Epiphany 5B Sermon (2024)

5th Sunday of the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:29-38;
Isaiah 40:21-31

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 28:19): https://fb.watch/r6q_GvyZoX/


In recent weeks, we’ve been talking about the heart of the Gospel. Namely, that Jesus himself proclaimed the coming of God’s reign into the world. Last week (Epiphany 4B), we asked, “Well, if the Gospel is about God’s reign, then doesn’t that mean Jesus also came to show us God’s politics, too?” I believe Mark’s Gospel begins to show us that politics immediately by showing us Jesus launching the kingdom with healing after healing.

First, he healed a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue on the Sabbath. This week, it continues that same afternoon with Peter’s mother-in-law. Then, when the Sabbath ends, sick people begin streaming to Jesus. He heals all their diseases and continues to drive away the evil spirits. Next week, if the Epiphany season were a week longer, we would read the story of Jesus healing a leper (Mark 1:40-45). Jesus does the unthinkable for that time by actually touching the man with leprosy; he then sends him off to the priests to show himself clean, that he might be reintegrated into his community again. When Jesus healed people, it wasn’t just about showing compassion, healing, and uniting sick people with their communities again. It was also about showing us that the politics of God’s reign are all about healing — healing not only bodies and spirits but also communities, too.

We didn’t talk about this yet last week, but we need to consider how bodies and spirits were viewed in the first century. They were related in a way that tended to cause division and separation in communities. Mark tells us that Jesus healed diseased bodies and drove out unclean spirits or demons. In the first century, diseases and unclean spirits amounted to the same thing. They were seen as related. If your body was ill in any way, then the cause of that illness was attributed to unclean spirits. Drive away the bad spirits and you drive away the illness. But they didn’t really know how to drive away these spirits very effectively, so it generally meant driving away the person, too. In other words, the main response to sick people was to keep them isolated from others. In the case of diseases like leprosy, this meant having to live completely separately, in leper colonies. The usual response to sick people was division — to keep them separate, isolated. Sometimes, when widespread illness attacked a whole community, then they also had to find someone to blame, someone who was cursing them with unclean spirits causing the illness. Maybe it was a witch, or a sorcerer, or an outsider who had brought the illness to them. The response was to get rid of that person in some way. Throw them out — even kill them. We might say that they had to find a scapegoat to blame for the illness in their midst.

Their response to illness was all part of a larger politics of division, dominated by Us-vs-Them thinking. The main job of kings and emperors was to keep their people clear on who their enemies were and to raise up armies to deal with those enemies with violence. Let’s face it: it wasn’t just the people of Jesus’ time. For centuries and millennia, nations and empires have been built on Us-vs-Them thinking to justify political violence against Them, the other. It has seemed, in general, that a central feature to our human worldview is that, to keep harmony and peace among Us, we must deal with Them. We must have our scapegoats. So our politicians through the ages have used their authoritarian power to talk about ‘driving the vermin out from our midst, so that We can remain clean and pure.’ And the politics of division and hierarchy descended all the way down to how we responded to sick people. If an illness threatens all of Us, then there must be some Them, some Other, to blame and drive out, some witch to burn. Think about our recent experience with COVID. There were some good things happening. Looking to science and banding together to fight this frightening disease. But the division in our politics made this hard to do, right? People were looking around for someone to blame, some enemy to drive out.

The Good News is that Jesus came to bring God’s reign into this world with a very different politics, a politics of healing that not only heals individuals but also seeks the healing of our divided communities. Ultimately, the first apostles of this Gospel — people like St. Paul — saw that Jesus came to bring the whole human family together — that there no longer need be divisions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Gal 3:28). Baptized into the community of Jesus Christ, all people are made into one new humanity (Eph 2:15) in place of all our divisions. So, when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law or the many sick people of Galilee, these were not just one-off healing but were signs of a greater healing of all the divisions wrought by the typical politics of humankind, politics of division and violence. Jesus came to bring us God’s politics of healing and true peace. In the end, he even let himself become a typical victim of our political violence — he became the scapegoat! — so that, in being raised on Easter, he could begin to show us a better way, a way of healing and forgiveness and love, a better way to be human, for which the key ingredient is a politics of healing instead of our politics of division.

So two thousand years later, where do we see a politics of healing? There’s still so much politics of division and violence all around us, right? Where do we possibly see a politics of healing under the dark cloud of division and violence? And do we see our job as disciples of Jesus to help others see and build together a politics of healing in the face of so much politics of division?

Tragically, this is an area in which I think Christianity has lost its way, lost its true mission. For centuries, Christianity as a religion has seen its mission as calling others to convert to the religion of Christianity. And what has that accomplished in terms of healing our human politics of division? It has only made things worse, right? Christianity as a religion has become part of the landscape of human history of Us-vs-Them thinking trying to force others to do things our way.

Even now, millions of our fellow Christians consider themselves “Christian nationalists,” with the mission of forcing this nation to become a Christian nation. I consider that way of thinking to be directly opposed to the politics of healing which Jesus came to bring us. I submit to you that this is the sin which Jesus came to take away, first and foremost. Why? Because in killing him on the cross, that was partly an expression on the part of many Jews of Jewish nationalism. Of their belief that the Messiah would come to make everyone Jewish. And the Romans see Jesus as a threat to their imposition of a politics of division.

This is why it’s so urgent that we come to see the mission of the Gospel not in terms of religion but in terms of God’s healing reign come into the world. Jesus comes to offer us not a new religion to add to the divisions. No, Jesus comes to offer us a new politics of healing to heal our politics of division and violence. Jesus offers us nothing less than a new way of being human based on forgiveness rather than scapegoating, based on the amazing and radical call to love even one’s enemies rather than hate them. Jesus let himself become the victim of out usual human politics of division. He became the scapegoat. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As Isaiah foretold, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). We are healed!

And, as I’ve said before (e.g., Advent 3B), it’s crucial to see that it’s not God’s punishment which Jesus endures for us. No, he endures our typical human punishment in order to show us God’s completely different politics based on healing rather punishment. Yes, Jesus did die for our sins, but not in the way many of us were taught to think. He didn’t die because God needs to punish us for our sins and so he took that punishment from God in our place. No, no, no!!! Jesus came to take our typical punishment, from us, for the sake of showing us a completely different God, who calls us to a completely different way of being human, one based on healing and love and forgiveness. Think of the radical Christian language of being human in a new way: in Christ we are a New Creation; we die and rise with Christ to newness of life. Jesus died for our sins in the sense of dying because of our sin of believing and acting in political violence. He died as a victim of that sin of political violence in order to forgive us for it and then lead us into another way. In order to lead us into God’s way of ruling based on love. When Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit, when he heals Peter’s mother-in-law, when he heals so many in Galilee of their diseases and demons, it is but the foreshadowing of the healing he offers to all of humankind at the end of the Gospel. By his bruises we are healed. When he is raised on the third day, it launches nothing less than God’s reign upon this earth with a politics of healing to replace our politics of division and conflict. Do you see it? Even now in the face of the shadows of violence all around us? I’d like to talk to you more about this in our first Gospel talk this morning after the coffee hour. How do we learn to identify God’s very different politics of healing? So that we might offer this politics to our fellow citizens?

But I need to end with this simple note of emphasis on healing. As we hear about all the chaos and confusion in our politics right now, as we increasingly feel the shadow of political violence surrounding us, doesn’t it make us sick? I don’t mean just the disgusted sort of sick. I mean sick sick. Don’t we feel the anxiety deep in our spirits? And doesn’t the increased anxiety and depression make our bodies increasingly sick? We feel it in our points and muscles and mental health. Brothers and sisters, what Jesus has to offer us this morning, and what we have to offer others, is truly the healing of our bodies and spirits through the healing of our way of being human. Doesn’t that get you excited? Don’t you want to learn more about that? Don’t you want to share that with family and friends and neighbors? Please join me in the Gospel Talk. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, February 4, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 28:19): https://fb.watch/r6q_GvyZoX/

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