July 8th, 2012 “The First Deacon” Rev. Heather Jepsen
As you know, we have been spending time in the gospel of Mark together this summer. You may also know that I was out of the office most of the week to care for Olivia who was seriously ill. Needless to say, my week was not conducive to sermon writing so today we are taking a break from the lectionary and jumping backward in the gospel of Mark.
As we have been exploring the gospel together in worship, we have discovered that many readings are like today’s reading; they are a bunch of small stories smashed together. That’s how Mark writes, in snippets with minimal detail. Passages like this morning’s can be a real challenge to the preacher. A preacher is overwhelmed by all the story lines. From healing, to exorcism, Jesus praying alone, and the disciples’ confusion, from the faith of the crowds, to Jesus’ desire to spread his ministry, the options are endless. This morning rather than trying to weave all these stories together, I am simply going to preach on one story. I want to talk about the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, who I have come to think of as the first deacon.
Now I hardly need to point out how slim the material is. With only three verses we don’t have a lot to go on here. But with a little study and imagination, this passage really opens up. The reading opens by setting the scene. Jesus and some of his new followers have left the synagogue and have gone over to Simon Peter’s house. We can imagine that it was a long day, the men are excited about their new commitment to each other but they are tired. I can just hear Peter saying, “Hey guys, my house is just around the corner. Let’s go there, my mother-in-law is a great cook and I am sure she can fix us up a great fish dinner.”
In our culture’s folklore mothers-in-law can sometimes be a bad thing, and I am sure there were some less than wonderful mothers-in-law in the ancient world, but Peter seems to have a pretty good relationship with his. From what we know about the culture of the time we can probably assume that this woman was a widow. After her husband’s death she moved in with her daughter and her daughter’s husband, that’s Peter, and Peter’s brother, Andrew. In ancient
mother-in-law was a handy addition to any household as she would carry most of
the burden for keeping things tidy and keeping everyone fed. Daughters and wives are busy with babies but
mothers-in-law can ground the whole family.
As a matter of fact; in our own culture this arrangement was a topic of
discussion just a few years ago when President Barack Obama invited his
mother-in-law to live in the White House to help out with the family. Israel
But back to our story; to their certain dismay, Peter comes home to find that his mother-in-law is ill. She is in bed with fever, which in those times was not a symptom of illness but rather an illness in itself; and one which was frequently thought to have been brought on by evil spirits. Peter’s wife probably saw the men coming and came running out of the house to warn them. If her mother was sick, the men should not enter the house. To do so they would risk not only getting sick themselves, but they would risk the stigma of ritual uncleanliness which would then prevent them from going back to the synagogue.
Now, any other group of men would probably turn around at this point, perhaps headed to the home of James and John. But there is something different about this group, and that of course is the new guy, Jesus. Jesus does not fear illness or ritual unlceanliness and so he chooses to enter the home. This is a very intimate gesture on his part, for only a family member would enter the home of a sick person. Jesus enters the home, crossing social and religious boundaries, and comes to the woman’s bedside taking her by the hand. Again, for Jesus to touch a stranger that was ill is absolutely unheard of. But, as we have come to know, this is who Jesus is. He touches the woman, and immediately the fever leaves her and she is healed.
And this is where something amazing happens, the woman is healed and she immediately gets out of bed and serves them all, friends and family. Now I am sure there are quite a few women here who might be a bit taken aback by this. Who wants to get straight up from their sick bed and get to work waiting on people? But this is different, for at this point, to serve is an honor.
Now, the Greek word that is translated as “serve” in the NRSV that I read from, or as “wait on them” if you are a reader of the NIV, that word is diakonei. Now, this is a very important word in the gospel of Mark, and frankly the NIV’s translation, “wait on them” does not do the power of this word justice. Diakonei, doesn’t just mean to serve someone, it means to minister to them. The same word is used earlier in Mark 1:13 where the angels of the Lord minister to Jesus in the desert.
So, Peter’s mother-in-law rises from her sick bed, to minister to the guests in her home. And she ministers to them, by serving them. This is so significant, as she has become the first model of discipleship. Later in the gospel of Mark, (starting at 10:44 if you are curious) Jesus will teach his followers that the greatest among them must be the servant and again the word used is a derivative of this word, diakonei. This is the model of discipleship. “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”, again diakonei.
Peter’s mother-in-law is the first person to serve others, the first person to model true discipleship, and she is the first in a series of women who will become the hidden heroes in the gospel of Mark. It is women, in the gospel of Mark, who most frequently present the correct response to Jesus’ message. There is the widow with her two coins, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with costly nard, the women who gather at the cross, and the women who will come to the tomb Easter morning. In Mark, it is the nameless women behind the scenes, who will get the message that Jesus is preaching; whereas the disciples of Jesus will frequently be confused.
So, we have found this morning, that there really is a lot in these three simple verses of Mark’s gospel. So often we forget the role that family played in the early days of the church. Writing in the Christian Century magazine, author Lawrence Wood points out that “We probably haven’t thought enough about the family relationships behind the early church. The disciples Simon Peter and Andrew were brothers, as were James and John. Jesus had several brothers. And several women named Mary seem to have had an unusually close relationship. The early church was very much a family affair, which makes sense, because even today the church grows through relationships, one person at a time.”
It is the family relationship where the early church got its start. And Lawrence Wood sees Peter’s mother-in-law’s influence extending beyond this simple passage. Again he imagines that, “This woman’s amazing recovery inspired Simon to leave his nets, leave
Jesus. He wouldn’t have been able to
leave without her staying behind to watch over the family. Even Simon’s wife would be hard-pressed to
keep him home after what happened; we can imagine both women encouraging him to
go in their stead. Actually, years
later, Simon’s wife accompanied him on apostolic journeys which we read about in
1 Corinthians. And this suggests that
his mother-in-law remained in the story, keeping watch over the home.” Capernaum
Peter’s mother-in-law is the first to serve, the first to diakonei, and if you haven’t guessed already, this Greek word, diakonei is the root of our own word deacon. The deacon is the one who has chosen to minister to the church through service. Our deacons serve our church in ministries of caring and compassion and this is the model that Jesus himself has given us for discipleship.
May these people, from Peter’s mother-in-law, to the other unnamed women of scripture, from the ladies and men of our churches today who serve as deacons and elders or who serve behind the scenes, may they all be an example to us. For Christ has taught that he has come among us as one who serves, and that the true path of discipleship is the path of the deacon, the path of the servant. Amen.