The Authority of Love Engulfs Us
Manato Jansen – 1/28/2024
Holy Wisdom Monastery
I kind of enjoyed the daunting encounter with these scripture passages for this Sunday. They felt a bit all over the place. We start with Moses’s words of assurance to the Israelites at the end of his life that God will raise up another prophet who will speak the words of God. Then we read an entire chapter in the book of 1 Corinthians dedicated to the very contextual topic of meat sacrificed to idols in Corinth. Then, we read about how Jesus exorcized a demon in a synagogue at the beginning of his ministry. So I think it’s fair to say that that’s a little too much to fully unpack in this brief morning that we have together, but I am excited to see what arises in the history and themes and teachings that we will have the chance to explore.
Let’s start with the exorcism story. One of the first things to note about this story is how early it is in the book of Mark. If we look beyond the snippet that we’ve been given today, the first chapter of Mark opens in the Jordan River with the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, followed immediately by the Temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness for 40 days. After that, Jesus calls his first disciples along the Sea of Galilee. These first four disciples drop their nets – two of them leave their father in the boat – dropping everything to follow this recently baptized Son of God, fresh out of the 40-day wilderness. Then, we encounter today’s gospel story – the opening act of Jesus’s public ministry.
So when we read that the disciples and Jesus arrived in Capernaum on the Sabbath, it was most likely their first Sabbath together–and perhaps only their second or third day of companionship together. We often think of “Jesus and the Disciples” as a well-traveled, well-acquainted group sharing the Good Word across the region, which is later true, but in our story today, they have just met. So, we encounter this gospel text with an energy of newness and discovery, just as the disciples would have felt in their first encounters with Christ and his works.
This sense of newness also helps us understand the magnitude of amazement present in this text. For a people suffering under occupation by a distant empire, the wonder of the words and works witnessed in Jesus would have kindled possibility, and hope for liberation. “Jesus entered the synagogue [in Capernaum] and taught; and they were astounded at his teaching” (Mark doesn’t actually say what Jesus said that brought about the astonishment, which is common throughout Mark’s writing. Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels and focuses much more on what Jesus did–thankfully we have three other gospels that fill us in with the many words of Jesus, so we can still get a sense of the nature of Jesus’s teachings in these stories in Mark). Regardless, they were astounded by his teaching. And not only by his teaching, but as Jesus casts out the unclean spirit from a man that we know nothing else about, they were amazed by Jesus’s authority to do such a thing – they were amazed, saying, “What is this! What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Now the idea of unclean spirits and possession is interpreted in various ways today by different Christians and Christian traditions as we try to understand how it applies to today, and how it manifests (or doesn’t manifest) in our world of 2024. And I’m sure among us, in this interdenominational and interfaith community, we see this in a number of ways. But whatever our definitions of these terms and experiences with these encounters may be, it is undeniable that over the many centuries and millennia succeeding and preceding the life of Christ, the world has not been void of manifestations of evil, and we all face challenges in our lives, and sometimes our pride, greed, selfishness, complacency, and hunger for power tempts us and threatens to distract and hurt us and others, and ultimately can consume and destroy us and the light within us–light that illuminates our humanity. Biblical scholar Eugene Boring notes that a more accurate reading of this possession that Mark describes, especially to the ears of Mark’s Hellenistic audience, would have been that the man was not simply with an unclean spirit, but actually engulfed, surrounded in the power of the unclean spirit.
How does that feel?
Where do we feel that now? In 2024? What feels hopeless, loveless, destroying of the human spirit, engulfing and occupying spirits meant for love? What feels seemingly impossible to make better? What violences feel impossible to stop? We can’t ignore these questions this weekend – yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day where we remembered the hatred and complacency that gave power to devastating violence and genocide, and today, we read a story of Jesus that took place just 100 miles from the ongoing horrific violence and destruction at a scale and rate many of us haven’t seen before in our lifetimes, in Gaza. In our world history of wars and genocides, we may truly feel collectively engulfed, possessed, by awful forces that snuff out light. We see it among us, on a world scale, and it feeds off of us too– An unclean spirit is a force that is nurtured when we don’t care, when we trash relationships, when we trash our planet, when we value some peoples over other peoples, when we ignore atrocities, when we talk about peace and love but carry none of the work, and when we don’t forgive.
To feel engulfed by the ease of evil is overwhelming. Luckily, that is not the whole truth. Evil itself is overwhelmed by the authority of God. Yes, our world becomes enslaved and oppressed everywhere by motivations absent from love – but in this account of a man engulfed by an unclean spirit, the spirit that engulfs him already knows it is defeated. As Eugene Boring writes, “to Mark, what’s important is not the content of Jesus’s teaching, but Jesus’s authority – an authority to which the demonic world is already subject.” It knows the authority of the Son of God, as it recognizes Jesus in the synagogue and calls out to him, saying, “Jesus of Nazareth–what have you to do with us, have you come to destroy us, I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It knows it has no chance.
To feel engulfed by the ease of evil is overwhelming, but we see here that the Love and Authority of Christ heals the oppressed and destroys evil with barely a struggle. Jesus simply pronounces. He rebukes, and someone’s world shifts. He says “Be silent, and come out of him!” and those words from the mouth of the Perfect Embodiment of Love destroys the strength of this parasitic spirit – it convulses, cries, and is gone.
It’s in reading stories like these where I am both encouraged that we need not despair with the power of life-changing love in the face of evil, but I am also somewhat unsure of how this actually plays out in our world today. And that’s why we have faith, friends. Faith allows us to trust in the mysterious promise that somehow, Love casts out evil, if we simply look around us, and orient ourselves in love. It is a cliche Christian call, but that doesn’t matter when we witness that the authority of love can cast out the strangling grips of evil. We know it is a far from easy call, to lead in pure love for the sake of all, in the divisions and conflicts of today. But it is not new to our societies. To just touch briefly on today’s passage from 1 Corithians as well, the Apostle Paul noticed how the community in Corinth disagreed on whether the leftover meat of animals sacrificed to the pagan gods could be consumed by Christ followers. As biblical scholar Melanie Howard writes, the battle of words and knowledge on this debate “had more potential to destroy others in the community rather than to build them up in love.” Paul tells the church in Corinth that while “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up” (I’m sure he was proud of that slogan). He says that if eating that meat is the cause of another’s falling away, then “I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
While the 1 Corinthians subject of debate is very different from today’s passage from Mark, both emphasize the importance of action rooted in the authority and primacy of Love. Just as Christ’s life and ministry in this broken world was grounded in the Authority of Love, so too is our call in remembering what leads us forward. Two years ago I had the opportunity to travel to the Taize community in France, and my favorite song, which we repeated over and over in the sanctuary, were these words: El Alma que anda en amor ni cansa ni se cansa – A soul that walks in love never tires nor grows tired.
To feel engulfed by the ease of evil is overwhelming, so we will walk in the Authority of love and not grow tired.
But how? Through faith, yes, but I also invite you to look around for how the Love of God and the work of Christ amazes you, just like it did in Capernaum. Discovery and rediscovery is life-giving. An unclean spirit starves, thankfully, when we feed ourselves with amazement. So take a moment to think of what you have recently witnessed that filled you with amazement amid struggle and suffering – perhaps the selfless care of a friend or family amid your depression or diagnosis? Or the unrelenting bravery of journalists, lawyers, and doctors saving lives and advocating for justice in the world, against all odds? Or the miracle of new life? These examples of Christ-love in our midst can amaze us in hope like Christ’s healing amazed those who witnessed his new ministry in a world crying for liberation 2000 years ago.
Lastly I invite you to consider something that goes one step beyond what we witness in the disciples of today’s gospel text. May we be beyond amazed. Loving like Jesus expects something even more from us. Solidarity. It is time, action, sacrifice. May we make it a practice to be amazed, grounded in faith, and to be willing to love in action. In solidarity. So friends, walking in a willingness to be amazed anew again and again, may you find moments in this difficult world of war, evil, and despair, to re-encounter and be reminded anew of the hope of Christ’s unfailing authority. And imagine what that practice of amazement and wonder can fuel as we do the work of God, giving, sacrificing, healing. And may faith keep us in trusting that ultimately, there is nothing stronger, more powerful, that can engulf and possess us like the Authority of the Love of God. We see it in this story. May we feel it here and now.