Text Study for 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (5 Epiphany B 2021): In Praise of Persecuted Preachers

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? That seems to be a question that bothered some of the earliest Christians – and not in a helpful way.

The section leading up to this text (1 Corinthians 9:1-15) responds to the Corinthian question about why they should pay Paul to proclaim the Good News to them. In this section, Paul makes clear to his readers that he’s not doing it for the money. Instead, he begins that section by declaring his freedom as an apostle, which is rooted in his firsthand encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:1): “Have I not seen the Lord?

This bone-deep sense of vocation is hard for most contemporary readers either to believe or appreciate. I have had conversations with a number of parishioners over the years who simply could not accept that I was doing something that – if it had been up to me – I would not be doing. We live in a culture where personal choice is paramount (at least for the privileged). To do something under compulsion seems to most people at best stupid and at worst immoral.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ is not a career path for Paul. He had chosen the opposite path, as he himself describes. He was working as a persecutor of Christians, not a proclaimer of the Gospel. He notes this directly in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and in Philippians 3:6. If it were up to Paul, he’d be doing something else. Instead, a necessity has been laid upon him. This necessity is of such power that he says he would be miserable if he didn’t respond to his Divine vocation.

In my experience, people who enter the ministry of the Good New of Jesus in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are often deeply disappointed. I find it analogous to the vocation of having and raising children. People who have children in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are routinely disillusioned.

It’s not that Christian ministry is a source of unrelieved misery. Nor is it the case that parenting is an awful burden. Each vocation offers joy, meaning, purpose and satisfaction. But anyone who enters either vocation learns quickly that the heart of ministry is putting aside self for the sake of loving service. Truth be told, if it were up to most of us, we’d be doing something else.

But we can’t. Not won’t. Can’t.

Following Jesus leads us on a path of “downward mobility” as Katherine Grieb puts it. This emphasis, she writes, “is particularly needed in Corinth, where the Christian communities have become persuaded that success in church leadership means a high salary package, impressive credentials, and dramatic miracles. Paul insists instead,” she continues, “that the marks of a true apostle (someone who has been commissioned by the crucified and risen Lord) are evidences of suffering for the gospel and the power of enduring love in the face of rejection and misunderstanding” (page 159). So much for prosperity preaching!

If Paul were doing it for the money, that would be his reward. Instead, he knows that he has been entrusted with a “commission.” It’s hard to translate the word accurately here, but perhaps a better translation would be “office” or even “stewardship.” He uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 4:1. “Think of us in this way,” Paul writes, “as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” That verse should be kept in mind as we read today’s lection.

Nor is Paul doing it for the acclaim or honor, quantities which might have been even more valued in first-century Greco-Roman culture. “If I proclaim the gospel,” Paul declares, “this gives me no ground for boasting.” In Galatians 6:14, he makes it clear that there is only one thing about which Christians can rightly boast. “May I never boast of anything,” he says, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

We don’t know the background complaints for the section in detail. But I can imagine what they might be. People who have no money are unlikely to complain about having to pay Paul. The pushback likely comes from the same wealthy patrons who will draw fire in chapters 10-13 for eating all the best food at the Corinthian love feasts. Why, Paul, should we pay you to criticize us and how we live? Keep that up, and we’ll cut off your allowance!

Parish pastors know that conversation well. There is often the veiled threat – only rarely spoken – that straying outside the lines of establishment acceptability may result in an abrupt change in employment for the preacher. As I have said elsewhere, I am at least as guilty as the next pastor of self-censorship, soft-pedaling, vague generalities, and outright avoidance of confrontation in order to maintain my income, home, and career. Sometimes that might have been the course of wisdom. Sometimes it was certainly the course of cowardice. Retirement is an incredible luxury for which I am grateful to the Church daily!

Paul chooses to be unencumbered by any obligations to interest groups or entitled agendas. He proclaims the gospel “free of charge” so that he can make full use of his authority in the Gospel. In theory, at least, that is the only authority that ministers of the Gospel possess (and in theory, at least, the only authority they need).

That authority, rooted in the Word of the Gospel, apart from any institutional power or leverage, is rarely understood or acknowledged these days. It is even more rarely respected – in the Church and out. It is comforting, I suppose, to know that Paul had the same issues with entrenched and entitled power and privilege in the earliest congregations as well.

Richard Lischer was concerned nearly twenty years ago that the Church was “cautiously distancing its ministry from the word of God.” In place of the word were lodged a bland professionalism and a fuzzy pluralism. “Stripped of its word, however, the ministry disintegrates,” Lischer notes. “Without its organizing principle of acknowledgement, the pastor’s calling relapses into the chaos of busywork. The minister,” Lischer says, “is sliced, diced, and cubed into a thousand contacts and competencies but left without a heart of passion in the word, without a vocation” (page 168). Lischer remembers the memorable title of Joseph Sittler’s essay in this regard – “the maceration of the minister.”

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? I think pastoral leaders need to offer a message in answer to that question at least once a year, and perhaps more often in this secular age. “The pastoral office is God’s way of helping the church to discover its true vocation in the world,” writes Lischer. “It is God’s gift to the church. The office of pastor was never meant to create a hierarchy of privileges in the body of Christ,” he continues. “It is not that sort of gift…The most fundament mark of the office of pastor, then…is the special gift by which it enables the people of God to discern their call.”

Paul may be free from extraneous encumbrances, but he is not a free agent in his ministry. He is “free from all” as he writes in verse nineteen, but he has enslaved himself to all for the sake of gaining some. He puts this another way in 2 Corinthians 4:5 – “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul has an inescapable vocation, given by the Lord firsthand.

Grieb expands on Paul’s imagery in a useful passage. “To understand the force of Paul’s image,” she writes, “we must recall how the institution of slavery functioned in the ancient world. The labor of the slave’s body provided leisure…for the owner. Paul is arguing,” she concludes, “that the service of the leader functions to create freedom for the community as a whole” (page 160). In Corinth, this means that the privileged, the positioned, and the powerful must make room for the rest. Paul will not settle for less.

Paul describes his efforts to reach those outside the congregation “by any means possible.” That likely produced additional complaints from those already on the inside and in charge. Paul, we’re the ones who are footing the bill. So, stop spending all your time and energy on those unworthy poor people who don’t have two pennies to rub together. Remember which side of your bread is buttered and who is holding the knife.

Paul may be a slave to the Gospel, but he won’t be a hostage to the privileged, powerful, and propertied. In his commentary on workingpreacher.org, Frank Couch writes that Paul “speaks helpfully to a present-day society that often approaches life — particularly church life — through the lens of a self-centered, self-protective sense of entitlement. It is easy to assume that God favors church people over “unchurched” people,” Couch continues, “and to act as if church people do not need to think about how their own practices and attitudes might unhelpfully assure that those “unchurched” people will stay that way. Too often,” he laments, “we give those outside of the faith no reason to feel invited or welcome to become insiders.”

Lest you think I’m stretching a point here, let’s look at the categories of people Paul chooses to embody for the sake of proclaiming the gospel and gaining some. Jews, lawful people, lawless people, and the weak – Paul says he has become “all things to all in order that from all I shall save some” (my translation). We might expect one more element paired with the “weak,” that is, the “strong.” But they are not mentioned. The omission is pointed and precise.

This omission takes us back to the opening chapter of First Corinthians. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” he writes in verse twenty-six, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Not many were wise or powerful or noble-born, but some were. These appear to be the members of the community who are making a stink about a variety of issues impinging on their perceived privilege. Paul does not become strong in order to gain the strong. Instead, we read in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

So, Paul, why do you do it? No one is completely selfless, after all (perhaps this was a murmured comment by some of Paul’s detractors). You don’t get all the moral high ground, Mr. Apostle. There must be something in it for you too.

Quite true, Paul seems to reply. I am doing it all for the sake of the Good News. As I do it, I find that I am a joint partner in the faith, hope, and love the Good News produces in me and in my listeners. It’s no accident that the word the NRSV translates as “share in its blessing” really is yet another form of the Greek word koinonia. Even as Paul benefits from the Good News, he does not do so alone. It is only in the partnership of the Gospel that Paul finds a reward.

Paul is not naïve about the potential costs of preaching the Good News in ways that afflict the comfortable. He knows that a cross may stand in the middle of such a path. Grieb quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in this regard. “Christianity has always insisted,” King wrote, “that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” Preachers of the Good News need not seek out suffering for its own sake. Resistance, rejection, recrimination, and retribution will find us often enough.

We live in a time when bishops and pastors get emailed death threats for speaking the Good News of reconciliation in Christ across boundaries of race, gender, orientation, class, and nation. We live in a time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hijacked by white supremacists and pseudo-Christian nationalists to serve violent political agendas. We also live in a time when some Christian preachers are exhibiting courage in public in ways not seen perhaps in this country since the years leading up to Civil War – at least not in white churches. We know this is a way of life in Black, Brown, and Asian churches, but perhaps some of us are finally catching up a bit.

For that proclamation and for those preachers, I thank God. And I pray for their safety, sanity, and security.

If such preachers were doing this for money or notoriety, or even for safety and job security, they would certainly pick a different message. But they cannot. Woe to us if we do not continue proclaiming the Good News!

References and Resources

Aaron, Charles L., Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-4

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Couch, Frank. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-916-23-3

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Grieb, A. Katherine. “’The One Who Called You…’ Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 154-165.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Lischer, Richard. “The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 166-175.

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Tucker, W. Dennis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-2

Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Text Study for Isaiah 40:21-31; 5 Epiphany B, 2021

Too Good Not to Be True

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted,” the prophet proclaims to those in exile, “but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…” Waiting for the LORD is always waiting in expectation that something good will happen.

The Hebrew verb translated as “renew” has the sense of gaining something new, something that wasn’t there before. The youths will faint, grow weary, and fall because they continue to rely on themselves – the normal source of endurance, energy, and balance. Those who wait in hope will get something they didn’t have before. This new energy will be the capacity to act.

The prophet sets this promised newness in an ancient context. As the LORD introduces the Sinai covenant to Moses in Exodus 19, the LORD reminds him of the rescue from Egypt. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,” the LORD says, “and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Photo by Michel Meuleman on Pexels.com

The Hebrew word translated as “eagle” in both Exodus 19 and Isaiah 40 is not very precise as to the actual species of the bird in question. It may be an eagle, hawk, or some other bird of prey. It may as easily be a vulture or other carrion-feeder, since the same word is used for all of the preceding fowl. It may even be a pelican or other sea bird.

What matters is the wingspan, not the ornithology. And what matters about the wingspan first of all is the care, not the power. The Hebrews are carried out of Egypt by the Creator of the whole earth. That compassionate Creator has chosen the Hebrews to be God’s “priestly kingdom and holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). In Isaiah 40, the prophet reminds the listeners that this promise has not petered out just because God’s people have taken an exilic detour. God remains the Creator of all, as we can see in verses 21-26 and verse 28.

We might even think about another avian image, this time offered by Jesus. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” Jesus laments in Luke 13:34. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is the image we should allow to control our imagination as we hear the words of the prophet in this reading today.

Those who wait for the LORD shall be given new strength for their journey from exile to the land of promise. They shall be enfolded in the wings of love, just as their ancestors were in the wilderness wandering. As often as they fall down, they shall be raised up to walk again (perhaps we could think about the Gospel reading in this regard). No matter how exhaustion pursues them, they will not “run out of gas.”

This is God’s promise through the prophet in the darkest days of the Exile. Perhaps the prophet’s listeners scoffed that the news was too good to be true. “Look around you!” they might have said. “Does it look to you like our God is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth? It looks a lot more like the gods of the Babylonians are in charge here,” they might have complained. “It looks like our God has indeed grown weary and fainted from exhaustion.”

The profound temptation is to surrender to the worship of idols that promise immediate certainty and security (see verses 18-20, for example). The gods of the Babylonians seem to offer position and privilege, power and property. The Judeans bet on the wrong horse and lost, some of them were perhaps thinking. All the superficial evidence supported this conclusion. Perhaps it is the younger generation, those without any living memories of the land of promise, who are most susceptible to these temptations – thus the contrast between fainting youths and stalwart elders in our text.

“The text this week holds two thoughts in tension,” writes W. Dennis Tucker in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “The proclamation of what seems impossible to believe is held together with the truth of what is impossible to deny.” The prophet’s proclamation is, in fact, too good not to be true. If the exiles had only their own resources and their old ways of seeing the world to rely on, then nothing was going to change.

Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old,” the LORD commands through the prophet in Isaiah 43:18-19. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth,” the LORD announces, “do you not see it?” In his most celebrated work, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust puts it this way. “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The prophet pleads with the exiles to receive the gift of new eyes so they can perceive what is right in front of their noses.

Not only do they need new eyes. They need new ears, and a new way of understanding how God operates. Twice the prophet asks the incredulous questions. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (vv. 21, 28). What part of this are you not getting (and why not)? These questions are really emphatic statements, as Tucker notes: “Surely you have known! Surely you have heard!”

The verbs have more depth in Hebrew than they do in English. To “know” in this verse means more than to apprehend intellectually. It means to take in the truth of what is being said and make it a part of my life. To “hear” (the same verb as we find in the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4) also means to obey and to put into action. The good news has been announced. It’s time to live as if it’s true. After all, the news is too good not to be true.

This is a text not for people who want to back to things the way they were but for a people who long to go forward in faith. It is God’s faithfulness that is reliable, not some remembered “golden age” (which was probably never all that golden to begin with). Charles Aaron, Jr., puts it this way in his workingpreacher.org commentary.

This passage offers a call to harken back to the faith that formed the church. That faith includes God’s power and creativity as well as the affirmation that God sees and knows us. God cares for us. God can give the church the energy it needs to move into an uncertain future. Although these words originally spoke to people whose faith might have faded nearly away, they can speak persuasively to people whose faith is shaky and tentative. They can speak a word of courage to those who see reason for fear in what the church faces.

We are certainly weary people. We are weary of dealing with The Pandemic. We are weary of executive and election drama. We are weary of legislative gridlock and the schemes of those intent on ruling but disinterested in governing. We are weary of debates and arguments that have no end. We are weary of bad news and wary of good news. If there is a text for us this week, perhaps it is this one.

We long to go back to the way things were. Of course, that’s not a new sentiment. The campaign and presidency of Donald Trump were built on the desire of some to return to a “better” time. “Better,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder and the privilege of the privilege-holder.

The 1950’s – the time after which it seems that Donald Trump hankers — were good times for American, white, male, business executives. They weren’t such good times for Black, brown, or Asian Americans. They weren’t such good times for women who wanted more than pearls and cocktail parties. They weren’t such good times for anyone who was other than a cisgender, heterosexual male. They weren’t such good times for former colonies and subjects of decaying empires. When a particular kind of America was “great,” most of the world suffered as a result.

I don’t wish to suggest that it was all bad by any means. Our forebears gave us much on which to build. But building forward is quite different from going back. That is certainly the perspective the prophet brings to the people of Judah in exile. This is the promise that Jesus brings as he announces in Mark 1:15 that the Reign of God has drawn near. The proper response is to get a changed mind and trust that the Good News is too good not to be true.

How shall we “pivot” from this text to the Gospel reading in our preaching this week? It is easy for the beneficiaries of American, white, male supremacy to long for a return to that cultural imperialism. But there is no going back. It was that great fictional twentieth century philosopher, Longfellow Deeds, who first noted, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” We who have been so privileged are likely to lose some of that power, position, and property as the Reign of God comes near to us.

This is a “last shall be first” text, after all. The youths grow weary and faint. They stumble and fall. It is those who wait for the LORD who find a new source of energy and hope. “But we have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians chapter four of his second letter, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The LORD gives power to the fainting and strengthens those who are powerless.

Later in his letter, Paul uses his own biography to illustrate this principle. In 2 Corinthians 12:10, The Lord assures Paul that God’s grace is sufficient to fill up his weakness. “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me,” Paul concludes. “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

This is the testimony Jesus presents as he heals the sick and liberates the demon-possessed. This is the Good News that cannot be suppressed – even by Jesus’ command – but rather spreads in every direction. This is the Good News which can lead us forward out of our darkness –pandemic, white supremacy, economic dislocation, cold civil war – and into a new path. This is certainly news that is too good not to be true.

References and Resources

Aaron, Charles L., Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-4

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Tucker, W. Dennis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-2 Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Text Study for 5 Epiphany B 2021– Mark 1:29-39 (40-45)

When the Word Gets Out

I think I would read verses forty through forty-five of chapter one as well on this Sunday. The healing of the leper in Mark 1 is read only in those Epiphany seasons that make it at least six weeks. It’s clear that the healing brings this section of Mark to a small conclusion. The text has some things in common with earlier parts of the reading that should be mentioned.

The people in Capernaum were certain of the connection between illness and demon-possession. In verses thirty-two through thirty-four, those who were sick and/or demon possessed are mentioned nearly in the same breath twice. Illness and demon-possession hold victims in bondage and alienate them from the community. They are both signs of the old regime of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus brings the Good News of God’s reign, and the agents of the old system flee in terror from his power.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Jesus takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up. He stretches out his hand to the leper, touches him, and makes him clean again. Jesus’ touch gives healing and hope, life and love.

In the case of the leper, Jesus has compassion on the suffering man and responds to his suffering and alienation. A few manuscripts state instead that Jesus was moved with rage or wrath in the face of the illness. There is a confusing similarity between the Aramaic words for having pity and being enraged, Metzger notes in his Textual Commentary, that might account for the confusion. Those scribes might have connected the leprosy to the invasive and alienating power of demon-possession. But the reading of “compassion” is most likely closer to the original report.

Jesus “raises up” Simon’s mother-in-law. The NRSV translation obscures this Greek verb, which is also used to describe what happens to Jesus after death. Early in Mark’s account we get a foreshadowing of the great victory to come. Jesus’ healing raises the woman up from a likely death and back into life.

Remember that Marks tells us this is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus has proclaimed that the Reign of God has come near. We are invited to repent and trust in that Good News. We see Jesus making that Good News a reality in his ministry. We know that this Good News is really about the Resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil.

We can see this Good News at work in ways that the people in the story cannot – yet. What they see is a demonstration of Jesus’ authority over the powers of sin, death, and evil. The word, “raised,” writes Sarah Henrich in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world. That’s where,” she notes, “the second interesting verb comes into play.”

Some commentators correctly worry about the stereotypical work to which Simon’s mother-in-law returns. The fever disappears. She leaves her bed. And immediately she is waiting tables. That doesn’t sound like much of a transformation for the mother-in-law.

Other commentators point out the way in which the verb “to serve” is applied in Mark’ gospel. Jesus applies that verb to himself in Mark 10:45 – “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus contrasts his own leading by serving with the self-serving ambitions of the Gentile worldview, a worldview apparently shared by his disciples. Serving is not, by definition, a sign of subservience.

“It is ‘to serve’ rather than ‘to be served’ that characterizes the Christ of God,” Henrich notes. “It is also ‘to serve’ that characterizes his disciples. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life,” she concludes. “Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.”

Stories like this have been used too often to keep oppressed people in their “places.” Isn’t it lovely, someone might say, that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law so she could return to her former, subservient role? No, it isn’t. That would be, as someone pointed out to me recently, a misapplication of Law and Gospel. If one is in bondage in some way, the Gospel frees that person for full and authentic humanity. If one is an oppressor in need of correction, the Law leads that person to repentance as the path to full and authentic humanity.

Clearly, Simon’s mother-in-law is set free from the bondage of her illness. It cannot be the function of the Gospel to return to her another kind of bondage.

Henrich helps us to see how this works in the text. “It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home,” Henrich writes. “Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling,” Henrich reminds us, “a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.”

Simon’s mother-in-law is, therefore, an example and role model for our imagined baptismal candidate who hears Mark’s gospel in its entirety, perhaps at an Easter vigil. The healing touch of Jesus raises the disciple up to the new life – a life given to worshiping God by serving the neighbor rather than oneself.

Simon’s mother-in-law is the first disciple to respond in this way in Mark’s gospel and does so without coaching or encouragement. The men Jesus calls are still debating the nature of leadership in God’s Reign in Mark 10 and are nowhere to be seen in Mark 15. That’s important to keep in mind as we continue to read Mark’s account.

Luther describes this reality of serving in The Freedom of the Christian. “This should be the rule,” he asserts, “that the good things we have from God may flow from one person to the other and become common property. In this way each person may ‘put on’ his [or her] neighbor, and conduct oneself toward him [or her] as if in the neighbor’s place.” Jesus raises her up to serve as he serves. That honorable role is confirmed near the end of Mark’s gospel account.

The verb is used in Mark 15:41 to describe the women who stand as public witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion. They are described as those who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee…” Again, the NRSV translation tends to hide this connection. The verb “provided” is really the Greek verb for serving – diakoneo. The words Mark uses here may be an indication that Peter’s mother-in-law, one whom Jesus had raised from her death bed, was one of those standing as a courageous public witness at the foot of the cross as he died.

Word gets out, and Jesus’ notoriety spreads rapidly. “Everyone is searching for you,” the anxious disciples report when they find Jesus praying in “a deserted place.” Everyone is seeking Jesus. Sometimes we church folks forget that. They may not know what they want, but they seem to find Jesus attractive. When the Word gets out, people want to hear more. When the Reign of God takes hold, people won’t keep it to themselves.

It’s clear that reports of Jesus’ activity are spreading rapidly – perhaps too rapidly for his comfort at the moment. He “sternly” warns the healed leper against generating headlines on the local gossip network. But the man “began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” Mark uses the verb for proclaiming or preaching the Good News, but the man is more likely emphasizing Jesus’ wonder-working powers rather than the presence of the Reign of God.

The other verb Mark uses in verse 45 is also interesting. It is translated as the act of making something known by word of mouth. Here it means to spread the news widely. Jesus creates one of his many public relations officers, and this accounts for the fact that people came to him “from all directions.”

Even though Jesus wants to restrict the spread of such notoriety, this is another proper response to the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In this regard, I’m reminded of the recent aspirational suggestion from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton regarding the future directions for the ELCA. What if ELCA folks issued a million invitations to be part of our lives, our worshiping communities, and our mission? Given the fact that ELCA folks invite someone in such a way about once every fifteen years (or whatever the figure really is), this seems to be a bit of a stretch goal.

Today’s text might lead us to wonder two things in this regard. To what are we inviting people? And why are we inviting them? For folks in the gospel reading, the answers are straightforward. They have been healed and/or released from bondage. They issue invitations in joy and gratitude. And they are inviting people to a new way of life and hope.

In his little book, The Invitational Christian, Dave Daubert writes it this way:

“In a healthy ministry, people sense that it is life changing. The teaching, spiritual support and guidance, and the impression that being in the congregation will actually deepen their spiritual lives; all transform church into more than a social or religious activity. When people participate in congregational life, they feel more connected to the God who calls them, and they have more awareness of the intersection between their life and the work of that God.”

If that is in fact the experience people have in our faith communities, then perhaps people will come from every direction. As long, however, as we remain in bondage to our whiteness, our maleness, our allergy to constructive change, our loyalty to our real estate, our love of money and possessions, and our unquestioned centering of ourselves, we will have nothing of interest for people who are, in the words of the ELCA future priorities, “new, young, and diverse.”

The Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe the Good News.

References and Resources

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.