Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 5th February 2012
5 February 2012 at 11:00 am
The Right Reverend Susan Moxley, Bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island
I don’t know about England, but in Canada the mother-in-law is the subject of some pretty nasty jokes and rude comments! Being a mother-in-law I object to those! Yet here we have the Good News of Jesus Christ according to Mark with a mother-in-law!
When I was first ordained, one of our senior priests, from an out port parish in Newfoundland with twenty-two little congregations to whom he ministered, told a story by himself that involved Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. The twenty-two churches were spread along the north coast of Newfoundland and were accessible by boat. He would begin at one end of the shore with the man who drove the boat for him and do every other congregation on the way up and the others on the way back. He prepared one sermon and used it for the whole trip! Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was preached for the better part of a month! They were coming back into their homeport when they both noticed the flags along the waterfront were at half-mast. 'I wonder who died', asked the preacher. The boatman replied, 'Oh, I guess Simon Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t make it this time!'
It’s an odd little story about an event that comes in the middle of a long day for Jesus. We heard the beginning of the day last Sunday, with Jesus healing the man who was disrupting the synagogue service. The synagogue service got back on track and ran through to the end, and Simon Peter invited Jesus and some others to his house for lunch. When they arrived, Simon remembered that his wife’s mother was sick. (Maybe no lunch has been prepared!) But having just seen Jesus in action in the synagogue, Peter told Jesus about the mother-in-law. Jesus went in to see her, took her hand, helped her up, and the sickness left her. (Great story so far, but then comes the punch-line.) And she got up and...
What was it she did? I have heard different versions, different translations. 'She waited on them. She served them. Even one paraphrase: she got them their lunch.'
What was it she did? Diakonai. I am not a Greek scholar, but I am told that this same Greek word is
• translated earlier in Mark 1: 13 when referring to angels, 'and the angels ministered to Jesus';
• translated later in the book of Acts when it refers to Stephen and Philip as being set apart with prayer and laying on of hands for serving the widow and orphans;
• translated as 'serve' when Jesus refers to himself as one 'who came not to be served but to serve': Diakonai;
• translated at the crucifixion with the women at the cross as 'they ministered to him'.
So she served them, or she ministered to them.
It’s an odd little story. This is the first reference to women in the first gospel written, and though only three verses long, it is significant. Is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law a woman bowing to cultural convention and keeping to her restricted rôle as a 'servant', or is she a new disciple, quietly demonstrating the 'service' asked of all who follow Jesus?
For Mark, to serve is to be a true disciple. It is the hallmark of Jesus who called himself the servant of all. So Simon Peter’s mother-in-law becomes a disciple, and she serves others. Mark’s word 'diakonein' becomes the term used to describe the ministry of service of all Christians.
In our baptismal liturgy in Canada, serving is one of the commitments of a baptised person. 'Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? I will with God’s help.' We are all reminded of that each time we celebrate a baptism because our liturgy provides the opportunity for all of us to renew our baptismal promises.
Service to others as service to God is one of the requirements that Jesus sets. Matthew 25: 35 is not just a lovely idea: 'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was in prison and you came to visit me... Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters you did for me.' Service to God through serving God’s people is clearly stated as the criterion for selection when judgment time comes!
Loving service is also one of the Marks of Mission of the world-wide Anglican Communion. 'To respond to human need by loving service.' I have had the privilege of serving on the Anglican Consultative Council for the past nine years. There I have heard the amazing stories of our global networks and their attempts to provide loving service in a wide variety of ways - the Inter-Anglican Women’s Network, Family network, Health Care network, Youth network, Justice and Peace network, and others. These are places where Anglicans from around the world are working together to meet human need with loving service. Where people work together as servants of Christ, and human need is met with loving service, there the kingdom of God is being built. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be about? Building the kingdom of God? Making God’s dream of justice and joy for all God’s people come true?
The mother-in-law provided the loving service that Jesus identified as the chief characteristic of those who desired to follow him. Mark put her story in the opening chapter of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus said, 'I have come not to be served but to serve'. Are we paying attention?
God calls us to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
Jesus taught us that serving the least of the brothers and sisters is serving him.
May God the Holy Spirit give us courage and commitment to take the example of the mother-in-law and humbly to serve the Lord.