Legality and Grace

Jan 19th  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  Mark 1:21-45

Four weeks ago, Jesus was born. Three weeks ago, Jesus was,
perhaps, two years old and the wise men visited. Last week, Jesus was an adult and went to the river to be baptized by John. And this week, Jesus is beginning his public ministry. I told you that Mark’s favorite word is “immediately,” and there is no time to waste. Jesus is on the move.


Jesus is in Capernaum, a lovely little town on the shores of the Sea of
Galilee. The village is small and served as a home party for the fisherfolk who plied the waters of the lake for a living. It’s just down the road from Magdala, where a woman named Mary lived. On the slopes rising from the town are orange and lemon groves, where once sat a multitude to hear Jesus speak his Sermon on the Mount.


It is the sabbath day and Jesus, being a faithful Jew, went to
synagogue. This is an important detail. On the sabbath - the day of rest - no work cold be done. Sabbath restrictions governed everything from
how much one could do without calling it work, to how far one could
walk without calling it travel.


Jesus is in the synagogue, the ruins of which you can still visit, when
a man “with an unclean spirit” disrupts the service. He confronts Jesus,
calling him “the Holy One of God.” Jesus tells the man to be quiet,
because in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ identity as Messiah is a guarded secret. Jesus shouts down the man and, as he does, the unclean spirit leaves the man and the congregation is amazed.


When the morning service was over, Peter invites Jesus to his house,
right across the street from the synagogue. They’ve built a church over
the remains of the house, though you can still see the humble place
where Peter lived. They arrive to find out that Peter’s mother-in-law had taken ill and was in bed with a fever. That may not sound lifethreatening to you and me, but in those days a fever could kill. There were no aspirin or antibiotics to heal. Jesus went in to where she was, took her by the hand, lifted her up, and the fever left her.


If you grew up in a small town, you know that word travels fast. If
you cast out an unclean spirit and healed someone’s mother-in-law in the morning, by afternoon everyone would know about it. The same was true for Jesus. By sundown, another important detail, all the sick and possessed were at Peter’s door, looking for Jesus and a healing. And Jesus healed many of them, Mark’s gospel tells us. Where there was brokenness, Jesus brought wholeness.


Mark tacks on another story of a healing. This time, Jesus heals a
leper. Any skin condition of Jesus’ day was called leprosy. It does not
necessarily mean the condition we know as leprosy today. But leprosy
carried with it no small number of laws and restrictions. Still, Jesus
healed the man.


Consider, please, Jesus healed on the sabbath in contradiction of
sabbath laws prohibiting work. Jesus touched and healed a woman, who was not a member of his family, in direct contradiction of the laws and customs concerning how a man interacts with someone who is not a member of his family. Jesus interacted with the sick, the dying, and
those presenting various forms of mental illnesses, in direct disobedience of the laws and customs regarding interaction with the sick and dying.


Jesus broke the law. It’s just that simple. Jesus disobeyed and
dismissed the laws that prevented him from doing acts of compassion
and kindness. Jesus saw that treating another human being in less than
human ways was to deface the image of God in which all people are

The law would have to wait. Grace demanded action.


On January 26, 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for the
first time, speaking out in favor of those who were encouraging a boycott of the bus service because the buses were segregated. Four days later, his home was bombed. Later that year, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. King was one of the first to ride the bus when segregation was lifted.


King, and those who worked with him for equal justice for all, broke
a lot of laws along the way. Those laws were unjust, grounded in
prejudice, and sought to perpetuate inequality. Their “civil
disobedience” and “non-violence” were grounded in the principle that all people are created in God’s own image - regardless of the color of their skin - and that all people were created to enjoy the same rights and privileges that were given to only a few. It took years and the struggle still goes on, but the law would have to wait. Grace demanded action.


This morning, new elders, deacons, and trustees will take up the
work of leading this congregation. They will be governed by the
constitution of our church - a grand collection of wisdom and rules that
have guided the Presbyterian Church on these shores for over 231 years. Some of those rules are good and fair and just. Others are not.


More persuasive than our rules are our customs and traditions. In
some areas of our life, we do things because we’ve always done them. No one knows when we started doing things in a particular way, or even why  we do them, we just know that we’re supposed to do them.


And, just in case you haven’t noticed, across the country and around
the world, the church is moving through a time of cataclysmic change.
That will not end any time soon. We will ride the waves of church
change for a very long time.


These good people God has called through the voice of the
congregation will be leading us through these times of change. It will not be easy. They will confront “the way it’s always been” more times than they can begin to know. And we will ask them to discern a new way.


Their governing principle - and ours - must be grace over laws. How
do we show God’s grace to a world that can sing about grace, but knows very little about which they sing? How do we intentionally honor and respect all people as created in the image of God, when the world tells us that some are better than others and that those who are different are the cause of everything that is bad? How do we stand with and stand up for the poor when so many seek to profit off of oppressing them? How do we make the good news of Jesus Christ real to a generation and more of people who think the good news means mistreatment, injustice, violence, greed, and falsehood?


Laws and rules and customs and traditions will have to wait. Grace
demands action.

From my reading of scripture, it seems to me that Jesus never walked
around on eggshells. It seems that Jesus was always bold, always
courageous, always challenging the status quo. Jesus’ commitment to the way of God was absolute and unwavering. Jesus showed God’s love for all people in everything he did.


And there is our guide, too. As members of the church, as leaders of
the church - as disciples of Jesus Christ - we are called to show God’s love for all people in everything we do. We are called to walk the way of
grace. We are commissioned to let the light of love shine into the
darkest corners of our world. We are sent to bring healing to the world - mending the brokenness into wholeness. We are called to be healed and to heal.

For now and evermore. Amen.