"His fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee."(1:28) This is pretty amazing because Jesus has only just begun his ministry, only just begun selecting his apostles, only just been baptized by John in the Jordan-and already his fame has begun to spread. But it's no wonder. Look at the Gospels for the past several Sundays. They tell stories of miraculous healings. Jesus has been casting out demons, healing the sick, and-perhaps most astonishing of all to his hearers (since they knew where he was brought up)-he was teaching with authority. Now, today, he adds to this list by cleansing a leper.
It seems that Jesus has a sort of healing, transforming gift: everyone he touches is changed. So we are not surprised, in verse 45, when Mark tells us that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly. Throngs of people were now seeking him out to beg for his life-giving touch, for more signs and wonders. Unfortunately, that's as far as many of them got in understanding who Jesus was and why he had come. Even his disciples failed sometimes to understand. But there's much more to Jesus' mission than his ability to fix physical and emotional problems, and that's what we need to look for. Of course, we have the advantage of knowing the whole story, but understanding who Jesus is and why he came is the key to understanding the message of Mark's Gospel.
To do that, we need to remember the whole story as we read this short passage set out for us today. One of the difficulties in selecting short sections of the Gospel for each Sunday is that we never hear this particular Gospel as Mark's hearers probably heard it: all in one piece. Most likely, this short Gospel would have been read from beginning to end to an attentive audience. They would hear the miracle stories, but they would also hear, in the next chapters, Jesus talking about the kingdom of God and how they were expected to live. In spite of the crowd's excitement, they would hear that the religious authorities were beginning to plot ways to get rid of him. They wouldn't be able to dwell long on the miracles, because they would hear Jesus begin to talk about his coming passion and death.
It's a powerful and soul-shaking story when it's read in one sitting, but if you do that, you'll hear over and over the bottom line of Jesus' mission. That bottom line is that the kingdom of God is right here, right now. Jesus' mission is to show us who this God is and what God is like and how we're to live if we want to be a part of his kingdom. The miracles were not ends in themselves, nor were they acts that only Jesus did. Remember the Old Testament story this morning. Elisha the prophet cures Naaman of his leprosy. Like the prophet, Jesus gives the leper a task, "Go show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded." Jesus wasn't using the healing to point to himself. He used the formula that would have been recognized by his followers. No, Jesus used his miracles to get the people's attention so they could then hear his teaching; hear that he was calling them to live again the life of Torah, the life of the commandments God had given the people long before.
This is what the Christian Gospel calls us to do. We are commissioned by our baptism to continue spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have the whole story. We know that living the gospel life isn't always easy, that we may be misunderstood. We know that life itself isn't always easy. We may suffer, but we have Jesus' example to keep us going. We all have gifts that we can use the way Jesus used miracles. Some of us may be healers. Others have gifts of listening or kindness or patience or boundless energy. Each one of us has something that draws others to us and through that gift we offer others the grace and love of God. Like Jesus, we can show others who God is and what God is like.
Absalom Jones was just this sort of person. Today, February 13, is the day we honor this priest in our liturgical calendar. Born a slave in 1746, he eventually was ordained an Episcopal priest in St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1802. He led a wonderfully full and active life working against every form of oppression and slavery, but we read in Lesser Feasts and Fasts that "it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and the community." He was an activist. He was a leader. Like Jesus, he got people's attention. But, like Jesus, it wasn't to point to himself that he did these things. It was to show others what it meant really to live in the kingdom of God. Yet it was his visiting and his mild manner that drew people of all faiths to him. He did what each one of us is capable of doing: loving and caring for others.
So we look again at Mark's Gospel. Perhaps this story isn't so far removed from our own experience. Like Jesus, we can be the catalyst that continues to spread the message Jesus taught. But let's not forget the leper. He, too, has something to teach us. Leprosy effectively made him an outcast, made it impossible for him to be a part of society. By healing him, Jesus made it possible for him to rejoin the community. That, too, is an image of the kingdom of God. It's not just a nice coincidence that the Gospels are full of references to being part of a community. It's within the community that we are nourished by both word and sacrament. It's within the community that we are supported and commissioned to continue the work Jesus gave us. If we truly believe this and act on it, then we will, as it says in the Collect for Absalom Jones, show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God which God has given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.