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Healing and Mission Isaiah 40:21-end; Mark 1:29-39

Peter must have been a saint because he had his mother-in-law to share his house! I know times were different in those days and in that culture it was much more usual to have larger, extended families living together. The house might have been bigger than our 3 bedroom semis; perhaps there was a central courtyard with rooms surrounding it. When Jesus came to stay for a short time at Peter’s house, Peter asked him to heal his mother-in-law who was suffering from a fever. He had already seen Jesus heal a man with a disturbed spirit in the synagogue earlier that same day. Later, at sunset, that is, once the Sabbath was over and people were allowed to move further than just short distances, many more were brought to Peter’s house for Jesus to heal.

Here at the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus’ life and ministry he lays great emphasis on Jesus’ healing ministry. The first things Mark tells us about Jesus did once he’d called his disciples, was to teach with authority and to heal with great effect. Although many of the healings were more straightforward, some of them have complications or extra aspects to them beyond the actual cure the sick person received. Jesus’ first miracle in Mark is of a man possessed by an unclean spirit which he carries out not only on the Sabbath (when you were not supposed to work) but in the synagogue, too. Healing people counted as work and Sabbath regulations forbade anything but the most necessary of work on this sacred day of rest. Right at the beginning of his ministry, therefore, Mark hints that Jesus’ mission was going to be controversial.

Now we come to the three scenes in today’s gospel reading where Mark reveals more of Jesus’ controversial mission. Having cured in the synagogue on the Sabbath, he now cures in the home, whilst it was still Sabbath. Jesus is staying with Peter, one of his closer followers. Peter’s mother-in-law is not well and they tell Jesus about her at once. They have seen his power in the synagogue and so they believe he can touch others with healing. Not only does Jesus heal the sick woman but he raises her up – sets her on her feet again and she began to serve them. Again, that sounds like work on the Sabbath!

The second scene happens at sundown. That means the Sabbath is over and people are able to come to the place where Jesus is staying and not break the Sabbath by walking, riding or being carried too far. Because Jesus had healed both spiritual and physical illness people needing both kinds of healing are brought to him at the door of Peter’s house. Through his teaching in the synagogue (and the comments that followed it) and his cleansing of both troubled spirits and broken bodies, Mark is demonstrating the authority of Jesus and his concern for the whole person.

The third scene tells us more about Jesus and his mission. Now it is early in the morning, before dawn, and Jesus creeps out of the house and finds a solitary place to pray. It must have taken some time for his disciples to find him, because Mark tells us that Peter and his friends hunted for Jesus. There are more people clamouring for him at the door of Peter’s house. Everyone is searching for you! they exclaim. Jesus’ response is not the expected one. Instead of going back to the village and continuing the work he began the night before, he is ready to move on to other villages. Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that there is more healing work for him to do in the other towns nearby, but that the message must be proclaimed there, too. In other words, he has a sense of urgency for his mission. Although healing is important and is the expression of Jesus’ compassion, it is not the prime reason for his mission. Proclaiming the message is his driving passion and that he must do despite plenty of opportunities of repeating the success of the previous day.

Praying with Patients
A practising Baptist nurse has been in the news this week for offering to pray with patients. Caroline Petrie has been suspended by North Somerset Primary Care Trust for failing to show “personal and professional commitment to equality and diversity.” She has said that she has trouble understanding how offering to pray for someone could be upsetting. I feel it’s a nice thing to ask, and a way to give hope that circumstances can change. Of course, there may be more to this case than we realise, but two comments by experts reported by the Church Times set this case in a wider context. Dame Sarah Mullally who is a Team Rector in Surrey and a former Chief Nursing Officer commented on the need for nurses to be better equipped in dealing with the spiritual needs of patients. Rev John Andrews, a spokesman for the diocese where Caroline Petrie lives, pointed out that the Christian ministry of healing should be concerned for the whole of a person’s health: that means mentally and spiritually as well as physically. I know hospital chaplains who find many patients welcome the chance to be prayed with, regardless of how religious they may or may not be.

I think this case is relevant to our thoughts this morning as we recall the mission and ministry Jesus carried out. Jesus upset the authorities by his actions and responded to the needs of those he encountered without letting Sabbath rules limit him. If healing was considered to be work, and therefore not to be carried out on the day of rest, that was of secondary importance when Jesus found people in need. When a man with a disturbed spirit made a scene in the middle of the synagogue service, Jesus healed him on the spot. When Peter’s mother-on-law was lying in bed with a fever, even though it was still the Sabbath, Jesus did not hesitate to help her. In the days long before effective and cheap medicine was available to ordinary people, a fever would be quite a worrying thing. If left it might get worse and the sufferer not recover. Moreover, it is obvious from Mark’s comment that the fever was preventing Peter’s mother-in-law from looking after the household, from being a whole person who wanted to be able to serve her guests.
Healing for the Whole Person
In more recent times the Church has rediscovered how it can be involved in the ministry of healing. As medicine advanced along with the rest of science, the need for the miraculous lessened. Christian mission often supported medical missionaries and the Church was involved with setting up clinics and hospitals in many places. But putting so much effort into conventional medicine distracted the Church from its spiritual calling and so prayer for healing has had to be recovered. Christian prayer for healing does not mean turning our backs on the work of doctors and health-care professionals because conventional medicine also, is God-given.

But what sick people often appreciate in addition to conventional medicine or surgery is spiritual care that accompanies their physical and mental needs. Being prayed for, befriended, listened to, perhaps even receiving communion at the bedside or in the home, can go a long way in helping a patient to recover. It would be wrong for a Christian nurse or even a chaplain to impose prayers on someone (that wouldn’t work anyway) but the genuine offer of prayer is often accepted with gratitude. When someone falls ill or has a bad accident it is not only their physical body that suffers. Anxiety about recovering or relationships, feeling very vulnerable or just emotionally weak often goes along with physical suffering. Those sorts of things are both mental and spiritual and therefore, just as the body needs appropriate treatment, so does the mind and spirit of a patient.

In the gospel story Jesus’ healing powers appear miraculous and attracted the crowds. Our prayer for healing should be open-ended, allowing God complete freedom to grant whatever he wills, miraculous or not. What is more important, though, is the wider mission of Jesus. Healing was a sign that the kingdom of God was near and that is why Jesus did not stop longer and heal more people, but went on to the other surrounding places in order to proclaim the kingdom. That, too, should be our wider concern.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




God of our salvation,
help us to turn away from those habits which harm our bodies
and poison our minds
and to choose again your gift of life,
revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.