just the plain desire for some kind of noticeable impact on our communities makes us long for the capacity to make stuff happen. If only we had more money, more influence, more people, more resources, our congregations could really execute on our mandate to be the church.
At first glance, Jesus’ ministry looks emblematic of the kind of ministry we wish we could have. Jesus exercises the kind of power that changes lives. Jesus heals the sick and liberates the demonized. He “gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:2-4).
And people stand up and take notice. Mark tells us that “the whole city was gathered around the door”—something we wish could happen in our ministries. If only we had that kind of “juice”, we could really make a difference.
The fact that we don’t have it sends us off in search of the missing ingredient. We need the right methodology, the right practices, the right theology, more of the Holy Spirit. The Lord “is abundant in power” (Psalm 147:5). Therefore, we assume we need power to reflect God’s supremacy in the world. Simon and the other disciples are certain that’s what is needed for the Kingdom of God party to succeed. They hunt for Jesus after he goes AWOL one morning because “everyone is searching” for him after witnessing his deeds of power. Simon and company are sure Jesus needs to exploit this political opportunity and cannot fathom that Jesus’ ultimate political triumph will come through weakness.
Lost in the hoopla is the vignette about Simon’s mother-in-law. Her healing is what triggers the whole outpouring of enthusiasm, but it is soon forgotten in the rush to harness Jesus’ growing political capital. She was in bed with a fever, and they tell Jesus about her. There is no spell, no incantation, no show. Simply taking her by the hand, Jesus lifts her up and delivers her from her deadly fever.
Then in a move sure to raise red flags for us, Simon’s mother-in-law gets up from her sickbed and starts serving them. How predictable! No sooner is the woman healed, but she is required to get up and start serving the men-folk!
But stepping back a bit, we see that this is not at all what is going on. Women in Mark do far better than their male counterparts. The men-folk, with Simon as their standard-bearer, are constantly blurting out the wrong things and misunderstanding Jesus to the point that they run away and are nowhere to be found at the climax of the story. But beginning with Simon’s mother-in-law, women consistently do what is commendable in Mark. (Okay, they do run away at the end, but they must have eventually spread the news of Jesus’ triumph offstage or else we wouldn’t have heard the gospel.) The service of Simon’s mother-in-law reflects the kingdom. She mirrors Jesus, the one who came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
What then is the community of Jesus to think of power, especially in a time when it seems it is scarce and we have great need of it?
Paul commends the politics of weakness to the power-enamored church in Corinth. Derided for not flaunting his authority as they thought fitting for real apostles, Paul instead touts his weakness as his only credential. Weakness is not just a posture. When Paul says that he became “as one under the law” to those under the law or “as one outside the law” to those outside the law, he is neither trying on identities in search of himself nor pragmatically crafting a ministry that will appeal to the largest constituency possible. Paul knows who he is. Paul knows whose he is. “I became weak,” he says, not “like the weak” or “as the weak.” No, Paul says he actually became weak.
Although he is an apostle, he does not exercise full use of his rights (exousia), power, or authority, but instead makes himself a slave to all. For Paul, the goal is not to acquire power, but to lay it down. In doing so, Paul patterns his life after what Michael Gorman calls the “master narrative” of the gospel Paul proclaims: Though Christ was in the form of God, he did not regard his status as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and took on the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-7). Likewise, though Paul is free with respect to all as an apostle, he does not make full use of his exousia, but makes himself a slave of all. In doing so, Paul is not abandoning his identity as an apostle but is in fact demonstrating what apostleship truly looks like, just as Christ did not give up being God in becoming a slave but revealed who God truly is by emptying himself in love.
So long as we grasp after power for the sake of having (Christian?) influence in the world, our congregations will be singularly unable to bear witness to the Kingdom. Conversely, serving all as slaves of Christ and putting the interests of others ahead of our own are within the grasp of all of our congregations, great and small.
The humble vignette of Simon’s mother-in-law gets lost in the hoopla of the healings that follow. But she is not lost to God. She is known to the Almighty God who “determines the number of the stars,” “gives to all of them their names,” and “not one of them is missing” (Psalm 147:4; Isaiah 40:26). Such servanthood is often lonely, exhausting work performed in obscurity. But it is not lost from God’s sight. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord?…He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless….those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” When Simon’s mother-in-law serves, she images the Servant of the Lord. Her weakness is a true reflection of God’s politics.