Power to Do
Mark 1: 21-28
So what on earth does a story about unclean spirits and Jesus casting out demons in a 1st century synagogue have to do with us, sitting in this progressive church in the 21st century. Pretty weird story! Right? Well letâ€™s see!
To its original hearers this story would be shocking! Mark is saying listen up! something very different is going on here! Pay attention. This Jesus is going to turn things upside down!
As Mark tells the story, Jesus is one who speaks and acts with Godâ€™s authority. And this story is the first thing he does in his ministry, so itâ€™s a sign of whatâ€™s ahead. Jesus is in the Galilee, has called a few followers, then he enters the synagogue in Capurnaum. We have no idea what Jesus taught in the synagogue that day in Capernaum but we are told that those who heard his teaching were amazed because he taught them with authority not like the scribes and teachers of the law.
So whatâ€™s that about? These scribes and Teachers after all, were supposed to be the authorities! They knew the scriptures – some of them loved the scriptures more than they loved the God to whom the scriptures pointed. And they enjoyed showing people how much they knew.
But Jesus was different. Garrison Keiller says; â€œPeople come to church to find God, and the least the preacher can do is get out of the way.â€ Jesus it seems did that. He did not preach himself. He pointed people to God. Jesus’ power seems to come from not just knowing scripture, but being in relationship with the Source. His authority comes with action. When Jesus speaks, things happen! ” You can feel the difference between one speaking from their head, and someone who speaks from a place deeply connected with their inner core, and with their spirit. You hear it in speakers like Martin Luther King, or Obama.
Jesus was an outsider. But in the story he engages one even more of an outsider than him – this man with “the unclean spirit”. People in Jesusâ€™ day thought illness was caused by spirits. Maybe the man had a mental illness or epilepsy not understood in his day. In the honour/shame culture of the day, someone with an unclean spirit is someone outside the society. Possession by unclean spirits made persons ritually unclean. They could not go to the temple or participate in religious festivals; they were separated from God, family, and neighbours. This guy should not have been anywhere near the synagogue. The unclean in 1st century society are powerless illegitimate actors.
Yet in Mark’s structuring of the story, this is where Jesus begins. He identifies with; he gives service to; he advocates for- the disvalued – the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the unclean — And hereâ€™s the first example.
Markâ€™s hearers would find it outrageous that a man who had an unclean spirit was the first to recognize Christ? This was alien, antithetical to what they knew as sacred and true up to that time. It broke through everything theyâ€™d been taught about God. It turned firmly formed convictions and belief systems upside down.
Those considered unclean recognize Christ. Those with cultural and religious authority do not.
In this simple story of teaching and healing, Markâ€™s signaling that Jesusâ€™ amazing power confronts the purity code, crosses boundaries of insiders and outsiders, and reshapes and restores community and relationship with God. Jesus uses his power not for ego or personal gain but to liberate; to heal; to enfold others in the community. A powerful beginning to a message that flows through the whole gospel.
Now Iâ€™m not here to convince you to believe in a First Century world view which would include flat earth and demons as a cause of illness. But when I read these ancient stories, I can certainly relate to this image of demons in a mytho-psychic way. For me demons are forces that are anti-life; forces that would destroy or distort or enslave us; forces that suck vitality and hope out of individuals, out of a culture. They are enmeshed, unconscious patterns of thinking and behaving and feeling that have real control over us.
We may be totally unaware of their power or even their existence, until we try to change them. They keep us from being fully human, fully free. Dare to break silence on abuse in a family, and you discover the power of these forces! They close in to silence you again. Dare to break out of the role youâ€™ve always played in the family and you quickly find the system reacting to keep you in place.
Anyone who has done any personal growth work or spiritual journey work realizes quickly the kinds of powerful forces one must deal with to make change. If youâ€™ve been reading Eckardt Tolleâ€™s popular books, the Power of Now, or A New Earth, you will recognize his desciption of the ego; a conglomeration of recurring thought forms and conditioned mental-emotional patterns, invested with a sense of I. We become the stories we tell ourselves rather than our true self.
Maybe youâ€™ve grown up always seeing yourself as victim, the one to whom things happen. Along comes someone who challenges you to claim your power. Instead of welcoming it, huge resistance arises. Or youâ€™ve grown up thinking you have to be responsible for everything yourself..If you donâ€™t do it, it wonâ€™t get done. Someone challenges you to let go of control, to realize that all you can do is your own part; not everyone else’s. But how difficult it is to change…There are lots of tenacious systems of thinking. â€œI am the bad one, the sick one, the strong one, the one who has to make everyone laugh, the one who has to please or look after everyone, You can add your own to this list.
Carl Jung called them complexes- constellations of built up experience and ways of seeing the world that emerge in the unconscious. They become windows of meaning through which we interact with our world; the window through which we see life.
These are not just intellectual ideas that can be changed with new facts or information. They are entangled meshes of emotion, patterns of thinking and of seeing, and they have tenatious tentacles, embedded in the unconscious. And they affect everything we do in conscious life. Anyone who has ever dared to wrestle with one, knows how powerful they are, how real they are, how tenacious they are. They resist dying or changing with a power very like that of a spiritual enemy. They cling to continued existence with the passionate vehemence of one threatened with death. When one is caught in a complex, it is as if one is powerless to behave differently. It is as if despite oneâ€™s rational adult knowledge, one is in the spell of a force that compels one in a different direction.
They come in many disguises and if you confront them on one front, they seem to shape-shift to adjust to altered circumstances like addictions.
These kinds of systems when they remain unconscious, have a kind of almost demonic power to control us and our relationships. They can determine the kinds of partner we choose, the kinds of friends we have, the kinds of parents we become, how we view the world and our place in it. They control us until they are named and and brought to light and looked at.
The good news of this story from Mark is that they are not invincible. They do not have to control our reality. They can be challenged. They can be named. They can be confronted, and brought out into the light and disempowered
. Healing can happen. Good news is possible. It takes the kind of authority, and clarity of sight that Jesus had. One has to be willing to see, and willing to use oneâ€™s power to change.
Walter Wink, an American theologian has written several books on the Principalities and Powers speaking of these forces in the larger culture. Patterns of thinking and being that enslave, and destroy life. They are all the more dangerous because, like our personal demons, they are like the very air we breathe. They seem natural and normal and the devious part about them is that they convince us that THEY are indeed what is real. Demons, like the notion that more armament makes us safer. That violence is the way to create peace. That might makes right. Demons like racism, that distort how we see, and treat and hire and relate to whole categories of humans. It is insidious. Have you ever paid attention to how our newscasters cover news abroad differently if white Europeans are involved than if persons of colour are involved? Racism affects how the police react. Ask friends in the black community. It affects how teachers see potential in students. It affects how people see themselves.
There are still lots of demons in our society that keep people from leading full, whole lives, demons that keep people from being a full part of community. I wonder what demons Jesus would want to name and cast out if he were to come into these times? Jesus taught, and healed with authority. He used his power to liberate and heal and restore community, and to take on injustice in his time. As Christâ€™s living body, how to do we use our God-given authority in ours. How do we name what destroys life and expose lies for what they are. How do we claim and proclaimthe fullness of life that Jesus called eternal life.
No wonder people were amazed at Jesus new teaching, and the courage with which he confronted destructive forces. May the church, and may we as individuals have the courage to engage in this ministry of healing to which we too are called. May we claim the God-given power and authority that is ours and use it, not for fueling ego or personal power, but to release Godâ€™s healing wholeness in the world.