"We do need to learn the art of getting alongside people"
Read 1 Cor 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
These two readings, which are the lectionary ones for today, fit together like a glove - which is not always the case. So we'll look at Mark's story and then see how what it tells us is reflected in Paul's lovely account of his ministry which he gives us in his letter to the Corinthian Church.
Firstly then, a little bit of the back story to where we are in Mark.
Jesus had not long chosen the first of his disciples, Simon, Andrew, James and John, and they went with him to the synagogue in Capernaum, which is a little fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was invited to do the teaching.
While he was doing that Jesus was distracted by a heckler in the congregation who was known to have evil spirits, so Jesus deals with the situation quite simply and firmly, heals him and carries on. This, and the quality and power in his preaching really impressed the people who were, we are told amazed at what they heard and saw.
Jesus' mission had begun with a bang!
And that's where we pick up the story, as the news about Jesus starts spreading around the local area, in fact throughout Galilee. No mobile phones, Twitter or Facebook, but it doesn't seem to have taken long for news about Jesus to get around, as we see in this reading!
It's probably midday, and Jesus is invited back to Andrew and Simon's house for the main Sabbath meal. I guess Jesus would be justified in thinking that after all the excitement at the Synagogue that he could put his feet up and chill out for a few minutes before enjoying his meal, but there's a problem that needs sorting first, the mother-in-law is feverish and unable to help with serving lunch.
Now the Talmud, the teaching of the Rabbis, laid down the treatment of this "burning fever" which goes something like this. A knife made of iron was tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush. Over the next three days verses from Exodus about Moses and the burning bush were spoken over it, and finally a sort of formula said and the bush cut down, whereupon the fever was assumed to be cured. Now, we might say that after three or four days most fevers would probably have subsided naturally, and even the Rabbis saw healing as coming from God not man, but ritual and a little symbolism probably helped the patient psychologically (possibly a little like homeopathy today!)
Jesus is not concerned with all this! Exorcists would have performed all manner of rituals with the demonic in the synagogue but Jesus simple and with authority brought healing. The local village healer would have been rushing around for his or her rusty knife to deal with this lady and her fever. Jesus simply goes to her, bends down, offers her the hand of healing and helps her to her feet.
Jesus connected with where people were and dealt with their needs, rather than rushing around and drawing attention to himself. To an extent this didn't work of course, because as we see in this passage people were so amazed to hear about this man who simply offered healing without any preconditions, fancy words and actions, that they flocked to wherever he was, and this started right at the beginning of his mission – which could have been a real distraction, except that we get the impression that for Jesus it was never a burden to get alongside the people he had come to save, and bring wholeness into lives.
To the people he was one of them, the carpenter's son from Nazareth who seemed not only to have amazing power and gifts, but had such a love for those around him that he was happy to freely use these gifts.
It's interesting to see the reaction of Simon's mother-in-law, who finding herself healed simply got on with serving her guest and family.
So Jesus has his presumably delayed lunch and settles down for a nice quiet time of fellowship with the extended family in that small house. Except that once the sun had set and the stars were starting to show, the Sabbath was ended and that meant the work of carrying the sick to a healer could begin in earnest!
Too many to get into the house though, so Jesus goes out to where they are.
And that's what we find with Jesus, he meets us where we are, draws alongside us both physically and spiritually.
There is possibly a bit of a downside to this story, in that at this point in Jesus' life it's probably a lot of people wanting something out of Jesus rather than with the intention of following him, or acknowledging him as Messiah. But then I am sure that millions more prayers are said in times of trouble that when the sun's shining in our lives if we are honest with ourselves.
Jesus still met them where they were and offered healing.
But Jesus also knew that his was going to be a short life on earth, and there was much to be done. He takes time out in prayer with his heavenly Father and then he and his disciples begin a preaching tour of Galilee, spreading the good news of the kingdom, and again drawing alongside those in need, bringing healing and wholeness into the lives of those who came to him.
Jesus met people where they were. Jesus brought healing to body and soul.
And if we think how that might affect our own lives, then Paul has an answer in his letter to the Corinthian church.
William Barclay tells a lovely story about the 13th century Spanish saint and mystic Ramon Lull which tells how he became a missionary of Christ. He had apparently been living a careless and pleasure-loving life when, one day when he was alone, Christ appeared to him, carrying his Cross and saying to Ramon, “Carry this for me.” But he refused. Again, when he was in the silence of a great cathedral, Christ came and asked him to carry his Christ; and again he refused. In a lonely moment Christ came a third time, and this time, said Ramon Lull, “He took his Cross and with a look he left it lying in my hands. What could I do but take it up and carry it on?”
Paul says it slightly differently, but the meaning is the same, “Yet preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled by God to do it. How terrible for me if I didn't preach the Good News! If I were doing this on my own initiative, I would deserve payment. But I have no choice, for God has given me this sacred trust.”
Paul has only what others have told him about Jesus' life to go on, as he was writing this only a few decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, but it is obvious that he has modelled his particular style of ministry on that of Jesus. More than anything, he sees it both as a privilege and a duty to use the gifts and intelligence he has been given for this purpose. This is an extraordinary teacher who is happy to accept no payment for his teaching because he is working for his Saviour. He had not chosen this work, it had chosen him and therefore as far as he was concerned he would do it gladly and without pay.
That's not to say that all ministers should work for nothing of course (!) but it worked for Paul, as it does for others.
And Paul also does something remarkable. Rather than doing what the marketing men might suggest is the right way of doing it, which would have been to publicise the event beforehand, arrange lots of meetings and rallies and go for maximum exposure, Paul just blended into the background of wherever he was, got alongside them, got to know the people around him, adopted their particular way of life, spent time with them and gained their trust. If he was living with Jews he was a Jew, living under the law. If it was a Gentile region then he lived as they did. And he threw himself enthusiastically into this way of evangelism. Only one thing he was careful of, making sure that he was always obeying the teaching of Christ.
The example of Jesus and the apostle Paul give us a picture of the way that evangelism can be effective.
Firstly, to adopt a “holier than thou” and “more intelligent than thou” approach is not the way to go. Jesus got among the people, he was like one of them, had grown up among them and yet through his words and actions showed that he was so much more than that.
Paul had an identity problem that he had had to overcome, in that he had spent a long time with the religious elite, culminating in a campaign to rid the world of Jesus' followers. His turnaround, however spectacular it was generated suspicion that he was working undercover, and it had taken time to overcome people's reservations.
So Paul had to be in a position where he could understand the people he was living among, their needs, fears and concerns, what made them tick. It was sometimes a hard life, but for Paul it was the way that he could bring his message to all people, whether they were rich, poor, strong or weak.
The most important thing was that the message of the gospel was heard and received.
And that's a real challenge for us, because we have a tendency, most of us, to be a little reserved when we're in the company of people we wouldn't normally associate with. But we do need to learn the art of getting alongside people, as Jesus and Paul and others who followed their example did, and that's where so many of us find our excuses.
One of these days maybe we'll have to be careful lest Jesus appear to us with his Cross as he did to Ramon Lull and drops the Cross in our lap!