In the fishing town of Capernaum lived a man called Jonah. Jonah was a fisherman – with a wonderful ironic name for a fisherman. He was in business with Zebedee, and they were, apparently, doing very well. Jonah’s sons Simon (sometimes known as Simon Peter) and Andrew, and Zebedee’s sons James and John, were all involved in the family business; which also provided employment for a number of hired fishermen. Our story today is centred on the home of Simon and Andrew: that is, Jonah’s house. Most likely, the family lived in one space. Simon is already married, and the custom of their culture was (and still is today) that when the son of a house became betrothed, a room was built on the flat roof – effectively a second floor was added to the house – and once it was ready and the wedding took place, his bride came to live with him there: that is, they started their married life in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense building on his parent’s family life. (When Jesus uses this imagery hours before his crucifixion – John 14:1-4 – he is saying that the Church is his bride, not that he goes to prepare rooms for each one of us.)
We can be fairly certain of the exact location of this house, because after the resurrection, it became the gathered place of one of the very first churches, and was so for generation after generation. And so what we see in this story is the very beginnings of the Church (which, after all, Jesus would later say he would build ‘on’ Peter). Beginnings matter – not because the mature expression should look like the juvenile expression, but because the juvenile form expresses the genetic composition that will be present in the mature form, if it is truly what it is thought to be. And so we ought to pay close attention to the church we see here.
In this home we find Simon’s mother-in-law. That she is part of his home suggests that she may be a widow, vulnerable in her society unless provided for, as God required of his people. She has a fever: and the others tell Jesus about her. He goes to her, takes her hand, and helps her up – and as he does so, the fever departs.
It is a reality of our experience of life that there are times when we cannot do anything: perhaps because we are ill, or aging, or existing under chronic sleep deprivation due to a baby who does not sleep, or all-but-overwhelmed by any number of circumstances. And part of what it means to be church is that at such times others tell Jesus about us; that through their ministering to us Jesus comes to us, takes our hand, and helps us up. For some of us, loss of independence is very hard to accept; we do not want to be a burden to others; we have our faith in Jesus, and that is enough. But Jesus comes to us with brothers and sisters, or not at all. We get to have Jesus and our brothers and sisters, or not at all.
As soon as she is healed, Simon’s mother-in-law responds in an amazing way, which is almost entirely lost in translation. She ministers to Jesus and his companions. The word has appeared already in Mark’s Gospel, of the angels who ministered to Jesus at the end of his forty-day fast in the wilderness. This happens very rarely in the Gospels – the woman who prepares Jesus’ body for burial before his death, pouring perfume on his feet, does so; and so, I suppose it could be argued, do those who offer a drink to Jesus as he experiences thirst during his crucifixion – but Simon’s mother-in-law is the first person who realises that part of what it means to be church is to minister first-and-foremost to Jesus. That if we do things for people but miss that in that way we are serving Jesus, we’ve missed it. This is our first ministry: to make who we are – our gifts, our passions, our experience, what we can offer – available to Jesus, who has made himself available to us. Just as it is true that from time to time all of us will experience the inability to do, so it is also true that all of us have much to offer. This, to, is part of what it means to be church.
As a result of what happened, lots of other people turned up and were healed. We are told that they came after sunset. This is important: in the Jewish understanding, the day begins at sunset (this is why in Genesis 1 it says, “And it was evening, and it was morning: the first - etc. – day”). Here we see the beginning of a new day: God is doing a new thing, working with and through a renewed community.
But Simon does what the church has had a tendency to do ever since: he concludes that the thing that Jesus has done is the thing that he wants to be done. That is, having seen that people gathered to the church and were healed, Simon assumes that this is the agenda for the church: but it isn’t. Jesus says, no: we need to go out, be sent out, to the surrounding villages. The church is sent. The gathered church is family, come together to bring Jesus to one another for healing and strengthening, and to minister to Jesus and his companions, and so to be sent out again. This, too, is part of what it means to be church.
Over the past six months, literally hundreds of people have come into our church building, on a variety of regular- and one-off occasions. And very, very, few have had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus as a result, in any way that they or others can measure (e.g. comparatively) or testify to. In fact, where people’s lives have been transformed – and quite dramatically – it has been where they have happened upon a family-time gathering and encountered Jesus; not on those occasions where the family has been overwhelmed by visitors, which tends only to result in resentment. Perhaps we need to rediscover what it means to be church?
Here, at the very beginning, we discover that the church is meant to be a three-dimensional community, described by the presence of height, depth, and breadth:
UP-ward space: attending to loving God by ministering to Jesus, making ourselves (our homes; our gifts; our lives) available to him; and
IN-ward space: attending to loving ourselves by bringing the healing presence of Jesus to one another; and
OUT-ward space: attending to loving our neighbours by going out, together, carrying good news with us.