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Peter’s Mother-in-Law

February 6, 2012

“Peter’s Mother-in-Law” Mark 1:29-39 Ordinary 5B © 2.5.12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

For over 13 years, I was fortunate to have a wonderful mother-in-law. Susan’s mom Elaine was gentle, witty, smart, compassionate, capable; the list of her endearing qualities could go on and on. She was a great cook, so secure in her skill that I even felt confident ragging her about her baking. Elaine made rolls from scratch, and they were tasty. But they tended to be flat and round, and looked a bit like hockey pucks, which I began to call them in her hearing. Rather than take offense, she embraced the name, with the same good humor as she accepted me, with all my flaws, as her son-in-law.

When Elaine passed away from a heart attack in the fall of 1994, it was a huge blow to us all, not just because her death was so sudden, but because she was the glue that held everything together. How could we be a family without Elaine? I loved her so much that when I tried to read her name in a prayer on All Saints’ the next month, I broke down in tears. She could not have been dearer to me if she had been my own mother.

I hope Peter had a mother-in-law like Elaine, and not the sort of woman who gave rise to the disdained stereotype. You know the kind: bitter, judgmental, interfering, sharp-tongued, someone around whom hot-tempered Peter would have to constantly watch what he said.

But whatever kind of woman she was, she lived with Peter and his wife and kids and his brother Andrew and his wife and kids. We don’t know why. Maybe she was widowed, and they had taken her in. Could be that the whole family of three generations lived together under one roof, as was common in ancient times. Maybe she was just visiting and had come down with something that prevented her from returning home.

Maybe we should pause for a moment and reflect on the phrase “Peter’s mother-in-law.” Does it surprise you to know that Peter was married, as I suspect were most if not all the other disciples? So more than likely he had at least one child and probably many more than that. There could be descendants of the apostle living in the Middle East or somewhere else on the globe right now. As someone has said, we probably don’t give enough attention to the disciples’ family relationships. I know I haven’t before now. I guess I have tended to think of these men as happy-go-lucky guys who followed Jesus around the countryside for however long, not a care in the world.

But the reality is that Peter was a commercial fisherman with a business to run. He had a mortgage or at least rent to pay, and he had to put food on the table and sandals on his kids’ feet and deal with other economic realities of everyday life, made more difficult perhaps by his living in an occupied country. Sometimes I’ll bet he was on the outs with his wife, at other times they were extraordinarily close, most days just content and doing their respective tasks. If it helps us think of him as an ordinary guy, we can call him by what his name would be today: Pete Johnson, nicknamed “Rocky.”

So we have to read those statements of Peter that he and the others had left all to follow Jesus in light of texts like today’s that remind us of the disciples’ responsibilities and relationships. Peter didn’t abandon his wife or family or his business; he put all that in perspective. He later would even take his wife with him on missionary journeys, as we learn from Paul’s letters. As far as running around the countryside, Jesus and the disciples weren’t gone all the time. There were actually periodic preaching and healing tours around Galilee, probably three of them (Mark 1:39; Luke 8:1; Mark 6:6). After each, they came home to Capernaum, as Mark reports in the very next chapter.

Maybe when her husband was gone on these tours, Peter’s wife got help from her mom with the chores and the kids and kept things going around the house. I suspect Peter’s mother-in-law was an essential part of the picture, and Peter respected, if not loved her, for her willingness and ability to help his wife keep the house up and nurture the children while he was away proclaiming the kingdom. Maybe she shared his vision and supported his choices; maybe she didn’t. But when she was sick, Peter wanted and needed Jesus to help.

Our Lord did heal her and lifted her up, as the writer says. She showed her gratitude by “serving” them, presumably by fixing a meal. Someone has said that makes Peter’s mother-in-law the first deacon. The very same word is used of what she did as it is of those chosen as deacons in the book of Acts to help orphans and widows, mainly by providing food. And even more, it’s the same as in Jesus’ saying that he came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). Our ministry to, for, and with Jesus begins with our own household and the family beyond our walls. It’s also with those we regard as family, whether it’s the urban tribes of emerging adults or the closely-tied friends of a small community. If it’s true that charity begins at home, so also do faith and hope, the other cardinal virtues. And let’s not forget peace, self-control, joy, patience, gentleness, and faithfulness.

Peter’s mother-in-law provides us with an example of where we begin if we want to show our thanks to God for his healing and sustaining grace in Christ. When Jesus lifts you up, demonstrate your gratitude by serving those around you. Minister to their needs. Be in community with them. Being a faithful disciple is not about choosing between God and people, Jesus and family. It’s serving God through people, loving Jesus in the midst of your family and friends. It’s not necessary or necessarily commendable to go away from the world to love God. We embody his love in all we do and say and think among the people he has given us. Some may feel called to sequester themselves, and that is their gift. But for most of us, we live out our faith in a world of mortgages and mothers-in-law, braces and bicycles, dates and debts, homework and housework.

Having said that, though, we do need to recognize a danger to our spiritual lives, to our very selves, in diving into and embracing the everyday world of work and family as the place where we primarily follow Jesus. Our Lord himself was aware of it, and shows us what to do.

There are two parts to his strategy. But first the danger. We have all encountered and experienced it, so it’s no secret: we can become so drained, so involved with the problems and needs of others, that we lose our sense of self and become disconnected from the Source that enables us to love and give. We can become angry and resentful and feel trapped. Caregivers particularly face this challenge, and in fact, sometimes because of their great stress end up dying before those they are trying to help. None of us is superhuman. If our Lord, God incarnate, needed to get away to a place of solitude and rest after an extended time of healing, how can we possibly think we could keep going and going with no respite?

Jesus was able to get out of the house when everyone else was still asleep and go to a deserted place. He reminds me of a friend of mine, a world-traveling scientist, who gets up at 4:00 and goes out to his farm, his special haven of quiet. Of course, this is the point where we all say “Get real!” But there are ways to be alone with God even in a crowd of people, to find the solitude that refreshes us so we’re ready for what’s next.

What counts, said one contemplative, is “the solitude of the heart” (Henri Nouwen). It’s a way of being at home in our own skin, of looking at the world and our place in it. The noted preacher Tom Long once said that our lonely place may be “a breakfast table or a closet, a moment of insight reading a novel or an argument with someone we love, in the morning or at night, when we are tired or when we are refreshed, in the singing of a hymn or in the sighing of a prayer, in the second act of a play or even…in the middle of a sermon” (Shepherds and Bathrobes).

Thinking about solitude leads us to reflect on the other necessary part of maintaining our grasp on ourselves and keeping fit for service. It’s what theorists call “self-differentiation.” Did you notice what Jesus did? His disciples were “hunting” for him; they “tracked him down.” They tried to make him as anxious as they were by reminding him that everybody was looking for him, he was so needed, there was a lot to do, etc., etc. But Jesus doesn’t let that talk deter him. He decides it’s time to go to the next towns and spread the word there. He’s done with Capernaum for awhile.

We can imagine the response: “What?! He’s leaving us? He’s going away?! How can he do that? Doesn’t he care? What kind of man walks away from people in need? What makes those people in those other towns more worthy of his care than we are?” And so on. That’s called an attempt at emotional sabotage, otherwise known as “globing.”

Self-differentiated people like Jesus have a well-developed self. That means that they stay closely connected with their families, friends, organizations, institutions, but not too close. They don’t get pulled into triangles or that glob I talked about. They maintain their boundaries and their sense of mission. They know what their task is. As Jesus put it: “That’s what I came here to do.”

Here’s what I hope is a clear description from the inventor of the concept, Murray Bowen: “A person with a well-differentiated ‘self’ recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can either support another’s view without being a disciple or reject another view without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy” (see endnote).

Those with a poorly developed self typically have no boundaries and/or don’t respect boundaries. They will be threatened by such a differentiated person and try to sabotage his or her efforts in order to sooth their own anxiety. People with poorly formed selves become one of two things: chameleons or bullies. They either just go with the flow of everybody else or try to force others to their viewpoint.

It was people with such poorly defined selves who put Jesus to death, because they couldn’t endure him any longer. They wanted and needed their anxiety and their rules instead of the love of God that heals and frees.

The world isn’t kind to people like Jesus. But he invites us to follow him with courage and compassion. He calls us to serve like Peter’s mother-in-law. Hers is the proper response when we have known healing of our brokenness, the lifting up from our beds of despair and sorrow, the touch of Jesus’ hand that cools our feverish pace. And our Lord also bids us come away with him to our place of solitude and rediscover and reaffirm who we uniquely are. That’s the way we will be sustained when he summons us to do what we came here to do.


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