By Debie Thomas
Two lines in this week’s Gospel reading stand out to me. Both refer to the people who encounter Jesus’s Sabbath teaching in the synagogue: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority,” and, “They were all amazed and kept asking one another, ‘What is this?’”
They were astounded. They were amazed. Can you relate? When was the last time Jesus astounded and amazed you? Can you recall a time in the recent past when the presence of God in your life caught your attention and held it? When a sacred moment, encounter, word, image, or experience brought you to your knees?
I ask because (let’s face it), these are rough, unlikely days for astonishment. Almost one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are battling a deep and persistent malaise. We are weary, anxious, dejected, bored. We’re too worried about the future to live attentively in the present. Time drags on in soggy shapelessness, or flies at breakneck speed as we struggle to multitask under face masks, death tolls, mutations, and quarantines. For many of us, church is still online, so our access to spiritual community, space, ritual, and sacrament is limited.
Where, in the midst of all of this, might we experience awe? Wonder? Astonishment? Surprise? Where is the voice of authority, power, grace, and healing that can snap us back into full and vibrant living, now?
Fighting my own sense of malaise, I spent the past few days trying to enter into the characters who populate the story St. Mark offers us in this week’s lectionary. I imagined myself by turns as a member of the audience who heard Jesus speak, as the man possessed by the unclean spirit, and finally, as Jesus himself. Specifically, I imagined my way into these roles in an attempt to recover some of the original wonder that animated this ancient story. If I had been there that day, if I had experienced the particular Sabbath when Jesus astounded his listeners in a synagogue in Capernaum, what would I have thought and felt?
Here is some of what I came up with:
The congregants: We don’t know their names, ages, or backstories. All we know is that they showed up in the synagogue, listened to Jesus teach, and allowed his words to penetrate to a place of freshness, newness, and transformation.
The implication, of course, is that these worshippers came to the synagogue in a spirit of curiosity and openness. Alongside whatever sense of responsibility, tradition, and habit compelled them to show up that day, they also held onto the possibility of surprise. Of encounter. Of trust that God might show up and do something different and shocking.
Do we approach God, Scripture, church, and faith in this way? With anticipation? With a hunger for encounter? Or have we allowed the trials of this past year to make us cynical? However we worship these days — over Zoom, via YouTube, on Facebook, in person — do we come before God and God’s people, desiring and expecting the shock of actual divine presence? If not, why not?
Many of us live in cultures that are deeply (and perhaps rightfully) skeptical of “authoritative” religious claims. Many of us have good reasons to be jaded when it comes to “hearing God’s word,” as we have been hurt by authority figures we trusted. How, given these realities, can we still leave room for Jesus to show up and surprise us? How can we make sure we’re not so entrenched in our theological, liturgical, cultural, or political points of view that we fear and resist the new?
These are especially hard questions to ask ourselves if we’ve been Christians for a long time. The new becomes old. The fresh becomes familiar. The heart hunkers down for a comfortable and unvarying long haul, and we forget that Jesus came — and comes — to make all things new. The audience in Mark’s Gospel was “amazed and astounded” by the work of God because they allowed Jesus to be unfamiliar in their midst. This need not be the anomaly. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Jesus will be amazing if we allow him to be. Amazement is the birthright of God’s children.
The man with the unclean spirit: I’ll get the obvious out of the way first and admit that I have no idea what the “spirit” in this story actually is. Some commentaries recast it as a mental illness, or as a medical condition like epilepsy. Others insist on it being an actual demon — a malevolent spiritual being that ensnares human souls. Still others argue that spirits in the New Testament are metaphors for anything that might “possess” or “control” us — anger, fear, lust, greed, hatred, envy, etc.
I don’t know which one of these explanations is true, and I don’t think it matters. When I tried to imagine my way into the life of the man with the unclean spirit, what disturbed me most was not “who” or “what” the spirit actually was, but how utterly it ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. According to Mark’s account, the man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him. The man had no control over his body — the spirit convulsed him. The man had no community — the spirit isolated him. And the man had no dignity — the spirit dehumanized him.
Granted, this picture of “possession” is extreme. But all of us suffer (or have suffered) under the bondage of “spirits” that diminish, distort, and wound us. All of us know (or have known) what it’s like to lose agency, mobility, and dignity to forces too powerful for us to defeat on our own. Some of us might even name the current pandemic and its global effects as just such a “demon.” A huge, powerful force that robs us of life. Of loved ones. Of community. Of safety. Whether we regard such forces as spiritual, psychological, biological, metaphorical, or cultural, this Gospel story tells us true things about how “unclean spirits” affect and manipulate our souls.
In Mark’s story, the unclean spirit goes to the synagogue and listens to Jesus. It recognizes “the Holy One of God” before anyone else does. It calculates the stakes, realizes that Jesus’s presence signals its doom, and puts up a loud, vicious fight before it surrenders.
Does any of this sound familiar? Sometimes our “unclean spirits” take up residence in our holy places. That is, we carry our destructive habits and tendencies right into our churches, our friendships, our families, and our workplaces. Sometimes our demons — our fears, our addictions, our sins, and our compulsions — recognize Jesus first because they know that an encounter with him will change everything. So they make us recoil as soon as he shows up in the guise of a loving friend, or a provocative sermon, or a pricked conscience. Sometimes our lives actually get harder when we move towards faith and healing, because unclean spirits always fight the hardest when their time is up.
In this season of pandemic and loss, what possesses us? What wreaks havoc in our hearts and minds? What distorts our humanity? These forces might not leave our lives without a fight, but the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel will do battle for us if we’ll let him. Will we?
Jesus: Mark never tells us what Jesus taught his audience that day. All we know is that he entered the synagogue, taught with an authority his listeners found astonishing, and underscored that authority with an exorcism that rattled everyone who witnessed it. Is this a character we can relate to at all? Or is Jesus’s role in this story so completely enshrined in his divinity and power that there’s nothing for us to emulate?
I think the story offers a couple of plausible takeaways. First, Jesus didn’t use his authority to self-aggrandize or to accrue power. He used it only to heal, to free, to serve, and to empower those around him. Maybe this is precisely why his audience found him so compelling — his was the authority of a servant king. He had no political power — and sought none. No earthly throne or kingdom to speak of. But he had an integrity and a generosity that compelled people to listen and to follow him.
Second, Jesus stepped directly into the pain, rage, ugliness, and horror at the heart of this story. He wasn’t squeamish. He didn’t flinch. His brand of holiness didn’t require him to keep his hands clean. He was in the fear, in the sickness, in the nightmare, ready to engage anything that diminished the lives of those he loved. Yes, he preached with great effectiveness to the faithful, but he also spoke the unclean spirit’s language, listened to its cries, and rebuked it for the sake of a broken man’s health and sanity. Consider the question the spirit asked before it left its victim: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” There’s only one answer to that question. “Everything. I have everything to do with you.” Wherever pain is, darkness is, torment is, God is. God has everything to do with us, even and maybe especially when we’re at our worst. When the shadows overwhelm us, when the demons shriek the loudest, when the hope of liberation feels like nothing more than fantasy — that is when Jesus’s authority brings the walls down.
In this difficult season we’re all walking through, I pray that we can recover a capacity for holy amazement. I pray that like the man with the unclean spirit, we will surrender to freedom when Jesus offers it to us — even if the “exit” of our demons causes us hardship. And I pray that like Jesus, we will speak words of loving, healing authority to a world that longs for an astonishing encounter with the divine.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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