What does it mean that in Mark’s gospel the first public act of Jesus involves casting out an unclean spirit?
We might want to gloss right over that this morning, I mean it is a bit odd, right? We’re more civilized now, more in the know on illnesses and health and the rest. Our patron saint—Mark the Evangelist—didn’t understand everything we think, so we can dismiss him. But Mark, this fabulous storyteller, uses the first scene of Jesus’ public ministry to show what Jesus’ primary focus in his life will be. Mark begins with a story of Jesus’ powerful and authoritative teaching leading to the healing of this man possessed with the unclean spirit.
Even with all our 21st century knowledge, I do not think we can easily shrug off the diagnosis of possession quite so easily. While some out there would say “Mark must be describing a physical ailment like epilepsy or perhaps a mental illness,” doing so shunts the impact of this story. What Mark chronicles centers on some force taking control of this man’s life, something that made him act in a way contrary to how he normally would behave. Ultimately this would force him out of the community as someone who was completely unclean, someone to be avoided, if that had not already happened. We only hear that this man had been overtaken by something who knows full well who Jesus is and the authority and power Jesus has. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The unspoken response is yes, yes this Holy One of God has come to destroy those things which take possession of the hearts and minds of all people, those things which take them away from life. “You want to know what Jesus is about?” Mark seems to implicitly ask in his narrative, “Here, let me show you. Jesus comes with the power and authority to set people free.”
The issue for us centers on this idea of “possession.” We don’t believe it can happen to us, so it seems way too foreign, if not blatantly ignorant. And yet theologian David Lose invites us to reconsider that position. He writes, “Let’s take this matter of ‘possession’ more seriously and wonder what kinds of things possess us — anger, fear, workaholism, affluenza, substance abuse.” We might not describe them as evil spirits ourselves, but I’ve heard more than a handful of people discuss alcoholism as a demon in their lives. I’ve listened to stories from loved ones describing how lust overtook a person, leading to that person throwing away the anchor of their family life, and everything and everyone become unmoored. Engage any person with a child in the throes of an opioid addiction and “unclean spirt” isn’t a stretch at all. Or those things Prof. Lose mentions, anger and fear, workaholism and the power of greed and envy. They all drive people far from the love of God and from the life imagined for us by Jesus. “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly,” he declared.
So by beginning with this narrative, Mark the Evangelist describes how the power of Jesus’ teaching can set people free from forces that bind them. Forces that perhaps bind us or those we love. As Professor Karoline Lewis suggests, “Evil forces have the most to lose in the coming of Jesus and the ‘good news,’ [the gospel message]. And those evil forces are at play even now.
In a few minutes we’ll be making our way to the font to welcome Lincoln into the life of faith as a follower of Christ. Two of the questions I’ll ask his parents and godparents are these: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? And do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” “I renounce them,” will be their response, and the response all of gave at our baptisms. When we enter those waters of baptism we make a bold claim that we will follow Christ as our Lord, and no one else. By doing so, we proclaim we want a life based on his love and teachings. His words have the power to bring about transformation and release from those things that hold us back. Did Jesus come to destroy those forces of wickedness that keep us from God and the power of love? Absolutely.
And that sends us a message about what we’re called to do as well, as the baptized community of Jesus at St. Mark’s. We do not gather each week in order that we might get some good marks on our permanent record up in heaven, nor simply to be fed at this table and then leave. Our Eucharist Prayer states, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not strength; for pardon only and not for renewal.” We come together to hear these words of faith and encouragement to help us remember that God doesn’t want us to fall prey to the forces of wickedness. Additionally we hold fast to the idea “that church, at its best, is a place where we gather in Christ’s name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us that we might grow as individuals and a community as people blessed to be a blessing,” as David Lose puts it. We have a purpose and a mission to be a blessing to the world. To share the good news that Jesus wants to bring healing in order to set us free. That the abundant life we imagine can be made manifest through the powerful life and teachings of Jesus.
We’ve been doing those things this past year, and we have so much more that we can become together. Because there are too many demons out there terrorizing our lives and our world. People are hurting. They are overwhelmed. They walk in the wilderness fearful that they are alone, that they will not make it out intact.
The ministry of this community centers on following Jesus, his powerful words and actions which lead to healing and redemption. We don’t see this work as just another item on our to-do list, but recognize that in embodying Christ’s mission we can change someone else’s life forever, never mind changing our own in the process. If you don’t believe me, give food to a homeless person sitting on the sidewalk in Boston. Visit a shut-in here in our community. Say a prayer over the phone with someone who’s sick. Sit quietly with someone whose life has been ravaged by the addiction of a loved one. Pick up a mop while working with others showing that love shines through in even the smallest of tasks that show care.
We are called to be the church, the embodiment of Christ in our day and age. At our best we can encourage and strengthen each other both as individuals and collectively to be blessings to our world and to all of God’s children. Jesus’ words have the power and authority to bring us to the place of healing and strength and renewal that we’ve longed for. He is the Holy One of God. May we faithfully follow him with passion in concrete and specific ways this next year, bringing his powerful words of healing to the world. Amen.