Secondly and hugely significant, ηγειρεν, he raised her up. This is the first ‘resurrection’ in Mark’s account. This is the word that travels through the New Testament, and is most commonly used of the raising of Jesus from the dead, but is also used in various of the healing miracles. Every sickness is a little death. Christianity from the outset is about the paschal mystery of death and rising again. Transformation from one state of being, whether physical, mental, spiritual or all three, is foundational to our faith. We are to expect resurrection in our every day lives, and Peter’s mother-in-law provides us with the first recorded example of that template in operation. Jesus raises her.
Finally, διηκονει, she began to serve. Διακονία ,service, the word from which we derive the English word ‘deacon’ is a crucial word in the establishment of ministry in the early church. In this story it is so easy to miss. The narrative moves on in Mark’s breathtaking description of Jesus’s first twenty four hours in ministry; the crowds of sick are at the door and we drop so easily into a stereotype that assumes that Peter’s mother in law set about bringing out the salads and falafel. Now maybe she did. But let us not forget that Jesus described his own ministry in terms of service at table, ‘I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22). Every priest and deacon wears around their neck the stole, the symbol of the towel worn by Jesus at the last supper to wash the disciples feet. Service is the first and most important characteristic of leadership in the early church and today. So I think it is at least possible that these few verses explain how Peter’s mother-in-law became not just a devoted follower and disciple of Jesus, but helped to establish the first house church and became the first deacon and the only one taken by the hand and inducted to that ministry by Jesus himself.
However something had to happen first. Peter’s mother-in-law has to undergo a conversion, just as personally significant as that of the apostle Paul. She is described as in bed, ‘fevering’ a word that in the Greek derives from the word for fire. She was ‘burning up’ as we would say. This was not a bad cold. Sickness in the ancient world was rarely spoken of, unless it was potentially fatal. She was ill enough that she could not leave her bed, and therefore she could not perform for Peter’s friends, including Jesus, the expected duties of hospitality, and this would have brought shame on her household. She would also probably have been considered unclean and possibly demon possessed, which is reflected in the verb used of her healing, ‘it left her’. Jesus in taking her by the hand crosses a number of boundaries - the boundary between a male and a female who is not of his own household; the boundary between clean and unclean at risk of his own perceived purity; and the boundary between a public healing ministry and something that occurs in a private space. All of this is evidence that this was a highly significant healing, not just because it was a relative of Peter, but because it was exemplary of the inclusivity of much of Jesus’s future ministry, and of the ministry we as his followers are to exercise. Jesus’s ministry was transgressive and a willingness to cross boundaries at personal risk is a hallmark of authentic Christian ministry. This was Peter’s mother-in-law’s experience and it would have had a profound effect.
I have often speculated as to why she fell sick at this particular time, for we all know that mind and body are often both at work in the sicknesses that beset us. Let’s assume that she was happy with her daughter’s marriage, and believed that Peter had good prospects. After all we know he had his own boat, and seems to have had a good business. However that very day Simon Peter had left his fishing nets and gone after an itinerant preacher, who promptly went into the synagogue and performed a healing on the sabbath, arousing controversy. It could be that Peter’s mother in law became very anxious about the future well being of her daughter and her household. Was there going to be enough money and food coming in? Was Peter’s association with this dubious character going to bring shame on the family? Perhaps her anxiety was enough to lower her immune system and allow in a nasty bug. We shall never know, but I suspect there is a relationship between Peter’s sudden career change and her sickness. If she was not down right hostile towards Jesus, as Saul was before his conversion, at the least she would have had her doubts.
The risen Jesus called out to Saul, blinding him on the road to Damascus, and eventually as he is healed, Paul, the convert and evangelist was raised up. In this story, Jesus takes this sick and possibly very cranky woman by the hand, and she is raised up to take her place in the household of faith. She undergoes an experience of conversion and transformation, of dying and rising and in so doing establishes a model for those of us who follow after. Hers is a ‘gospel’, a ‘good news story’, that speaks not only to her personal and immediate needs, for healing and release from the burden of social dishonour; but also to her re-creation in the likeness of Christ and as a minister of the greater good to the wider diverse community, who immediately gather at her door. Released from her own shame, she is empowered to assist in the work of releasing others, whose lack of respectability she might previously have shunned.
Peter’s mother-in-law raises many questions for us. There are the personal questions, where am I experiencing conversion and transformation and how am I owning and living into that? Then there are the questions for the church. How are we going with properly acknowledging and valuing the experiences of women as well as men in the church, and of other groupings that we tend to exclude? How are we doing with a ministry that crosses borders and ignores traditional patterns of respectability? What is it to be a servant church in the twenty first century? There is a little gospel buried here in these three verses of inclusion, transgression and service that might just be enough for all of us. Let us attend to it well. Amen.
by Penny Jones, Sunday 4 February 2018