“Called to Both Brokenness and Wholeness”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.”
25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
27They 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.”
28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (NRSV)
Mark’s telling of the gospel opens with the grand announcement: Jesus is the Son of God.
Throughout the first chapter, Mark hammers away at that message. He validates John as Isaiah’s messenger who prepares the way for God’s Anointed One. So, when Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” the Holy Spirit invites us to join the Son in his kingdom-revealing, Creation-transforming work. That work often meets resistance because it challenges the status quo of greed and power.
When we claim to know and love Jesus, and yet prefer to remain comfortable and complacent in systems that seem to work to our advantage but which cause obvious suffering to others, our own voices quickly become the demons that protest Jesus’ redeeming presence in the world. To gloss over that dissonance between our professions of faith and our actions, the Church has used soft and fragrant falling-in-love-with-Jesus language to talk about spiritual union with God. It seems to me, though, that we might more accurately compare entering relationship with God to the disturbing convulsions of an exorcism.
As he does with the man possessed by a demon in Capernaum, Jesus heals us—he liberates us—from the selfishness and fear that possess us and make us destructive to ourselves, to people around us, and to the Creation. So, his gracious act necessarily pushes us out of the corrupting realities of greed, fear, and desires for supremacy. He leads us into the truth of love, of gratitude, generosity, and mutuality.
While that news is as good as it sounds, it’s also true that Jesus’ liberation almost always involves a significant cost. Just imagine the mental, spiritual, and emotional convulsions of the first disciples as they left their families and their vocations to follow Jesus. Mark makes it sound as simple as dropping their nets, but how can that be? Beginning something new is hard enough; so, wouldn’t immediately following Jesus be excruciating? That’s why Jesus compares discipleship to a kind of death. “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” he says, “and those who lose their life, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)
Before any of the gospels were written, Paul made the same argument: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed…For whoever has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:3, 6-7 NRSV)
While Mark doesn’t suggest that the demon-possessed man in the synagogue was trapped within a “body of sin,” it was common in the first century to blame illness, poverty, or any othersuffering on a person’s sin. So, most of the “good religious people” in the synagogue that day would likely have dismissed the man as a pathetic sinner and shunned him as a public nuisance. If he’s suffering, he deserves it, they’d say. Leave him be.
Now, the NRSV reads, “Just then” the man was in the synagogue. In the Greek, it’s the same word that appears over and over in Mark and usually gets translated “immediately.” To me, the apparent suddenness of the man’s presence mirrors the suddenness of Jesus’ presence on the scene. Both of them show up possessed by some powerful spiritual indwelling. And both of them are capable of causing the kind of dis-ease that any of us are likely to feel when confronted by someone whose presence demands of us more than superficial pleasantries.
Because Jesus teaches with an unfamiliar authority everyone’s senses are already heightened. Then, immediately, this crackpot shows up, and the people gather their children close. They move their wallets to their front pockets. They position themselves for fight or flight. Then, the man says something that sounds perfectly absurd. He calls Jesus the “Holy One of God.”
In Mark, Jesus is cagey with his identity. So, he rebukes and silences the demon, and the man seizes and thrashes like someone dying in terrible pain. The worshipers now find themselves in a real dilemma. Given what they just witnessed, which one is actually the crackpot? The man and Jesus both seem to be living in alternative realities. But Jesus’s authority appears capable of redemption and of making people whole.
Mark concludes this story saying that the people were “amazed” by Jesus, and that his “fame spread throughout the surrounding region.” Mark also seems to suggest that being amazed falls short of a truly faithful response to Jesus. To seek to amaze or to be amazed is self-centered. Jesus wants followers who will not fear but will engage people like the demon-possessed man. He wants people who will live inside a Creator-and-Creation-focused reality that is a place of chaos as much as it is a place of shalom because it is as fraught with suffering as it is with wholeness and hope.1
Richard Rohr calls this the “cruciform pattern” of reality.2 “Jesus,” says Rohr, “was killed in a collision of cross-purposes, conflicting interests, and half-truths, caught between the demands of an empire and the religious establishment of his day. The cross was the price Jesus paid for living in a ‘mixed’ world, which is both human and divine, simultaneously broken and utterly whole. [Holding together all the primary opposites, Jesus] hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.”3
As not only the archetype of this holy paradox, but as the one who comes to restore that paradox in humankind, Jesus heals the man. Mark never mentions what happens to him, but just because he was healed doesn’t mean he wouldn’t continue to suffer in this magnificent yet malignant world. It seems to me, then, that his disappearance becomes our invitation. The absence he leaves is where we step in to help create presence in Jesus’ name. His life is now our life. Jesus frees us to see, hear, think, and act differently in, with, and for the Creation. He frees us to care for each other, and especially for those who suffer.
We do live in a world of fear, greed, and violence, and those debilitating demons can torment us; and they can torment others through us. At the same time, as followers of Jesus, we can recognize those destructive emotions and desires and confront them, because, as Timothy says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2Timothy 1:7 NKJV)
Whenever and wherever the world attempts to suppress or deny the kingdom of God, whenever and wherever the world tempts us to reject the inclusive love and restorative grace of God in Christ, Jesus is there to silence our fear-ravaged hearts and selfish minds. And he calls us to return to the new reality of God’s realm, where all people are welcome, all things are shared, and all Creation is made new.
1Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 313.