5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I don’t know quite how mother-in-law jokes became such a stock in trade of British humour. Les Dawson was one of the great exponents; they are part of our culture. But perhaps they have them in other cultures as well.
Anyway it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a mother-in-law joke that goes with this gospel reading. Simon Peter must really have loved Jesus, if he carried on being his disciple even after he healed his mother-in-law. Ba-boom.
Jokes aside, though, we might on hearing this reading experience another response which also reflects our culture. “The fever left her and she began to wait on them.” We might think, how typical, the men are all standing around being important, and the women are left to do the serving.
But that would be to mis-read the gospel, because service, in fact, is absolutely central to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Simon’s mother-in-law, in this passage, is being presented as the model Christian disciple. In fact the word used for her service is “diakonein” – deaconing. The word does simply mean waiting at tables, but by the time Mark’s gospel was written it was also being used of a distinctive category of public Christian ministry, the ordained diaconate. So this does indicate a representative kind of Christian discipleship. And Simon’s mother-in-law is presented as the model disciple in contrast to the men, who haven’t yet understood what Christian discipleship is about.
Look at who is there: James and John. They appear later in the gospel, in the scene in chapter 10 where Jesus says, “anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And Jesus said that because James and John wanted to have seats at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory. They wanted the power and the status. Jesus had to teach them that that wasn’t what it meant to be a disciple of his.
But Simon’s mother-in-law understands this straight away, and that is something to do with her being touched and healed by Jesus. Jesus “helped her up”, in fact he “raised” her in Greek, and the word has connotations of resurrection. Jesus shares his life with his disciples, so that those who follow him start to reflect his life. That life is the power and love of God come into the world.
But the world is run on very different lines from those shown to us by Jesus. The world is run by a power which is based on rivalry, domination, conflict and violence. The love and power of God, come into this world, does not mimic those powers; indeed it cannot, because then it would be just another rival in the same old system.
No; the love and power of God, come into the world, takes the form of service, of becoming a slave, of giving love’s life as a ransom for many.
It’s difficult for us to grasp how revolutionary that is. In the Greek and Roman worlds servants and slaves were a lower form of life, and you aspired to be the person who was served. Humility was regarded as shameful. Or consider that rather gloomy reading from Job we heard this morning. That Old Testament voice sees nothing good in being a slave. The fact that humility and service are now considered praiseworthy, the fact that people are uneasy around arrogance and shows of power, tells us something of how the Christian gospel has worked its way into the mindset of Western European civilisation. It was not so anywhere before the Gospel was preached; it still is not so in cultures untouched by Christian influence – think of China and Japan, for example.
We have seen first hand this last week something of the legacy of Christian teaching in our culture, in the visit of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. They are two people who do indeed have power and status, but who have dedicated their lives to serving the community. Many of us were touched and moved to witness the real care and concern that they showed, and the encouragement that they gave us, for the Christian service that our churches offer to those in need and the wider community.
And of course Prince Charles is following the example of his mother, who explicitly understands her position as Queen to be one of Christian discipleship and service. Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the death of King George VI, a man who was thrust into that position of service unexpectedly, at a very dark time just before the outbreak of the war. The film “The King’s Speech” brought home to us how much personal suffering that involved for him. But he did not shrink from it. And neither did his daughter.
This jubilee year is going to be a great opportunity to celebrate the service of our Queen over so many years – a service she shows no sign of relinquishing. But it is also an opportunity to restate what it means to be a Christian disciple, with a celebration of the great public example that the Queen gives. That is an inspiration to us all.
But for us as well as for the Queen, it all comes from Jesus. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, it is the experience of being touched and healed and forgiven by Jesus, that experience of being “raised” by him, which makes us his disciples. Jesus reverses our priorities. We become servant disciples because Jesus serves us, he ministers to us. It is through his grace that we enter his risen life, and it is through living with his life that we become servants too.
This works itself out in practice in our parish in so many ways. The night shelter; our welcome to visitors; our work with the Community Centre, with London Citizens and St Pancras hospital. Just a few examples of many.
The media spotlight has passed from us as the Royal couple go their way to support other initiatives, other forms of service to communities elsewhere. But we continue to bring to bear the light and life of Christ here where we are called to be the servants and disciples of Christ, making known his love in the world.