The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A  | Year B   | Year C

When a Friend Comes To Visit
Year B - 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 1:29-39


In theological circles, discussions about the nature, mission, and ministry of Jesus Christ come under the topic of Christology. It is an impressive sounding word that basically means the study of Christ. Throughout the centuries theologians have taken different approaches to discussing this topic. The writers of the New Testament introduced the debate in their gospel narratives. Mark opens his account by announcing through the mouth of a demon that Jesus is the Holy One of Israel. Matthew calls Jesus the Son of Man and John refers to him as the Son of God. In the early church the great debates were over the nature of Christ. How does the fullness of the divinity come to dwell in the frailty of humanity? If Jesus is fully God, how can he experience the pain of human suffering? How can the man who knows the wisdom of eternity possible appreciate the struggle of human doubt and despair?

The debates over these topics became very intense, accusations of heresy were made between the waring factions. The matter was finally settled when the church leaders came together and wrote the Nicene Creed in which Jesus is called very God of very God. After these great truths were codified the theologians turned their attention to writing about the work of Christ. How does his death effect our salvation? How do we enjoy forgiveness for our sins because of his death?

In the early part of the 20th century the nature of the theological discussions changed again and scholars embarked on the quest for the historical Jesus. Their goal was to separate the words that Jesus actually spoke from the words that were added by his followers. These theologians assumed that the early church changed Jesus' orginal message to suit their own social, political and religious context. These theologians believed that the Church could not revitalized its witness to the world unless it recaptured that original and unique message of Jesus.

In all these discussions about the greatness of Christ, the mystery of the incarnation, the wonder of his saving work on the Cross, one topic is noticeable absent—the personal-ness of Jesus. Theologians just do not seem to be interested in writing about their friendship with Jesus. I suppose that a Phd in friendship does seems a bit trivial. However, while theologians may not seem interested in writing about our friendship with Christ, believers certainly enjoy singing about it. This is attested to by the popularity of our song of preparation—What a Friend We Have In Jesus.

The hymn was never intended to be published. Its author Joseph Scriven wrote the words as a poem to his sick mother. Scriven who had immigrated to Canada, learned that his mother had taken ill. He could not afford to return to his native Dublin so he wrote her a letter and included a poem. He retained a copy of the poem for his personal collection. A few years later Scriven himself was ill and a friend came to visit him. The friend read it with keen interest but the words were never published until after Scriven's death. Then a collection of the Irishman's poetry was complied in a book entitled, Hymns and Other Verses. The words were not put to music until many years later.

The fact that the words went unnoticed for so long but eventually to emerge as one of America's most enduring hymns is a testimony to their message. It is one that resonants in the hearts of every Christian. We all long to have a friend in whom we can trust; in whom we may confide our deepest, most cherished secrets, hurts, and pains. However, before our vision of Jesus digresses into a sentimental caricature of the man from Galilee, lets consider what happens when this friend does come calling. We may gain some insights that will both inspire and convict.


The story follows on the heels of the deliverance performed in the synagogue. Mark uses the word “immediate” throughout this early section. He wants his readers to know that no time elapses between events. Jesus teaches, he exorcises the demon and then he goes to Peter's house. Mark is in a hurry to get to Calvary and he does not want to pause to catch a breath. He also may be offering an explanation as to why the crowds do not follow Jesus to Peter's home. He has already told us that it is the Sabbath. Jewish regulations restrict the distance a devote Jew may walk on the day of rest. One cubit further, and the person's efforts are considered work and a violation of the sabbath. So the people walk home but they had to wait until the Sabbath day ended at sunset before venturing out to Peter's home.

Recent archaeological excavation have identified the site of the ancient synagogue in Carpernaum. The 1st Century house of worship was rebuilt 200 years later. Archaeologists are also convinced that a house located less than a hundred yards from the synagogue did in fact belong to Peter. The house is very large, which is a good thing since three families lived there. This was the home that Jesus visited. We do not know if Jesus invited himself or whether Peter and Andrew extended the invitation but the effect was the same. Jesus invaded the privacy the home.

He invades our privacy

Privacy is cherished and protected in our culture. We do not like people to get too close to us. We enjoy are space. We are only willing to reveal a few things about ourselves. We prefer to keep certain dreams, plans, desires, longings and even values hidden from public view. This allows us to keep our secrets. It allows us to conceal our weaknesses and hide embarrassing things about ourselves. But Jesus invades the privacy of our lives. He wants to know about every area of our lives. He especially wants to know our secrets because it is the only way that he can heal them. Peter allows Jesus into his home. He risks letting Jesus see how he lives, how he takes care of his house, what furniture he considers valuable. By inviting Jesus into his home Peter exposes his inner life to his Lord. I wonder how long the people of God will need before they rediscover that ministry happens beyond the church walls. Peter's mother-in-law is not healed at church but in her home.

The decline in hospitality in American culture is closely associated with an increased desire for privacy. We are reluctant to allow people into our homes because they are not show cases. We have rooms that are not exquisitely decorated. We have dust on picture frames and the windows need washing. But if truth be told, its not about decorations, dust or windows. It is about our inner life. We have secrets that are too painful to share. We have stories that we do not want to retell. We are afraid that a picture, a decoration, a knickknack will invite a question about something that we want to remain hidden. We forget that as the body of Christ, Jesus now comes to us through the presence of others. Jesus invades our privacy through the presence of another person. Will we invite them into our lives or will we keep the doors closed and sit alone with the hurts and pains of our secret lives. Dynamic healing begins when we allow Jesus to invade the safe confines our our home.

He lifts us up

In his description of the story, Mark provides some unusual and unexpected details. Peter's mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Luke describes it as a high fever but Mark does not tell us the severity of the woman's illness. It may not be life threatening but if Peter's mother-in-law was like mine, it would have to be a bad fever for her not to assume her normal duties. She is lying in bed as Jesus approaches her. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up, restoring her to health. The disciples are shocked. When Peter brought Jesus to the woman is undoubtedly expected something but he does not expect Jesus to take her by the hand. Men do not touch women. Healthy people do not touch sick people. A demon possessed man, a woman with a fever and next week a leper, is there anyone who Jesus will not touch?

People have different reasons for not going to church. They use different excuses for not praying but one excuse that should never keep us from approaching God are feelings of embarrassment for past mistakes or guilt. In his opening narrative, Mark tell us that Jesus will come to the aid of anyone, regardless of the state of their soul. If he is not reluctant to encounter any form of disease or illness, in an age of superstition and limited medical knowledge why would he be reluctant to encounter your pain? But when he comes, remember, he does not come merely to rub our backs and say everything is going to be ok. He comes to lift us off our bed of despair.

Jesus does not allow us to wallow in self pity. He does not accept excuses for inactivity. He will not let us feel sorrow for ourselves. He expects us to stand on our own and live for him. People who complain about God's reluctance to heal them, may simple be using an excuse to avoid being lifted up.

He allows us to serve

When Jesus comes to visit, he invades our privacy, he lifts us out of our despair and he allows us to serve him.

Joesph Scriven graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and become engaged. On the night of his wedding, he finance died in an accidental drowning. The tragedy was devastating for the young man but rather than wallow in self-pity, he allowed his friend and Lord, to lift him off his bed of mourning.

It is said that he gave freely of his limited possessions, even sharing the clothing from his own body, if necessary, and never once refused to help anyone who needed it. Ira Sankey tells in his writings of the man who, seeing Scriven in the streets of Port Hope, Ontario, with his sawbuck and saw, asked, “Who is that man? I want him to work for me.” The answer was, “You cannot get that man; he saws wood only for poor widows and sick people who cannot pay.” Because of this manner of life Scriven was respected but was considered to be eccentric by those who knew him.1

Eccentric, or did Joesph Scriven enjoy such a personal friendship with his Lord, so that he could do no other?

Friendship with God

If you want a friendship with God you had better be very careful. We can keep a lot of secrets hidden from even our best friends but Jesus will invade our privacy. We can use a who list of excuses to explain to others why we just cannot overcome our despair but Jesus lifts us up and expects us to stand on our feet. We can manipulate our friends to make them do things for us but Jesus expects us to serve him. Beware when this friend comes to visit.

1Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 Hymn Stories. Includes music and index. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982.

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