Slightly late this week. I spent rather a lot of time yesterday shovelling snow and trying to get the car as far as the main road!
Those of you who have ventured beyond the door of my study will probably have noticed the icons that hang upon the wall. Icons, of course, are a feature of Orthodox churches and Orthodox worship, but are increasingly finding their way into the devotion of other Christians. One example I have here with me this morning. This is what is known as a travelling icon. It is a small, foldable, set of icons depicting Jesus in the centre, with his mother Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right, and is designed so that it may be taken with you when you travel away from home.
If you are into art in any way you may have immediately thought – ah, that’s a triptych. You might not – but don’t worry, I’m about to explain what a triptych is. Basically, a triptych is one piece of art that has been painted on three panels – a kind of three in one picture. Usually the picture in the centre is the main picture to which the eye is first drawn, and the pictures on either side are related to and add to the centre picture. And together, the three pictures add up to more than the sum of the whole.
Triptych – a three in one picture. I’ve put a very basic picture of an Orthodox triptych on the service sheet to give you the idea. In fact, the triptych as a form of art began in churches – it originated as Christians began to build churches as an ideal way of painting the arches behind the main altar. Today it’s a form of painting that is used in secular art as well. You may even have a triptych of your own at home in the form of one of those three in one photo frames.
The reason I’ve started by talking about triptychs, is that our gospel reading today is a triptych. Three pictures, each separate yet each only giving a part of the whole picture. Together they give us a complete picture. Let’s just remind ourselves of what has been going on. Jesus, as we heard last week, has been in the synagogue on the Sabbath. While there he healed a man with an unclean spirit. It’s now later that same day, and Jesus and his disciples have gone to the house of Simon and Andrew.
This is, in fact, quite significant, in the light of what we are then told about Jesus. On a Sunday morning we leave our homes and go to church. Well, at least we would if most of us weren’t snowed in! We have special buildings where we gather together to worship. The early Christians, of course, had no such thing. They met in each others’ homes. Mark’s gospel was the earliest to be written and the Church was still in its infancy – we are talking about perhaps 30 years or so after the resurrection. And this gathering together of Jesus with his disciples in the family home would have immediately resonated with those early Christians when they heard this passage read to them, for the house – the family home of one or other Christian – was also their place of worship, of teaching and healing. They would have immediately related this gathering of Jesus and his disciples with their own gatherings as disciples of Jesus.
That’s quite important, for we see in today’s gospel reading three pictures of the ministry of Jesus that after the resurrection and down the centuries are three parts of the ministry of the Church that are necessary if the Church is thrive and grow.
And the title of each of our three pictures begins with a ‘P’.
The first picture we see of Jesus’ ministry is a picture of Jesus the Pastor. Jesus providing pastoral care to those in need. As soon as he enters the house he is told that Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. So he heals her. Remember – this is still the Sabbath – so as with the healing of the man with the unclean spirit he is breaking the Law. And then, as if breaking the Law twice is not enough he goes on that evening as the sun is going down to continue to heal all those who gather around the door of the house.
This first part of our triptych – think of it as the left-hand picture – shows us the importance of the healing and caring ministry of the Church and what our response to it should be. We are called, like Jesus, to offer to one another – and to all those in need who might turn up at the metaphorical door of the Church community – the healing and caring of Jesus, now offered to all through us. For we are his hands now. An important part of the picture is also Simon’s mother-in-law. Once she is healed she serves. Now, I don’t want to get bogged down into the sexism of this – the men being waited upon by a woman. The point is that the next step for for each of us, having received and benefited from our mutual love and care and healing, our mutual pastoral care, is to go on to serve one another within the Church community – not to stand on the sidelines and not undertake the ministry to which we are all called.
First picture – the Church is there to provide mutual healing and caring, as well as healing and caring to others, in order to enable its members to serve. A picture of pastoral care.
Our second picture – the right-hand picture if you will – comes at the end of the reading today. Jesus the Proclaimer.
Simon and his companions go looking for Jesus. When they find him they tell him that everyone is searching for him. But Jesus’ response is not to go to them. He doesn’t go to those who are searching for him – they have already heard his message. His response to the disciples is that they must go on to neighbouring towns, so that he may proclaim the message there also.
Proclaiming the gospel through word and action is the life-blood of the Church. Like Jesus, though, the Church must always be conscious of the need to proclaim that gospel to those who have not yet heard it. Jesus was well aware that there were people searching for him. But it wasn’t those people who now needed to hear him, it was others. The Church – and by the Church I don’t mean the Church nationally but the local community of Christians – can be very good at proclaiming the gospel to the already converted. It can be very good at teaching those who already come. We are often not very good when it comes to sharing our belief with those outside our Church community.
Second picture – the Church is there to preach to those who have not heard the good news, to proclaim the message of the salvation that Jesus came to bring us. A picture of proclamation
So to our third picture. The picture in the middle of the triptych. The picture which is essential for the whole of the triptych to make sense. And it is the event that takes place at the centre of our gospel reading. Jesus the man of Prayer. Jesus gets up while it is still dark, goes off to a deserted place, and prays. A central part, a key part of the ministry of Jesus, was spending time alone with God in prayer. He couldn’t cope without it. Here we see how Jesus has been dealing with the crowds around the door coming for healing, and the pressure he felt to go on from town to town to proclaim his message. His time of prayer is at one and the same time an opportunity to spend time with God following the busyness of one day, with the need to prepare for the busyness of the task that lies ahead.
Prayer, time with God, is at the centre of his ministry. It is at the centre, it must be at the centre, of the ministry of his Church. It matters little how much we say we care about pastoral care or how much we care about proclaiming the gospel. If we do not undergird everything we do with prayer, if we do not have prayer at the centre of our Christian ministry both as individuals and as a Christian community, then we cannot expect to see the Church thrive.
And by prayer I do not mean Sunday worship. Jesus, remember, has just been to worship. He has attended the synagogue which we know was his normal custom. He has already been to his weekly worship. And he still needed to spend time alone and in prayer almost immediately after so that he could fulfil his ministry. The ministry of Jesus is the ministry of the Church – and if Jesus needed to dedicate time to prayer why do we think we don’t need to?
So, our central picture is prayer. Prayer which is essential to supporting the two pictures on either side – pastoral care and proclamation.
So, we have our triptych. Our triple picture. Remember, a triptych is one picture made out of three pictures – where each individual picture is different and yet together the three make a whole, and where the central image is what we are first drawn to. Take this three-fold picture of the ministry of Jesus. Take this three-fold picture of what those early Christians knew full well was what Mark was emphasizing was the ministry of the Church. This three-fold picture of pastoral care of one another and of the outsider on the one hand, of proclamation of the good news on the other, and of prayer at the centre of everything. And keep that picture before you as together we carry out the ministry to which Jesus calls each one of us.