Church is where the afflicted go for an encounter with Christ’s healing presence

Written by Joel on February 3rd, 2012

January 29, 2012
Epiphany 4B
Mark 1:21-28

Our Gospel reading this morning is about demon possession, which is a bit difficult for us as modern readers isn’t it? I have met fellow Christians who insist that they have seen first hand demon possession in third-world mission destinations. But, it’s just not something in my own Christian experience – I’ve never been possessed by a demon nor seen anyone possessed either. So it’s a bit difficult for me, and perhaps for you (if you also have not been possessed nor seen possession) to know what to do with this text. So let’s try to take a closer look at what this Gospel says about Jesus – what he does and who he is. What does it mean for us that when Christ announces the coming of the kingdom of God, it comes with the exorcism of a demon and the restoration of a man to the community?

It is interesting to realize that we are still in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, and this story is Jesus’ first order of business after calling his first disciples, that call story which we read last week. Jesus went to the synagogue, on a sabbath, and began to teach. And Jesus is teaching with authority, something the people haven’t experienced from their religious leaders. And then out of no where comes this man with an unclean spirit; he cried out interrupting Jesus’ teaching. Could you imagine such a person walking in here and interrupting the sermon or another part of the worship service with a loud cry: “What do you want with us Jesus!” And Jesus drives out that unclean spirit and everyone is amazed.

I think that is an important distinction here: unclean versus evil. The NIV translation we use here choses “evil,” but has a footnote that the Greek states “unclean.” What is the difference between evil and unclean? Evil is a bit more easy for me to understand – its something opposed to God, evil spirit, the devil, sin. Something just by its very nature is wicked. But unclean? That is a bit more down to earth. Mud, rodents, garbage; that nasty soup of pureed foods that gets stuck to the bottom of the drain in the kitchen sink. Things that will make you unclean if you come into contact with them, you avoid impurities and uncleanliness to keep yourself pure and clean. But we wouldn’t say those things are evil just because they are unclean, but we still avoid them. So what does it mean for the bible to say a someone has an unclean spirit possessing them, or even to go so far as to say a person is unclean?

We may be able to explain away demon possession with our modern medical understanding – Oh, demon possession was just undiagnosed mental illness, those simple people saw someone mentally ill, couldn’t explain it and so they called it demon possession. That may help us grapple with demon possession, but it doesn’t explain away uncleanness which is still a concern for us in our day. And I do believe that we still have a concept of clean/unclean, pure/impure people in our modern culture – though we are much less willing to admit it. Are there kinds of people we avoid in order to maintain our own purity? Jesus has power over evil, that’s clear and obvious; but Jesus has power of uncleanliness too – and our concept of impurity especially when it comes to people. Perhaps the incredibly remarkable thing here is not that Jesus drove out a spirit but that Jesus welcomed a man into synagogue who was plagued with uncleanliness. Of all people that were unclean enough to be unwelcome at the synagogue (think of tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, lepers) of all people, a demon possessed man sure doesn’t belong at synagogue! But the man came to seek an encounter with Christ. Isn’t that what church is supposed to be?- The place where the afflicted seek an encounter with Christ? Christians, unfortunately don’t always make this easy, or possible even. Most church sign boards, like ours, say “All are welcome” but I really wonder…

Just what is it that makes us uncomfortable around “unclean” people (literally and figuratively). And these are cultural categories, clean/unclean pure/impure, that may change over time. Who might those impure people be for us today? Who might make us uncomfortable if they were to walk through our synagogue – And just what makes us uncomfortable with these folks? It couldn’t be that we are afraid of “catching it” is it? Those people, who we may readily label “unclean” in our subconscious, I have found sometimes they don’t follow the same cultural rules that we have, they may ask inappropriate questions, over-share, talk a bit too much, stand a bit too close, a bit too ready to trust so much – and that makes us(me?) uncomfortable; perhaps because they expect the same level of openness of us? Something we are not quite ready to be, even with ourselves? How can the church be a place where the afflicted seek an encounter with Christ today?

About two weeks ago we had a church visitor, in the middle of the week – a Tuesday or Wednesday I think. I heard that she came out here on our church lawn, threw out a blanket and sat here for 4 or 5 hours – all day. And then she came out the next day, same thing – laid out a blanket and sat all day. Our neighbors were awfully concerned, and as you can imagine, I received a number of phone calls that week about our odd church visitor. We raised questions, that sounded quite a bit like our Gospel text today “What do you want from us?” What if she is up to no good? Who does that anyway? It is unsafe! It is just plain weird! No body does that! And yes, that situation is a bit unnerving, it is a bit odd, it does give reason to make us uncomfortable. And I would encourage you to pause and reflect, just what about such a situation, a stranger to this place – what about that does indeed makes us uncomfortable? I don’t bring it up to make us feel guilty about our discomfort – it makes a lot of sense to be uneasy; but I do want to reflect on it a bit: What makes us uncomfortable about a stranger who seeks a spiritual retreat here?

I received a phone call from the church visitor herself. She shared with me how she suffered from a medical condition in which she had a very high sensitivity to electronic fields such as cell phone towers, and electric wires so she sought escape from the city and she finds peace out here in the country side. An afflicted woman seeking refuge. Yes, we maybe able to explain it away – her medical condition, or we might think there is some mental illness going on (Who sits outside a church all day in a January!); but that doesn’t explain away our discomfort with her; and what may be her afflicting her.

Besides all that, how exciting that a woman from Harrisonburg, 20 miles away, was led to this church to find a place of peace! Peace in God’s presence at his church on the County Line. Isn’t that why we gather here? Isn’t that what first drew us here in the first place? Aren’t we all seeking the same thing? And now she is the odd one, the one who spends hours on the church lawn seeking peace.

I think that we do believe and want the church to be a place where the afflicted go to seek an encounter with Christ’s healing presence. And Christ offers that encounter even with the socially impure among us. Even when it amazes, and dis-comforts us.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Eric says:

    An excellent treatment of the passage! I really liked how you told the story of your visitor and that no matter the explanation, the uneasiness felt was not explained away along with her behavior. I look forward to your next sermon on a tough reading.

Reply to Eric