Just imagine! You are in that special place set apart for prayer, for thought, for the hearing of God’s word and for teaching. A reassuring place? Yes indeed. But perhaps at the same time frustrating. Could anything really new happen here? Couldn’t we hear a new teaching?
So the congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum might have felt. But on this day they are in for a surprise. Without warning a new preacher enters the gathering and begins to teach. And the teaching has a freshness and authority about it instead of the platitudes and rehash of commentaries they have been used to. They may well have been astonished and excited. What will he say next? What will he do next? But others will have been fearful notably the scribes and other established preachers on the plan who find a voice in the demon possessed man.
What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are the holy one of God.
This is a moment to savour. Yes this is indeed the Holy one of God. He will turn the world upside down.
Jesus of Nazareth is a radical indeed a revolutionary figure. Christianity is a revolution in the world’s affairs and the revolution begins here! Pagan religions had worshipped power –Christians worship love personified, pagan religions had affirmed the self – Christianity points to a love that will transcend the self. To worship the God of love is to go with the grain of the universe as God has made it. This is indeed a new teaching.
A revolution. Is it though? Perhaps not so much as one might imagine. For our engagement with Judaism shows us how much Jesus stands within a tradition passed down to him and to us. Nevertheless to the congregation in Capernaum it felt like a new teaching-a radical new moment. And that’s how it needs to feel to us – new teaching – a new departure.
What then is all this to us in our time and place? Just recently I have been watching episodes of the Crown on Netflix. The deadweight of tradition and custom seems to crush the characters especially the Queen, her advisors and the Bishops of the Church of England. The personality of the former King Edward VIII is presented to us as everything that should be avoided. One of the worst things that is said of him is that he stopped going to Church. Shock! Horror! As I have said Christianity is a revolutionary factor in the world’s affairs but the revolution is still incomplete. There is always a tendency for the practice of the faith to slide back into a kind of ritual practice of traditional practices and the affirmation of socially conservative habits.
One of the few good things about the pandemic is that it has forced us to confront and change our church going habits. A re-set or a re-boot is often a good thing. Or as St John’s gospel reminds us; we must be born again.
Now on the matter of demons let me tell you a story. When I was a minister in the North east I got to know and befriend my Anglican colleague in the village. Among his various gifts and graces he exercised the role of Diocesan exorcist. He was called in to exorcise both people and dwellings. People were grateful for his ministry and the devils would fear and fly at his approach. Even Methodist demons were overcome so you can see how gifted he was. I liked him and I admired his pastoral ministry. One day in a confessional mode he admitted that he didn’t believe in demons or unclean spirits but he offered his ministry of exorcism because he felt he was good at it and people seemed to like it.
This set me thinking-about the nature of belief and what integrity in ministry amounts to. And of course the question as to how we read passages like to-days gospel.
My friend thought he knew better than Jesus, the possessed man, the congregation in Capernaum and the author of St Mark’s gospel. To him the whole thing was obvious. The man in the synagogue was mentally ill, deluded shall we say and so what was needed was a therapeutic intervention, counselling, medication the ministry of the diocesan exorcist- one of those. (This is to judge the faith by the standards of the world whereas I believe that the world is under the judgement of the faith). The difficulty for me is that my friend’s view doesn’t take faith in Jesus seriously enough nor does it acknowledge the reality of evil in the world nor the existence of powers antagonistic to the gospel. So yes I believe in the demons. And what’s more in the name of Jesus I want to give them names and call them out.
Jesus came full of grace and truth that all who believe in him might have life in all its fullness, follow the way of love and know joy and peace. This is the promise but against this promise there are the powers that set out to kill him and silence him forever. These powers, OK let’s call them demons, are still at work beguiling us with promises of power and affluence and encouraging us to live only for ourselves scorning the environmental degradation of the world and the exploitation of the weak. These demons are all around us. You know their names.
Here are some pictures showing their works and the signs of their power.
In our reading of St Mark this year we will follow Jesus as he passes among the oppressed and exploited people of Palestine exorcizing their demons and scourging their oppressors. Mark’s gospel is a story of conflict and struggle against the powers of darkness, for the powers of light. Those who follow Jesus will have tribulation indeed as the cultural critic Terry Eagleton reminds us: if you claim to follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do! Great line that!! But be of good cheer the dominant theme of the New Testament is victory. Thanks be to God writes St Paul who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.