Epiphany 5B – His first full day of ministry

Isaiah 40:21-31, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

In the second reading, Paul refers to “the gospel” many times.[1]  In 54 CE, when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the gospels we know as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had not yet been written. The first of them (probably Mark) was not written until a few years after Paul died.

For Paul, the gospel was not a book of the Bible. It was an event. It was the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was an apocalyptic moment marking the end of an old age and the beginning of a new age. It created the possibility of a new life in which God’s grace was free to anyone and everyone, without regard for any of the behavioral, lifestyle or other religious criteria people had been told God cared about.[2]

Paul had an experience of that new life on the road to Damascus, and he spent the rest of his life mentoring communities of believers who were trying to live that new life.  The new life was not an individual or personal project. It needed to be in community. The community of believers was a “sneak preview of God’s ultimate redemption of the world.”[3]

So when Paul tried to help communities deal with their ethical problems, he focused on how a behavior would affect others in the community and how it would affect the community as a whole. He cared about the body more than its individual members. He cared about the common good.

We Americans are far removed from Paul in this regard.  The pandemic has spotlighted our lack of regard for the common good. There are too many of us who won’t wear a mask because it is our individual right not to. Too many who undermine efforts to give the vaccine to the poorest and most vulnerable first. Too many who oppose a national health system because it’s “socialist.”

We do sometimes act out of enlightened self-interest — as when white people care about racism because “racism hurts white people too.” But that would not satisfy Paul. The event he knew as “the gospel” began in a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others, not for the enhancement of self-interest. We cannot protect our privilege, neglect the need of others and still claim Paul as our theologian.

Perhaps we have issues with Paul and his theology. I have a few.

But Paul would have approved of Jesus’ first full day of ministry as it is recounted in the reading from Mark. Jesus decided to spend it in Galilee — not Jerusalem or Rome or some other city he could have visited to display his healing abilities to the rich, privileged and powerful.  He offered healing to the ordinary Galileans waiting outside his door.

It’s hard to have an issue with that.                                

Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash

[1] He talks about it often in his other letters as well. In the seven letters we think Paul wrote himself, he refers to “the gospel” no less than 48 times.  The term appears only four times in the book of Matthew, eight times in Mark, and never in Luke or John.

[2] The gospel-event of Jesus’ death and resurrection also demonstrated God’s faithfulness and mercy. But as a Pharisee, that was not news for Paul. God’s faithfulness and mercy were already staples of his faith.  John M.G. Barclay, Paul & The Gift, (Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI) 2015.

[3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, (HarperSanFrancisco) 1996, 24.