How should we view Jesus? The Biblical scholar Marcus Borg suggests five different lenses: seeing Jesus as a mystic; a healer; a sage; a prophet; and a movement-founder; and this winter as the global pandemic enters its second year, we might be especially drawn to viewing Jesus as a healer.
Healing is front and centre in Mark’s first chapter. Last week we heard a story in which Jesus expels an evil spirit. In this week’s passage, Jesus cures a fever, a case of leprosy, and many other unspecified illnesses.
The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law in particular grabs my attention. Simon plays a role second only to Jesus in the gospel stories. He is the first disciple whom Jesus calls, and he shows up in the texts more than any of the others, although usually as Peter, which is the name given to Simon by Jesus in Mark’s third chapter.
There is hardly a point in Mark’s narrative that doesn’t include Peter – from his naming of Jesus as the Christ, which we will hear next week, to the Transfiguration, which we will hear in two weeks, to Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, which will hear on Palm/Passion Sunday on March 28. And beyond the gospel stories, church tradition includes others about Peter.
The most prominent of these non-Biblical stories says that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and therefore the first Pope. The sources for this seem sketchy to me. But if it is true that Peter was both the first Pope and was someone’s son-in-law, then he was a Pope who had a wife. This makes me wonder how churches that require clergy to be unmarried deal with the marital status of Pope Peter.
But just as tales of Peter living in Rome and serving as the first Pope can arouse skepticism, so can the gospels. The gospels are not documentaries. They are sacred texts written long after the time of Jesus to help Jewish communities in the late First Century come to grips with life’s difficulties, especially, I believe, with the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.
Given the quality of the sources, it is not possible for historians to say if Simon Peter was the first Bishop of Rome; and this same skepticism might apply to Mark’s healing stories.
Whether we describe stories of healings by Jesus as miracles is beside the point to me. Instead, I focus on the entire arc of ministry, death, and resurrection painted by the Gospel of Mark — and on the Sundays in Epiphany, Lent, and Easter this year, I am trying to trace this arc.
In his gospel, Mark highlights an authority that is counter to that of Rome; and a healing love that is as powerful as that of Jehovah. The details of these stories are not of central importance to me. What is important is that the crucifixion of Jesus strikes his followers with the same force as would the death of Jehovah; and that the appearance of the Risen Christ within them (and us) situates the healing and authority once associated only with gods and kings where it rightly belongs – within and between us as members of struggling humanity.
Sickness is an inevitable part of life; and healing is a mysterious process. Our immune systems often help us overcome a sickness with nothing other than rest. But improvements in a person’s spiritual or physical health can also flow from time spent in a community of love like the one founded by Jesus.
This winter in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is crying out for healing. Some are mourning the death of loved ones; others are afraid of getting sick; and all of us are dealing with the social, economic, and psychological disruption caused by public health restrictions.
Healing a world afflicted by COVID-19 involves both the roll-out of new vaccines and the steady leadership of competent and compassionate governments in preserving public health.
The word “miraculous” may be over-used, but the new class of vaccines based on messenger RNA, which includes the first two approved for use against COVID-19 in Canada, seem amazing to me. This new technique has been under development for 30 years, but it has only become widely known since its use in COVID vaccines. Vaccines based on this technique have been developed at a previously unheard-of speed. Even better, other RNA vaccines are under development to not only help fight viruses, but also to treat cancer and auto-immune disorders like Lupus.
I am grateful this new vaccine technology has been developed and is now making headway against COVID-19; and I hope and pray that vaccines will help end the pandemic later this year.
The other prong of humanity’s response to the pandemic – the steady leadership of competent and compassionate governments – has not impressed me as much. But although most of the world’s nations have struggled with COVID-19, the fact that a significant minority have eliminated it through testing, tracing, and effective border controls has encouraged me. If some countries have the leadership required to end the pandemic, others can learn from them.
Just as important is how these same leadership qualities might be used to tackle other problems – from homelessness, to refugee crises, to climate change. Such social ills call for the same energy, intelligence, and clear communication that has been successful in the pandemic.
When Peter’s mother-in-law is cured of her fever by Jesus, Mark says she immediately makes dinner for her guests. This detail might strike us as odd or sexist. But another way to view it is as how the presence of Peter and Jesus brings Peter’s mother-in-law back into community.
So much of the healing we need is found in community. COVID-19 has reminded us that the health of anyone is bound up with the health of everyone. The same thing applies to other social problems.
Mark portrays the community created by Jesus as a healing one. The entirety of Mark points towards to the Risen Christ in which this divine power exists within each person’s heart. At the individual level, the Risen Christ assures us we are saved only by love, to use Tennessee Williams’ words.
At the community level, the image of the Risen Christ flickering within billions of hearts assures that a united humanity has all the healing power it needs.
The epiphany of the Risen Christ is not just about Jesus. It is about the divine love within each of us. May we trust in the power of this love to save the world.