Lifted Up, Pastor Kinsey
Capernaum was a good sized town on the Sea of Galilee – it became much more prominent after Jesus died. The reason is clear from modern excavations that have revealed, probably the most revered home in the whole region of Galilee. This is the only home that has ‘plastered walls’, and were frescoed with Christian symbols, dating from the turn of the 1st century. Over time it was enlarged and separated off as sacred by a series of partitions in 3 concentric circles – transformed into a public space. Shards of elegant fine wares from well-known kilns in Africa and Cyprus have been uncovered, brought by Christian pilgrims making offerings, like the wise men, perhaps who came bearing gifts to the baby Jesus. There were elegant plates and cups of fine clay, and stamped with crosses, meaning likely that the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, was celebrated there.
It makes sense, of course – though there’s no way to confirm it – that this was the home of Peter and Andrew in the bustling fishing port of Capernaum. I have seen it with my own eyes, in 2005, when I went on study tour to Israel-Palestine, and it can take your breath away! Not because of its opulence – the homes are extremely modest, made of clay, the straw-rooftops, long gone. But it’s open to tourists today, and the home, converted into house-church and pilgrimage site, is carefully covered with a platform so you can look down into it through the glass, and wonder – is this where Peter, and Jesus himself once broke bread together?!
And on the northern edge of Capernaum is the excavated ruins of a 4th century synagogue. So it can’t be the synagogue that Jesus and his disciples have just come from in our gospel story, where Jesus silenced the unclean spirit, commanding the demon to come out, and healed the man. Synagogue buildings, may or may not have been around during Jesus’ life time, because mostly synagogues were just outdoor meeting places until after the year 70AD, when the 2nd Temple was destroyed.
So in our gospel reading today, when they all go to Peter and Andrew’s house with James and John, they were hoping to just chill for a while. They didn’t know Peter’s mother-in-law was on her death bed, burning up “with a fever.” So suddenly, Jesus is right back to work! This is the first contact Jesus has with a woman in the gospel of Mark, and even though she is so sick, he comes to her and compassionately takes her by the hand, and with words that could be used to describe his resurrection to come much later, he “lifted her up!”
Almost as soon as the news gets out, and after sundown when the Sabbath is over, the residents of Capernaum are bringing Jesus, “sick and evil-afflicted people to him,” says Mark, “the whole city lined up at his door! He cured their sick bodies and tormented spirits. [And] because the demons knew his true identity, he didn’t let them say a word.” (The Message trans.)
So Jesus will continue to expand his circle of followers and demonstrate the power of God. And remarkably, in wholly new ways! He will go on to neighboring towns and villages, to preach and announce the good news, and cast out demons. And just doing that, where he goes and who he cares for, is turning all the normal religious- political-social conventions on their head!
Jesus was a good Jew, but he couldn’t abide the misinterpretation of God’s love and grace in the human-made boundaries and conventions of religion. The Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon had been trying desperately to Make Israel Great Again for some time. But they had built up such a rigid system of orders, of clean and unclean, insiders and outsiders, that they had lost much of their original spirituality and life in the covenant agreement to be God’s people.
There were clearly defined holiness ritual zones. And at the center was the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple, where the ark and presence of God resided. Only the Chief Priest was allowed there. Then in concentric circles moving outward, were the Courts of the Temple, the Temple itself, Jerusalem, the region of Judea, and finally the Gentile lands, which were entirely unclean.
This ritual pattern was repeated in every arena of Israel’s life. The Jewish calendar designated holy days from the profane. Food, was either fit for the altar, the family table, or unfit for consumption altogether. And of course, people, who were ranked in their relationship to the Temple. So Priests were in the middle or the holiest, while the sick or physically disabled were at the most outer layer or farthest from holiness. Gentiles were off the map!
But you get the picture. Jesus was announcing God’s realm and kingdom, and triaging people – farthest from the center! Throughout Mark’s gospel, we’ll see how Jesus reverses every marker of human-made holiness: the calendar, food, people, and the Temple itself.
Jesus breaks down the crumbling insider-outsider divisions, that were corrupting the values and beliefs of his people – liberating them, lifting them up from their ailments that were in no small part created by the corruption of God’s intended order of life, and freeing them from the demons that had them bound for so long.
So, where do we see these walls and boundaries existing among us today? Can we name the demons?
Healthcare, for one, has locked us into a system of increasing oppression, as for-profit insurance companies control the doctors who feel straight-jacketed, but want to help, dictating how much care they give, what prescriptions and procedures we may have, and if they will be covered. The division into winners and losers is truly sinful, and needs to be ‘lifted up’ to new life.
Another, perhaps better example yet, is the divisive issue of a wall on our border with Mexico: Just like Making Israel Great Again in Jesus time, the building of a wall is based on the orders of perceived holiness. White American men are at the center, and brown skinned people farthest away, outsiders, deemed drug runners, and many other un-holy, dog-whistle names. Dividing up people by race and nationality is perhaps the worst kind of abomination.
And to Jesus, this would matter! Jesus reaches out with ultimate compassion, not only to heal, and lift up those on the farthest most outer circles, but to bring the good news of the realm and kingdom of God, to those in every town and village on the borders of society. Jesus rejected the walls that separate us for their inhumane qualities, and exorcised those demons that were infesting the land, in order to make room for a loving and compassionate God.
Unlike the Jerusalem elites who learned to dine like Herod in royal palaces and elegant dining rooms, Jesus shared meals in villages, like the fishing town of Capernaum, in the common room of their little homes or the shaded portions of the open public courtyard. They had no finely made pottery plates, but they scooped their lentils and beans, possibly some olives or fruit, right on to their bread.
This is how Jesus enacted the kingdom and realm of God, as a third way, a distinct alternative, from the divisions and exclusions which protected a privileged few, at the center.
When Jesus lifted up Peter’s mother-in-law, and her fever left her, she became a ‘deacon,’ Mark notes, ‘one who serves.’ This was perhaps the highest compliment you could get, in Mark’s gospel. For it was the women, many of them, who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross, from Galilee to Jerusalem, who Mark singles out after Jesus’ crucifixion, as the best examples of discipleship – and like Peter’s mother-in-law, are called deacons too. They had learned from Jesus to serve others, and were themselves, ‘lifted up,’ as the key to becoming the people of God, the church.
Jesus’ mission brought people together in one circle of peace and justice – healing the sick, dining in festive simple meals, and offering the gift of life, God’s great love, which is given as a gift to all.
And today, God does it through all who are followers – through us, as we enact the realm of God, in all we do.