The Disciples’ Transformation

Fifth Sunday Scripture Readings

One of the great lessons the gospels teach us is that disciples are transformed by their encounters with Jesus. These transformations aren’t just superficial. They’re life-changing. Most of us have met some famous people. I think my experience may be sort of typical. As a teenager, I met Fess Parker, who played my boyhood hero, Davy Crockett on TV. As an adult, I’ve met singer Leslie Gore, filmmaker John Waters, and comedians Bruce Vilanch and Lilly Tomlin. They were all quite memorable, but not one of them made a difference in my life. That’s not the case with Jesus. No one left an encounter with him unchanged.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to come into Jesus’s presence. There was evidently something about him—something more than just charisma—that made him remarkable. According to the Gospel of John, Andrew, the brother of Peter, and John, the brother of James—themselves disciples of John the Baptist—left John and set off after Jesus after just one encounter. And recall that these same men were so taken by what they saw and heard and experienced with Jesus that they left their families and livelihoods to follow him. What must Jesus have been like in order to inspire such reactions from these people? They weren’t unique in their experience. Today’s gospel shows us different people having different reactions to their encounters with Jesus.

Gospel stories like this one were not chosen randomly. Put yourself in the position of one of the gospel writers. What if you were writing a memoir—the story of your life. What would you include? What would you leave out? And why? Wouldn’t you select each event and each fact that was to go into the memoir based on the story you wanted to tell and the picture of you that you wanted your readers to come away with? The same was true of the gospels. Even taken together, they’re not an exhaustive record of Jesus’s life and work. Even Saint John tells us this explicitly when he writes, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” [John 21:25] So, when we read the gospels, we must ask why the authors included the things they did, and what they were trying to teach us.

Take a look at the events surrounding the story of Simon’s mother-in-law. First, the disciples brought their concern for her to Jesus. Their trust in him must have been such that they were convinced he had the power to make a difference in this instance. As disciples, we, too, bring our concerns and the concerns of the world to the Master, trusting in his power and his will to help. And Jesus, “approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.” The Greek word for that is ἐγειρω (egeirō) meaning ‘to raise up’—the word that the gospels use to describe the resurrection of Jesus. When the hand of God reaches out to assist us, we are always “raised up,” regardless of whether we can see physical results or not.

At first read, it may seem cruel to us that, after lying in bed for a time with a fever, Peter’s mother-in-law was raised up and cured only to be put to work. But the gospels are prophetic writings. That’s why they resonate with us. Their meanings are forever new, forever open to new insights and new interpretations. Jesus’s actions weren’t ever limited to people like this woman. We are implicated in the gospel stories as well. Our reaction to our own healing encounters with the Lord should be the same as hers: that is, our gratitude to God for his saving power, must be expressed in our service to one another. When Jesus touches our lives and we are taken by the hand and raised up from our hopelessness, our futility, and our pain, our response ought to be just that: grateful service. That is the sign of our discipleship.

There are others mentioned in today’s gospel whose responses to their encounters with Jesus are not so well-marked by gratitude. The gospel tells us that “The whole town [of Capernaum] was gathered at the door.” “…[T]hey brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.” “He cured many who were sick … and he drove out many demons …” The people found in Jesus a source of healing and relief. So why did Jesus leave town very early the next morning to pray, and why did he refuse to return to Capernaum despite the urgings of Simon Peter and his companions? “Everyone is looking for you,” they told him. And that’s the reason. The crowds were focused on the gifts of healing rather than on the Giver. They saw in Jesus the coming Messiah, but the image they had of that Messiah was far from the reality. They wanted to raise Jesus up as their political and social savior. Whenever this sort of thing happened to him in the gospels—whenever the crowds sought to temp and manipulate him to become someone he was never meant to be—Jesus would always escape to a deserted place to be alone and pray.

The contrast between Simon’s mother-in-law and the people of Capernaum couldn’t be greater. Simon’s mother-in-law responded to her healing by passing the grace given her to others in service, while the citizens of Capernaum responded to theirs by demanding more. What about us? We have all at one time or another been recipients and beneficiaries of Jesus’s healing love. What has our response been? Have we allowed the encounter to transform us into channels of God’s healing power by our service to others, or have we allowed our encounter with the Savior to make us even more needy and self-centered, focusing on ourselves at the expense of others?

Not all of those who loudly proclaim themselves to be Christians have encountered the Lord in his healing power the way the woman in the gospel did. Even in Jesus’s own time, not all encounters with him resulted in a positive transformation. Consider the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees. Only those humble enough to accept the full powerlessness of their human condition, to surrender their own self-serving will to the will of God, and, in gratitude, to dedicate themselves to the service of others can rightfully claim the name and identity of “Christian.”

The same criteria for the recognition of true Christians can be applied to people in our own time as was true in the past when John the Baptist asked Jesus, “’Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Jesus said … in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers and cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” [Matthew 11:3-5] Look around and see who the true disciples of Jesus are in service of the poor, the homeless, the despised, the forgotten, the refugees and persecuted, and who are the imposters who advertise the name of Christian for the purpose of their own wealth, power, and prestige. It’s not difficult to tell which is which. Those who have eyes to see, let them see, and those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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