It’s hard for us to remember, when we gather in such a beautiful, majestic sanctuary that for the first three centuries of the church, we Christians met for worship in people’s homes. In fact, the oldest known site of Christian worship, which was discovered almost a century ago by French and American archaeologists in eastern Syria – just over the border from Iraq in the ancient city of Dura-Europus, was a house church.
The Dura-Europus house church is a significant archaeological find because of what it teaches us about early Christian worship. The building was first and foremost a home. A family lived there. Joined to the family home was a separate gathering hall, which would have been the gathering place for the Christians of that community. There was a baptistry attached to the main hall, and the painted frescos in that room are very likely the oldest Christian paintings in existence – sort of like our version of the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France. These paintings depict Christ as the Good Shepherd, the stories of the healing of the paralytic, Christ and Peter walking on water, and the Samaritan woman at the well – wonderfully appropriate paintings for a place where baptisms take place, reminding us that Jesus came to tend for the lost, heal the sick, strengthen faith and reconcile divisions.
The gospel of Mark seems interested in what goes on in people’s homes as well, as this morning’s reading demonstrates. Following directly from the text we read last week, where Jesus entered the synagogue to heal the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus moves immediately to the home of Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew, where Peter’s mother-in-law is sick in bed.
You’ll remember that in last week’s text, people marveled at how Jesus taught with authority, though we aren’t told just what it was that Jesus was teaching. Something similar happens here. Jesus enters Peter’s home, and is told that the woman of the house is ill. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up and she is healed. Immediately she begins to serve him. Word gets out and by evening every sick or possessed person in town has been brought to Jesus for healing, and Jesus is seen working overtime to meet the needs of the people.
The next morning Jesus has to get up early to find a moment of solitude so that he can pray. When his disciples finally track him down and tell him that there are still people looking for him, presumably seeking the same healing Jesus gave to so many others, Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.” As in the synagogue, we still haven’t heard what the message is. Jesus is teaching by his actions. Where he is, the powers of evil are pushed back and people are healed. It is all the preaching anyone seems to need.
So the story so far in Mark’s gospel is that Jesus has gone to the synagogue only to find people suffering there under the power of unclean spirits, and Jesus has gone into people’s homes where they are suffering under the powers of sickness and death, and wherever Jesus goes people are healed. This isn’t the last time Jesus enters private homes to teach and to heal (which, in Jesus’ classroom seem to be tightly related). Soon afterwards he returns to Capernaum and word gets out that he is home and people are drawn to him for healing. Then Jesus is seen dining in the home of Levi, the tax collector, with many sinners and tax collectors in his presence. In the 7th chapter of Mark, Jesus enters a home in Tyre and the gospel says, “he entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice…” and what happens next changes the course of his ministry. A Syrophoenician woman brings her sick daughter to Jesus for healing, and Jesus is challenged to make the blessings of his healing ministry available to all people, regardless of their background, ethnicity or nationality.
These things all happen in homes, not in synagogues. The frequency with which the home is depicted as the site of Jesus’ ministry has led some biblical scholars to speculate that Mark’s gospel was written among and directed toward the many early Christians gathering in house churches throughout the ancient Roman world. Over and over again, Jesus is seen challenging the public piety of the people in the synagogue and temple, and meeting people in the everyday circumstances of their lives, in their homes, for teaching that looks like healing.
This feels like a serendipitously timely text, given that we’re about to begin a set of small group studies this coming week. You’ve read in your bulletins and you’ve heard during the announcements that beginning this Wednesday and Thursday, members of St. Luke’s and members of Luther Memorial (a sister site up in Lincoln Square) will be gathering together to read and discuss Brian McLaren’s new book, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. The Wednesday group, which is Co-Ed and at which there will be childcare, will meet here at St. Luke’s from 6:30pm – 8pm. The Thursday night group, which is for women and at which there will not be childcare, will be meeting in people’s homes from 6:30pm – 8pm.
As many of you who have participated in previous small groups here at St. Luke’s, and perhaps elsewhere, can attest – these gathering times are often filled with teaching that feels like healing. Sunday morning worship, the heartbeat of Christian community that gathers us in and breathes fresh life into us through Word and Meal before pumping us back out into circulation in the world, is only one – though the primary one – practice or habit of Christian discipleship. Gathering in each other’s homes for study, and shared meals, and prayer is another practice – and one that connects us with the experiences of the earliest Christians.
Listen again to what happens when Jesus enters the home of a disciple, in this case, Peter. When Jesus enters Peter’s home he discovers that someone in that house is ill. How often we hide our illnesses from the world, whether they be literal injuries or illnesses, or figurative ones. Our congested heads or our congested lives. Our broken bones or our broken relationships. Jesus enters the home and takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand, lifting her up from her sick bed.
What would it look like for Jesus to enter your home? If we take seriously what we declare to be true every time we baptize an infant or an adult, that in these waters we become a part of the body of Christ, then what would it look like for Jesus to enter your home? Might it look like one of the people here, in this room, this morning, knocking on your door and asking to come in?
What would it look like for Jesus to enter your home and take you by the hand? If we, seated here, are members of the body of Christ, might it look like one hand holding another, joined in prayer for the members of your household, of every household?
And, what might happen if the body of Christ were to enter your home and heal you? What would you do next? Would you stay in bed, happy for a few more hours of rest? Well, perhaps. I mean, just to catch up on lost sleep, and we could let that slide without making too much of it. But then what? What would you do if the burdens of your life were made lighter by the healing presence of the community of Christ in your home?
I’m not certain, but my hunch is that you would rise to your feet and put yourself in service of the many others in this church, and in our community, that are in need of healing. I am willing to venture that guess, because it’s what I’ve seen you do. I see you shouldering the heavy loads of insane work demands and painful ailments in your bodies, and still you show up to feed our hungry neighbors and make this place warm and inviting for the many who share our church home for their own ministries of healing and art.
There’s a strand of biblical criticism that chaffs at the story of Peter’s mother-in-law rising from her illness only to immediately begin serving Jesus and the disciples. In Mark’s gospel however, everything is happening immediately, as if to suggest to us that the world is being transformed before our very eyes. There is, what our seminarian Francisco has been saying to the small group he leads on Thursday nights, a “breathlessness” to the gospel of Mark – a sense that something amazing is happening, and that we are being drawn into it. When Peter’s mother-in-law rises from her illness, the Greek word describing her service to the disciples is diakonia, the same word from which we draw the title “deacon.” This woman, whom Jesus heals, is subtly named a deacon of the church.
I’ve seen that happen when members of St. Luke’s gather in the home as well. I recall that, about a year ago, some of the young women here at St. Luke’s were gathering in each other’s home to read Joan Didion’s memoir of the year of grief that followed the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the book, Didion remembers the many people who just showed up at her door with hot meals so that she wouldn’t have to worry about preparing meals as she wandered, lost in her grief. The women in the small group recalled the many times they’d seen their own mothers prepare a meal for someone in the church or in the neighborhood after a surgery, or a death in the family. And it dawned on them, that they too were now deacons of the church, people drawn from healing into service. They came to me and asked if they could please be made aware of people who might need or enjoy a home cooked meal. I know that some of you here have enjoyed the blessings of those meals.
This is what happens when Jesus enters our homes. We are healed and we are called into service. This is why we are working hard to create new and different opportunities in the coming weeks and months for you to gather in one another’s homes. It is a part of your Christian education and formation, to be sure, but it is more than that as well. Like Jesus, who teaches with authority even when we don’t know the content of his sermons, we are discovering that the learning that lasts is the learning that meets us in our homes; in the intimate places of our lives, the places where unclean powers need to be named and driven out; where sickness is keeping us from service.
Sisters and brothers, the house church is alive and well in our day and age. It is not an alternative to the synagogue or the sanctuary, it is an extension of this place… like the extension you add to the dinner table so that it can fit just a few more people around. The words on which we here feast, the meals which we here share, are too rich to be digested in just one day. Open your doors, open your hearts, open your lives to the body of Christ waiting to enter your home. Rise up and be healed.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.