This text is a religious text in a sacred book. Religious texts are metaphorical texts. All of them. That doesn’t mean there are no memories or historical echoes – there surely are. However, historical references or allusions are secondary to the main purpose of sacred texts. I don’t know (and the scholars don’t know either) exactly what pre-modern people in the days of an enchanted universe believed about demonic possession. Maybe it was then like it is now. Maybe there were a number of different views. Who knows? This text has relevance to us as a proclamation of the transforming power of God. I said last week that the kingdom of God – (which I like to call the kin-dom of God, because it’s really about relationships) – the kin-dom of God has to do with the dynamic power of love at work in our world to transform us individually and to transform the systems, organizations, and institutions of society.
In today’s Gospel reading we see the power of the kingdom, which is the power of love, at work in the life, teaching, and authority of Jesus to drive out “unclean” or “unholy spirits.” We all struggle with unclean spirits. I am not talking about little red devils with pitchforks and horns as we might see walking about on Halloween night. I am talking about life-demeaning, life-diminishing forces that we struggle with in our own lives and that sometimes pervade and control the religious, social, economic, and political systems and institutions of the world that we are part of. These life diminishing forces are demonic in the sense that they are anti-human forces – that is, they are forces that work against the good of humanity. Forces like greed, hate, jealousy, envy, prejudice, selfish ambition, and the like are powers personified by the “unclean spirit” in our story. Sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, elitism, narcissism, and the like are the demonic, anti-human forces that people of all ages struggle with. And if we are honest, I think all of us would have to admit that there are times when these life diminishing forces possess us. And there are other times when they oppress us. And sometimes they both oppress us and possess us at the same time. When we encounter hate in the other (and the other could be a person or an organization or system), and when we respond to hate with hate, when we react to slander with slander, when we reflect the contempt heaped on us by turning it back on the person or persons or group who treated us with contempt, then we are not only oppressed by the anti-human spirit, we are possessed by it as well.
In our story Jesus is in the synagogue on a holy day when he encounters an unholy, anti-human spirit. Unfortunately, we, too, can encounter these anti-human, unholy forces in Christian persons and institutions just as easily as anywhere else. That’s why authentic and sincere Christian teachers and prophets take a risk every time they tell us the truth.
Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching homiletics and New Testament at a small school in
. The school was
hanging on by its financial fingernails. The president of the school said to
Fred, “I’m in touch with a man who is concerned about improving the quality of
preaching in Oklahoma .
He has a lot of money and I believe he’s going to give a sizable gift to our
preaching program. Will you go with me to talk to him?” Oklahoma
Fred was delighted to go, so he and the president went to visit the man at his office. He was waiting for them and ready to hand over the gift. The man said, “Before we finish this I think we ought to pray.” Neither Fred nor the president prayed. The man prayed. He had the money and he had the prayer. With pen in hand, he was about to sign the check. His lawyer had everything prepared. This was a large donation. But before he signed, he looked up and said, “Now, this all goes for the preaching program?” They said, “Yes sir, that’s what it goes for.” He started to write, but paused again and said, “Now, you do understand, none of this goes for women or for blacks.”
There were a few moments of silence from the shock of that comment. Then, the president stood up. And Fred also stood up. The president said, “I’m sorry, we cannot accept your money under those conditions.” As they started to leave the man spoke up, “Well, there are plenty of schools that will.” And he was right, of course. That man had given over sixty million dollars to schools and churches pervaded by the anti-human spirits/powers of sexism and racism, but not a penny had he given to schools and churches pervaded by the authority of Jesus.
The authority of Jesus to liberate us individually and corporately from these anti-human powers is the authority to inspire, motivate, and empower us to love. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power of love. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (5:22). And he says, “The only thing that counts, is faith working through love” (5:6). And once again, in the same letter, he says, “The whole law [the whole requirement of God for humanity] is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). In his letter to the Corinthians Paul says that of three great principles of the Christian religion, faith, hope, and love, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul (or possibly a disciple of Paul) says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). In Ephesians he says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us” (5:1-2). This is from one who formerly, prior to his encounter with Christ, was driven by the anti-human forces of prejudice and hate under the guise of religious zeal and fervor. Being a Christian doesn’t mean diddly squat unless we love.
Love is the authority of Jesus to drive out these anti-human, life diminishing powers at work in our lives and in our society. Our Gospel text says that the people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because “he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes.” Jesus didn’t need the endorsement of the religious establishment, because he had no interest in enforcing the authority of the religious leaders. He wasn’t driven by any need to please the people in power; he was driven by the power of love which gave him the courage to confront and challenge the people in power with grace and truth. That was his authority, the authority to heal and liberate through love. While the religious leaders were into wielding power to control others, Jesus was in to using the power of love to heal and liberate others.
Paul said in one of his letters that the weapons of our spiritual and moral warfare are not the weapons of the world. We don’t rely on the power of violence, but of non-violence and non-violent resistance. We don’t exercise the power of retribution, rather we exercise the power of forgiveness. We don’t yield to the powers of alienation and separation, rather we trust in the powers of restoration and reconciliation. The world calls this weakness and foolishness, for it is the power of relinquishment and self-giving that led to Jesus’ crucifixion by the powers that be. And yet Paul says that the cross, which represents foolishness and weakness to the world, represents the wisdom and power of God for the salvation of the world. It is the power of love that gives us the authority and courage and honesty and will to face the anti-human powers that sometimes possess us and at other times oppress us.
In our Gospel story the very presence of Jesus provokes an outcry. The very presence of Jesus, who is possessed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and justice, exposes and disturbs and provokes the anti-human spirit that is present in the synagogue. The anti-human spirit says (again, this is not historical detail, this is parable and metaphor), “What have you, the Holy One of God, to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Indeed, he has. Jesus has come to liberate all from the powers that would destroy the loving and the good in human life. Jesus has come as both personal savior and as community liberator. (If I were only to talk about Jesus as personal Savior and not as liberator from systems of injustice, then I would only be preaching half a gospel. And half a gospel is not the gospel.) Why do you think Jesus does these works on the Sabbath intentionally provoking the religious establishment? Jesus has no interest in creating a new religion, even though historically that is what happened. His intention is to reform Judaism, freeing it from the hold of anti-human forces so that Judaism can be a force for good, a force for God’s dynamic movement of love in the world. The anti-human powers cry out in the presence of Jesus because they know they cannot survive in the presence of the holy power of love.
Once there was an old priest who presided over a great cathedral in a once–prosperous city. The kindly priest spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of his tireless work, this holy place was known as a place of safety and sanctuary, and a constant stream of people seeking shelter were drawn to it. The priest welcomed all and gave to all completely without prejudice or restraint. His pure heart and gift of hospitality were widely known. No one could steal from him, for he considered no possession his own.
One evening in mid–winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a knock on the cathedral door. The priest stood, went to the entrance, and to his great surprise, found there a terrifying demon with unyielding eyes. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid the devil welcome and invited him into the shelter of the sanctuary. Once across the threshold, the devil spat venom onto the tiled floor and attacked the holy altar, all the while uttering blasphemies and curses. During this rant, the priest knelt on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the evening.
“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you,” asked the demon, “for I too am tired and in need of a place to eat and sleep?” “Why yes, of course,” replied the priest, “come, and I will prepare a meal.” On returning to his house, the priest prepared a meal while the devil smashed the artifacts that adorned the house. He ate the meal provided by the priest and then asked, “Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request. Will you welcome me into your soul?” “Why of course,” said the priest. “What I have is yours and what I am is yours.”
So the devil entered his soul, but there was nothing in the old man for the devil to cling to, no material of which to make a home and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was the light of love. And so the devil turned from the priest in disgust and left, never to return. In fact, the devil, not long after his encounter with the priest, retired from his devilish work altogether, for there was something in the old man that so affected the devil that he lost his edge for his devilish work and had to give it up.
The cure for possession is possession – possession of the authority of Jesus, possession of the the authority to love. Wouldn’t it be great if our hearts and minds and souls would be so full of light that there would no darkness where a demon could hide? Wouldn’t it be great if our lives were so full of love that there would be no room for greed, or prejudice, or envy, or jealousy, or arrogance, or selfish ambition, or any thoughts or feelings of exceptionalism or superiority over others? What if our souls were so full of love that we harbored no ill feelings toward anyone, only a sense of connection and belonging to everyone, knowing full well that we are all one people and one family?
We have the same authority as Jesus. Jesus is simply claiming and employing the human authority that is our birthright as the daughters and sons of God. The authority that Jesus uses to drive out the anti-human spirits/forces is the authority we all have as human beings. Don’t exalt Jesus so high that his life is unattainable. Listen to what Clarence Jordan says. Jordan laments, “Jesus has been so zealously worshiped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. [Jordan is describing me before the crack opened and the light came in.] He has become an exquisite celestial being who momentarily and mistakenly lapsed into a painful involvement in the human scene, and then quite properly returned to his heavenly habitat. By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him” (Essential Writings, p. 33).
When Jesus sends out the twelve he gives them the authority to do what he is doing – to heal the sick and the broken, and to liberate those possessed by and oppressed from the anti-human powers within and without. In doing this Jesus is simply helping them claim and employ the authority that was already theirs.
Sisters and brothers, you have the authority to love like Jesus. For like Jesus you, too, are a holy one of God; you, too, are a daughter and son of God. In you the Holy Spirit dwells. As Paul said, “Your body is a temple of God.” We have the authority to heal the broken and the wounded, whether that be the sickness that is in our own soul or the sickness in a brother or sister, or even the sickness that affects communities and societies. We have the authority to liberate our own souls and the souls of others – individual persons or community systems – from anti-human spirits that would hold us and them in their grip. We have the authority, because the Christ lives in us, and always has, just as the Christ lives in every person, though most are totally unaware.
Sisters and brother, with regard to our own personal lives, with regard to the personal lives of others, and with regard to the political, social, cultural, and religious systems we are part of we have the authority to heal and liberate. We have the authority to exercise the power of love.
Gracious God, help us see that Jesus is not the kind of personal Savior who does everything for us, but one who shows us how to use the authority you have given us to heal and liberate by calling us to love the way he loved. Forgive us, Lord, for the many ways we have abdicated our authority and failed to trust in your power to love, an authority and power that we already possess as your beloved children. So many of us, Lord, have went by the title “Christian” for so long that it doesn’t mean anything to us anymore or we have turned it into something other than what it originally meant. Help us to see that it’s all about love, that it’s all about mercy and justice, and give us whatever courage and strength and grace we need to speak and live with the authority of the Christ.