Material for Worship on the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

Today, writes the Ven. Peter M Potter, we begin St Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry. He starts by telling us that it is a gospel, that is, good news. So let us begin by listening to David playing the tune of “We have a gospel to proclaim” and you can follow with the words here:

We have a gospel to proclaim
Good news for all throughout the earth;
The gospel of a Saviour’s name:
We sing His glory, tell His worth.

Tell of His birth at Bethlehem,
Not in a royal house or hall
But in a stable dark and dim:
The Word made flesh, a light for all.

Tell of His death at Calvary,
Hated by those He came to save;
In lonely suffering on the cross
For all He loved, His life He gave.

Tell of that glorious Easter morn:
Empty the tomb, for He was free.
He broke the power of death and hell
That we might share His victory.

Tell of His reign at God’s right hand,
By all creation glorified;
He sends His Spirit on His Church
To live for Him, the Lamb who died.

Now we rejoice to name Him King:
Jesus is Lord of all the earth.
This gospel message we proclaim:
We sing His glory, tell His worth.

The readings for today, the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, are Isaiah 40. 21-31, which proclaims God’s power and authority over all creation, and Mark 1.29-39, which portrays Jesus beginning his public ministry with acts of healing. They are read by Jill and Martin.

In spite of what you might imagine from television or the cinema, casting out demons is a very rare occurrence. It is also a highly specialised ministry, not to be undertaken lightly. In fact, only once in my ministry have I felt the need to consult a diocesan advisor. His advice was to try to persuade the person to get checked out by a psychiatrist to exclude all other explanations. Unfortunately, I was not able to do so and, from what I hear, the person’s behaviour is unchanged.
In New Testament times people did not have the benefit of microbiology or psychoanalysis to explain the causes of physical or mental illnesses. They were regarded as the work of demons, that is, minions of Satan. Jesus’ earthly ministry begins with a series of exorcisms performed, not to establish for himself a reputation as another wandering miracle worker (of whom there were quite a few at that time), but to show that his teaching and actions are done with authority because he is the Holy One of God. The fact that he is able to cast out demons shows that God’s good news is more powerful than Satan’s negative, destructive forces.

In today’s reading we also hear an account of a physical healing. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, who had had a fever. The wording here is the same as a description of an exorcism. What is interesting though is that, after she had been healed, she got up “and served them”. Presumably she fed them a meal, like any good Jewish mother. In other words, she is restored to her rightful place in the family, just as later in the Gospel lepers, the disabled, those possessed (mentally ill?) And various sinners are restored to the community. Jesus’ mission is to break down the barriers created by Satan, whether through illness or sin.

So, what has all this to do with us, as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic which is having a devastating effect on people’s physical and mental health? We have identified the cause as a virus, not a demon, and people are looking to a vaccine not exorcism for the cure. We could answer that our God-given intelligence has given us the ability to find effective cures for all sorts of illness and we rightly thank him for that.

But we can also say that Christians believe there is a distinction between to cure and to heal. The latter is much more wide-ranging. As we have seen, it includes the element of restoration and the breaking down of barriers. One such barrier is the stigma associated with mental illness. I have certainly known a number of people in various congregations who are disturbed or just strange. Obviously in some instances medical help is needed but quite often the informal care and patience they find among church members can create a sense of security and stability for them. At times it is not easy but it can be an opportunity to show that we are willing to go the extra mile.

Healing also includes a sense of peace, or shalom to use the Hebrew word. When there is no physical cure, or even when the condition is terminal, there can still be healing. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, and it comes through prayer and the loving care in words and deeds that dispels fear, isolation and loss.

To minister to others in this way is not a highly specialised calling but it does advance God’s kingdom and break down barriers.

These intercessions are based on prayers in The Pattern of Our Days, by the Iona Community.

Let us come to God in our need, and bringing with us the needs of the world.
Lord, we come to you with our faith and with our doubts, with our hopes and with our fears, and we come in confidence because you have promised never to turn us away.
We pray for people we do not know but are among the numbers relayed in the news day by day, people whose names only you, their families and friends know, and whose lives you cherish …..
We pray for the people whose lives and names we do know, who are in pain, distress or trouble, those who are happy, those who are sad ….

Lord, in your mercy; hear our prayer.

We pray for those who do not love themselves,
who are assailed by turmoil within themselves,
who make themselves ill with self-loathing or bitterness,
who feel themselves devalued and unloved.
Restore them and help them to live with themselves.
And we pray for ourselves, for the times when “them” includes “us”.

Lord, in your mercy; hear our prayer.

For your strength that fills us, your love that heals us,
and for your hand that leads us into tomorrow, we thank you O Lord.

We make these prayers in the power of the Holy Spirit and offer them, together with those of all the saints, to you, Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen