(Note: many thanks to Jan Richardson whose reflections on this passage helped form the flow and reflection of this passage)
Mark 1:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
*Hymn - Breathe on Me, Breath of God (UMH 420)
When I was in high school one of the most popular shows on television was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Have any of you ever heard of this show? Well, as a teenager, I was not allowed to watch this show - I can’t remember if it was an express command that I couldn’t watch it or if it was more of a general air of disapproval on the part of my parents - I was one of those kids that if my parents said I couldn’t do or watch something, I pretty much followed their rules - so it wasn’t until years later that I actually sat down to work my way through the series on Netflix. It’s this delightfully well-written show about a high school student named Buffy who wants to be just a normal high school student, but can’t - because she has to fulfill her destiny by fighting vampires and demons - and she does all this with the help of her friends. It’s a little cheesy and corny and campy at times, but it’s an interesting watch because of the way it takes seriously the nature and existence of the demonic in our world and how we respond to it. Now we may not have literal monsters and vampires rising from the ground, but that doesn’t make the presence of evil and the spiritual forces that sow pain and suffering any less real.
To be honest, I didn’t grow up with that kind of perspective on the world - that there was a devil laying in wait to tempt and torture us, deploying demonic hordes to destroy the world and bring humankind down along with it, and that good Christians were in a fight with this devil and that God had already won the victory and all that spiritual warfare stuff...I mean, I am a good Mainline Protestant - that’s just not stuff we talk about or think about, right? The stories we have in the Gospels about Jesus casting out demons and commanding his disciples to do the same just never resonated with me growing up.
But then you do grow up. I began to live and work out in the world - participating in systems and organizations, living in communities that gave me cause to think again about the ways that evil seems to coalesce into a force or forces that try to work against the good in the world. Family systems theory would call this process as trying to reestablish the status quo -- when one part of a system or one person in a family gets healthier, there’s a backlash in the whole system to try to reassert the old ways of doing things. Or in people, where individuals would revert back to old patterns of behavior and thinking, despite knowing what would be good for them - they were bound by something larger than them, literally incapable of freeing themselves for a better way of life. Or how one person in one organization can cause so much pain and discord among a body of people. Over and over again - in corporations, in countries, in small communities and big ones, in churches, non-profits, families, people - we can see the influence of these spiritual realities - the chaos and selfishness that is hidden so easily within a system, waiting for the moment to cause harm and suffering.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so hidden. Read the news and you can see that we as a country are in the grip of some spiritual force that is working for our undoing, that is contrary to the purposes of God. It’s in the way we talk with one another, treat one another - especially those with whom we disagree - the way we fear the other - anything that is different than us that we feel threatens our safety and security and our way of life -- in our quickness to place blame at other people’s feet, in our wanting to protect at all costs what is mine, in our wanting to hold on to power and privilege. This evil is this systematic selfish desire that preys upon our collective spirits and that feeds itself in this seemingly inescapable cycle of pain and suffering and blame and anger and fear.
Into this web of spiritual forces walks Jesus. In our text for this morning he comes onto the scene and encounters a person who is gripped by a power that is beyond his control; a man with an unclean spirit. The greek here is pneumati akatharto - pneumati meaning spirit, also very tied with breath, and akatharto meaning ritually impure. A more accurate translation might be “a man in an impure spirit” - implying that this man’s whole being, his very self, was bound in this impure state that had been inflicted upon him.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernum, teaching as one who had authority - and everyone was astounded. All of a sudden - this man cries out. We don’t know if he had just shown up, if he had been there all along and suddenly acted out in the grip of this destructive force - the text doesn’t say. But he - or the spirit that is acting upon this man - recognizes Jesus, and says “I know who you are, the Holy One of God”, he knows the power Jesus possesses to destroy the chaotic forces that work against that which is of God. Jesus rebukes the spirit, commands it to leave, and restores the man to himself - and all again - were astounded at this new teaching, this mastery and authority over the unclean, impure spirits.
There is power in Jesus’s response - in Jesus’s direct confrontation with the man possessed. He doesn’t condemn the man, but rather the addresses the place that was not right within him, the greater spirit that had taken hold of him. Jesus doesn’t make a show of it; he even bids the spirit be quiet about the nature of his identity. But Jesus, as one who had wrestled with his own set of destructive spiritual forces in the wilderness, was able to see and recognize the reality of what this man was dealing with, name it for what it was, and heal this man back toward wholeness.
Jan Richarson, a clergywoman and artist whose work is on the cover of our bulletin today, has this to say about Jesus’s response:
“In his healing of the man, Jesus offers a model for how we can reckon with the forces that work against God’s desire for wholeness. Jesus responds to the spirit with the calm authority that receives particular comment in this passage, both by Mark and by those who witness Jesus’ teaching and healing in the synagogue. Jesus addresses the spirit from the core of who he is. He is not exhibiting a display of magic or seeking to dazzle the crowd with a show. Rather, Jesus demonstrates his willingness to confront and call out what is contrary to God. Acting from that fiercely calm and centered place, he releases the man from the force that has tormented him.”
That kind of calling out, that kind of naming reality, of unbinding forces within a person to help move that person or that system toward wholeness -- it’s part of what we as followers of Jesus are invited into as well. Jesus, throughout the gospels, goes about healing, and several of those healings involve persons bound by the destructive spirits, by the forces of evil, by demons, as the Bible understands it. Jesus also gives his disciples the authority to cast out those forces in his name...and by extension, we are called into that same kind of healing for others and for our world. It may not be in the kind of dramatic way that we see here in the story, but each of us by virtue of our baptism, with God’s power, can name and call out those forces at play in our world that are contrary to God’s purposes.
[Invite to turn to page 34 in the hymnal] When you were an infant or a child and were baptized and later went through confirmation, or if you were baptized as an adult -- these promises were either made on your behalf that you later claimed for yourself in confirmation, or you made these vows on your own. If you aren’t United Methodist - I know the Episcopal service is almost identical, the Presbyterian service uses slightly different language, the Catholic service is much more involved and even has a prayer of exorcism, but again, similar vows are made.
To stand against the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, resist evil and oppression and injustice -- it’s all part of who we are as people who have been baptized, who have been publicly claimed as part of God’s family, who follow Jesus together. It’s one way that we are a part of how God is redeeming this whole world, restoring it to wholeness, bringing to light God’s kingdom. Whether we resist the spiritual forces of wickedness by offering hope to a friend or neighbor caught in the throes of their addiction, like Danielle spoke about last week, or whether it’s through marching in a protest through the city square; whether we call out evil by adding our story of sexual harassment with the #metoo movement or whether it’s by offering love to a hurting child, it’s in naming the forces at work that allows God to enter in to do the rest.
Jan Richardson continues in her reflection to write:
“This gospel story reminds us not to give more power to the presence of evil than is warranted; obsessing over chaos can breed it. Rather, the story challenges us to confront evil where we find it. The demons—by whatever form or name we know the presence of disorder—fight hardest when we, like Jesus, look them in the face. But this is what depletes evil of its power. It cannot bear being named, challenged, called out.”
She invites us to think about these questions: “Where do you personally witness the forces that work against God? What do you think about those forces, and how do you reckon with them? How do you seek God’s protection against them? Are there ways you feel called to confront the presence of chaos? What practices help keep you centered in, and reliant upon, the power of God?”
In this there is a high degree of challenge - a challenge in that this may be a new way for us to think about how we as followers of Jesus are called to work in the world - on a more spiritual realm. Maybe not like Buffy the Vampire slayer battling demons and vampires, but certainly to think about the spiritual impact that our words and actions have on the world around us...to heal or to harm...and there lies the invitation for us -- to think about how our society and systems operate to perpetuate oppression or injustice, to have compassion for those struggling with forces beyond their control...perhaps, even, to see ourselves and the ways that we are bound and constrained in living the life God wants for us by things that we can’t seem to shake...and inviting Jesus to restore us as well.
I offer these words as encouragement to all of us, to be bolder disciples of Jesus, to live more fully reliant upon God and God’s power through us and in our world, to have the courage to name fear and hatred wherever we see it, and to work and trust again in God’s kingdom - where we know that perfect love casts out fear. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.