Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, year B
text: Mark 1:21-28
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
That must have been some day in the synagogue.
Into the place of prayer and learning came a man possessed of an unclean spirit. Challenging the young rabbi who was teaching there, he shouted all sorts of things at him, including calling him the Holy One of God. Then the rabbi, Jesus, commanded the spirit to be silent, and drove it out. It was quite a day in the synagogue. The conversations over dinner afterward must have been animated.
Many of us know exactly what it was like. A couple years ago this happened in our worship. A woman came in from the streets, and during the offering walked to the front. She splashed herself with water from the font, which was on the chancel steps. Then she began bathing her head in the font. A couple members stood with her, and let her do this for a while, until the offering was concluded. When they then tried to help her move to a seat, she became agitated, shouting, kicking, falling to the floor. She eventually was helped out, continuing to scream and kick. We also had a Gospel reading concerned with possession that day; many were struck by the connection. Conversations at our dinner tables that noon were also pretty animated.
We could have used Jesus’ authority, his power to heal, that day. That poor sister left here and was taken to a psychiatric ward, but there was no immediate healing we’re aware of. Does this story in Capernaum offer any hope for us today, or is it irrelevant to our modern concerns and reality?
To start with, we aren’t sure about this talk of spirits, if it’s even something we can believe.
When we look at the stories of Jesus’ healing, some of the things ascribed to “demons” or “unclean spirits” look an awful lot like things we describe medically today. Epilepsy, depression, addiction, anxiety, even schizophrenia and others. We can see how people of Jesus’ day would call these demons. We even use that word at times. These afflictions are real, and many struggle with them.
But there is this: even without a clinical diagnosis we can feel as if there are thoughts bothering us that come from outside. It’s human reality that we all can have these negative voices in our heads telling us we’re not good enough, raising our anxieties, causing us to fear, lots of unhelpful messages. When they become so strong we can’t cope, we seek diagnosis and help from doctors. But in a very real sense these can feel like outsiders, even if we don’t call them “unclean spirits.” They may very well be spirits. They may not. But we can’t easily rid ourselves of them.
Every single one of us is at one place or another in need of spiritual and mental healing. There really isn’t any such thing as normal. That’s our connection to this story.
Our problem is that Jesus was able to heal this man with a word, immediately. That isn’t something we often see today. But it’s what we wish we could experience.
The good news is, we already know part of Christ’s answer to this problem. It’s why we’re here.
When that woman went to the font, she was not alone. From the one, then two who initially stood with her, to the health professionals who came forward to help, to those who helped her in the lounge area after she left, this community surrounded her, even in the anxiety she raised in us. Afterward, every single person I heard ask or speak of this was concerned about her, how she was, hoping and praying she would be OK. Some tried to visit her in the hospital, but weren’t permitted. She experienced a community in Christ who wanted to love her.
That’s what we all come here to find as well. That community of faith is part of the authoritative teaching that so astonished the synagogue. Mark doesn’t tell us here what Jesus taught. Matthew, however, inserts three chapters of Jesus’ teaching between Mark’s verses 21 and 22 (the first and second verses we heard today); we call these chapters the “Sermon on the Mount.”
Powerfully, in those teachings Jesus describes a new community of faith based on trusting God to provide all things, and setting aside anxiety. A community that prays for and loves enemies, instead of seeking revenge. A community shaped by humility and peacemaking, that looks out for the meek and lowly. A community that considers anger and hate as destructive as murder. A community so shaped to love, people would refrain from worship if they had something outstanding against another, and go and repair what was broken first.
That’s what Jesus taught with authority. That’s the gift of community he gives to his followers, and it’s central to the healing he offers us today.
When we see each other with the same concern and compassion we had for that woman who came among us, pray for each other in the same love, we find the power of Christ’s healing.
When we understand that each of us is broken, each has pain and suffering, be it spiritual, mental, or physical, and that our greatest gift is that we are with each other to love each other through it, we find the power, the authority, of Christ’s healing.
In Christ we are made into a community that doesn’t fear depression or anxiety, addiction or post-traumatic stress, any more than we fear headaches, so we can help each other face such pain. In Christ we are made into a community that doesn’t fear cancer anymore than we fear a broken leg, so we can help each other in our fears. In Christ we are made into a community that isn’t afraid of spiritual emptiness or heavy guilt, but sees them as other things, like all the rest, that we can support each other in and bring to our God for healing.
That’s the authority, the power Jesus has as Son of God: he declares what it is to be together as his Church, what it looks like, and empowers us to do it. And so gives us healing.
But deeper healing is also possible through the authority and power of Christ Jesus.
What happened to the man in the synagogue is also happening today, even if we don’t see it as dramatically. It might take decades, but God is constantly working in us to bring wholeness. We might not see the completion of it in this life, but God is constantly working in us to heal. Opening our eyes to see that all of us are broken and struggling opens our eyes to the ways in which God brings healing. People do get better. Sometimes we need the perspective of thirty, forty years, but we can see it if we look. Healing of the spirit and heart does come. We even have therapies and medicines that can help mental illness in powerful ways.
Even if the thing we think is the main problem doesn’t get healed as we hope, we still find healing from the grace of God, so we cope better, so we see the joy of abundance from God even in our pain. That’s healing, too. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, even the final illness, death itself, cannot harm us, which changes how we live in this life and see everything.
Best of all, in Word and Sacrament we worship the Triune God who loves and forgives and restores us, and are fed and blessed to find abundant rich life no matter our circumstances, a healing we receive each and every time we gather together.
“What is this?” they asked in Capernaum. “A new teaching – with authority,” they answered.
This is why we gather each week, why we hope in this life: the Triune God has come into this world as one of us in Jesus the Christ, with the authority and power to heal all that ails us, everything. In this community we are given each other to help in our journey of faith, to pray in times of need, to love us through whatever we’re facing, and in this community we are healed.
Like those first believers in Capernaum, this is astonishing to us. But we’ve seen it. We know it is so. And so we are sent to proclaim this Good News to everyone we can, to embody Christ’s healing in this community, to welcome others always into it, so that more and more can know the same hope and healing we know.
It’s too astonishing, to good, to keep to ourselves.
In the name of Jesus. Amen