The Church Possessed

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By Levi Jones

Mark 1:21-28

Our initial glimpse into Jesus’ ministry places him in Galilee, the home of the ruling tetrarch, Herod Antipas.  Openly Jesus calls for disciples to follow him, proclaiming that a new kingdom is now being established.  It’s dangerous work, to be sure.  Caesar and the Herods were not exactly known for their willingness to tolerate other claims of authority and power.  They weren’t likely to reprimand you over a cup of coffee either. 

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t bother giving us the details of Jesus’ childhood.  Instead, the narrative moves right into the thick of the tension which eventually leads to Jesus’ crucifixion – Rome’s way of dealing with those who were deemed un-patriotic. 

Like two locomotives riding the same tracks destined for a head-on collision, Mark’s Gospel helps us to see that Caesar’s authority stands in total opposition to Jesus’ authority.  The course is set.  The battle lines are drawn.  We await to see if God’s Kingdom will be overcome by Caesar’s way in the world.

With all of this riding on the line, one might imagine that the confrontation between God’s Kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom might occur in Herod’s palace or some similar political venue.  Perhaps the city council or community philosophers and leaders would be the most appropriate audience to address.  Instead, the confrontation happens in the Jewish synagogue.

The synagogue was the local place of worship for faithful Jews.  It was the place to be reminded of who they were – God’s people – be being reminded through prayer, song, and scripture of the great narrative of God’s redemption of God’s people throughout time.  The synagogue served the community of faith as an arena of identity formation and counter-formation.

Worshiping communities have long played a significant role for calling into question the arrangement of power structures that benefit those in authority or positions of affluence.  The Psalms challenge this kind of power that is typically employed by Israel’s monarchy.  Over and over again, the royal monarchy’s certitudes are questioned by the community’s poetic songs of praise and lament.  Kings that have forgotten or neglected their role as spiritual guides and leaders are confronted by a God that judges and brings low the proud but exalts the humble. 

All of this is brought to fruition through God-centered worship.  The ideology of power founders and crumbles in light of the community’s doxological imagination.  In other words, power is turned upside down by God’s power that is manifested as servanthood.  That is, after all, the point of God’s call to Israel in the wilderness: “You shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  God’s people embody God’s rule in the world be practicing dominion, not domination, of the world through self-giving service to it.

Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, a day wholly devoted to God, and begins teaching.  Those gathered to worship are astonished at his teaching because he taught “as one having power and authority, not as the scribes.”  It’s intriguing that the community is shocked, astounded because Jesus teaches with power, unlike their leaders.  Why is it that Jesus teaches with power while the scribes do not?  That is a troublesome question, but not one that we are unfamiliar with ourselves.  It should trouble us when the Gospel seems to lacking in power.

The word for scribe in the Greek in this passage is grammateis.  It is the same root-word from which we derive grammar.  In other words, the scribes were those members of the community of faith that majored in words – particularly those of scripture.  They were the keepers of the community’s language of worship.  Understanding the grammar of a language is to understand its life, the way it works and functions. 

In saying that these scribes’ teaching lacks authority or power indicates that they truly don’t comprehend the grammar of scripture.  Their teaching lacks power because it has been divorced from the very thing from which its power is derived: God’s Spirit.  Jesus, it seems, preaches with a proper grammar. 

Language is essential for our lives.  It shapes the way we live, how we think about the world, and how we understand our part in it.  Language is always a part of worship because worship is also trying to shape our vision of the world.  How destructive it is when our words are separated from God’s Word and our language is co-opted for another purpose.  When our worship-language is separated from God or re-directed for another purpose, our language is hi-jacked and often used in opposition to God. 

Our words may still resemble the language of faith… but it has become a grotesque mutation.  In a very real sense, this kind of language, which possesses us, grabs hold of our very imagination through which we view the world, becomes demonic – that which is opposed to God.  And, when our imagination is gripped by something other than God, the results are usually devastatingly destructive for both individuals and communities.

It is perhaps very difficult to imagine being possessed.  In our rational, scientific culture, we are often suspicious of those things that cannot be directly observed through the senses, least of all demons and the like.  Yet, we often use the language of possession to talk about individuals or groups of people acting in destructive ways.  “He was beyond talking sense to, it was like he was out of his right mind.”  Or, “Such an uproar was whipped up in the auditorium that they lashed out at each other as if possessed by something, like a wind carrying a leaf in its grasp.”  Even if we don’t want to spiritualize it, speaking of “being possessed” is not out of our ordinary use of language.

One of my good friends, we’ll call him John, lives in this kind of reality.  His life revolves around work and football.  He works the night shift (so that he can get overtime) six days a week for 12 hours each day.  During football season, he travels to watch the Dallas Cowboys play every time they play at home. 

Watching his Facebook status gives a fairly clear indication what drives him.  Money and sports.  That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make an effort to be a loving husband and father.  He does.  But, you can see what is valuable to him because that is the very thing he hands on to his daughters.  The market economy has swallowed him whole.

If I were to leave the story there, you might be led to think that he doesn’t profess faith or attend church.  Quite the opposite.  But, his choices don’t seem at odds with his faith for the very reason that this kind of life is validated by the church he attends.  This particular church is every bit as possessed by consumerism, gaining more money and stuff, as he is.  The language of worship in this community has been manipulated to reflect the culture rather than a language reflective of God’s self-giving love.

Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue is interrupted by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  He cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”  Us?  Wasn’t it just one man that had the impure spirit?  It’s possible to read this as the man having more than one spirit, although the word is singular in its usage here.  We have no idea who the man is, other than he appears to come from the congregation itself.  To speak of “us” seems to indicate, perhaps, not multiple spirits, but that this spirit which possesses this man, who has no identity outside of this synagogue, is the same spirit which possesses this worshiping community. 

This community is amazed at Jesus’ powerful, authoritative teaching about God’s Kingdom.  The unclean spirit voices a question that asks what kind of power it is that Jesus wields.  “Have you come to destroy us?”  In other words: “Have you come to use your power like Herod and Caesar – to destroy us?  Have you come to fight fire with fire, sword with sword, power with power?”

The impure spirit follows this by saying it knows who Jesus is: “The Holy One of Israel.”  God, King of Israel and all Creation, stands in their midst in the person of Jesus.  How is God going to wield God’s power in establishing this new kingdom?  Will it resemble the kingdoms of Pharaoh, Babylon, Caesar, Herod, and Pilate? 

Jesus immediately commands the unclean spirit: “Silence!”  Mark’s Gospel regularly has Jesus telling people to be silent, not to tell anyone about his identity.  In each of these situations, it’s typically because Jesus doesn’t want his identity to be misinterpreted.  In this case, Jesus doesn’t want the unclean spirit to give testimony, to give shape, to define who and what Jesus is to the community of worship. 

Oh, this synagogue isn’t the first community of faith to wrestle with these kinds of issues.  As the old joke goes: “God made us in His image and we returned the favor.”  Too often we have allowed our language of worship to be re-tooled and re-oriented to define God on our terms.  It’s interesting that when this happens, God begins looking a lot like us. 

Look down through art history for a perfectly good demonstration.  Whenever a culture picks up a paintbrush and pictures Jesus, oddly enough he typically doesn’t look Jewish.  He resembles the culture that paints him.  God, I’m afraid, doesn’t fare much better.  Jesus silences the unclean spirit so that the Kingdom Jesus proclaims is not re-framed as merely another kingdom, another power like those already operational in this world.

Again, in response to the kind of power Jesus would wield as coming King-Messiah, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  Simply put, Jesus utilizes his power to set those who are captive to the powers of this world free.  This kind of freedom in the worshiping community means that its language can once again be aimed toward its proper goal: God and His coming Kingdom.  To be brought out of slavery, a new Exodus, means that this worshiping community can begin to embody God’s new way of power in the world: self-giving love that denounces power used to oppress, to enslave, and to destroy.

It’s interesting that the loudest voice among the worshiping community that Jesus encounters is the man with an unclean spirit.  Sometimes those that offer the loudest opposition to God’s coming Kingdom are those who have the most to lose because they have become so deeply entrenched in our culture’s way of life – or, more appropriately, way of death.  Jesus’ Kingdom comes as a challenge to us all.

In fact, the community that witnesses Jesus casting out of the demonic is quite amazed by his power yet again.  It’s hard to tell if they are awed in such a way that they are drawn to follow him and become citizens in God’s Kingdom rather than Caesar’s.  Or, possibly they are awed but wary of what this might mean for them – they too might have to be cleaned of that which is unclean.  It’s difficult to say what happens because the story doesn’t tell us completely.  It’s open ended.

But, the story does suggest what is possible in our condition of being possessed by the narratives, the language of this world.  Jesus is able to free us, to draw us out of that which stands opposed to God’s way of life.  Jesus is able to speak a new word in our midst that breaks the chains, breaks the silence.  Jesus breaks the power of the demonic over this community, so that they might be possessed by God’s holy love.  Which is not to say that God controls us like marionette dolls, but that we are inspired, energized by God’s love.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:13-21: “If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit. 14 Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. 15 He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

When God confronts us with those things that have taken hold of us, pulling us from God, our first reaction should be to find ourselves in a posture of prayer – seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.  I know my own reaction has been like that spirit in offering loud counter-arguments, deflections, and justifications to God’s convictions.  Sometimes my worship reflects how deeply I have been enslaved by the world.  Yet, it is precisely in the worshiping community where Christ Jesus speaks a liberating word of new life possibilities that can set me free from my enslavement.

The unclean spirit takes many forms.  It can be like my friend that has become so consumed with entertainment and acquiring more money and stuff.  The spirit of violence that causes us to lash out against those that are not like us because we feel threatened by their ideas or presence.  The spirit of greed which hordes needed resources without sharing them with those that cannot afford basic necessities.  The spirit of busyness which keeps us so pre-occupied that we have no time for God or God’s community (which should include our family).  There are many others that I could name and some you could probably add.  The unclean spirit takes on many forms but all lead to the same place: Death.

Jesus desires to cast out those things that have become so important to us and to replace it with God’s holy love, which can purify us through and through.  A love that empowers us to live as fully human, fulfilling our God-given call to be a reflection of God’s self-giving love.  A community of worship whose language reflects God’s character in this way will surely offer a better world, a new way to use power in serving one another.

Jesus still speaks with power today, calling us to “follow him.”  To be led out of our bondage, even as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.  God desires to deliver us from the things that have such a powerful grip on our life as both individuals and a worshiping community, so that we are no longer possessed by the kingdoms of this world but gripped by God’s life-giving Spirit, enabling us to live as God’s Kingdom-people. 

Levi Jones serves as co-lead pastor at Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene (Wagoner, Oklahoma) and an Associate Editor of Preacher’s Magazine.   

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