Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
At the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus—but where did it go from there? It didn’t leave, but remained with him; it possessed him. We don’t tend to think of possession in those terms, but then we don’t tend to think of possession at all outside of horror movies. In the world of Mark’s gospel, Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, which is why when the man possessed by the unclean spirit shows up in the synagogue, Jesus cannot escape confrontation. Holy and unclean meet face to face, and a spiritual cage match ensues.
Whereas we celebrate baptism as a relatively quiet and mundane affair, Jesus’ baptism is anything but. His baptism does not allow him to blend in with everybody else, but instead sends him into direct confrontation with them. Mark tells us that the people in the synagogue at Capernaum were “astounded,” but he doesn’t elaborate on what that means. It could mean that they were all terribly impressed, but it could also mean that they were simply terrified. When the man comes forward to confront Jesus, the question he asks is telling: “Have you come here to destroy us?” I’ve always kind of assumed “us” referred to all the unclean spirits and demons possessing people; but what if “us” was intended to refer to the synagogue, to their simple community and traditional worship?
It might be that the “unclean spirit” in the text is not a demon in the classical sense—an evil supernatural power—but that it is demonic in that it is opposed to God and to God’s reign. It might be that the unclean spirit is the sense of “the way we’ve always done it” that Jesus disturbed—that Jesus came in order to disturb—by following the call of his baptism and teaching about the reign of God.
We often read these biblical stories of demon possession as archaic stories of mental illness, assuming that ancient people were too superstitious and naive to identify what we can now easily explain. Reading the story in this way allows those of us who have decided that we are not mentally ill to let ourselves off the hook. It allows us to forget that we are ourselves unclean before God; that we, too, need God to exorcise from among us the attitudes and loyalties that keep us from joyfully following Jesus’ call to participate in the hope of the kingdom. It would appear that it is us, not the ancients, who are too superstitious and naive to grasp that the story is actually about all of us.
In any case, Jesus’ baptism drives him into direct—and noisy—confrontation with the good, church-going people of Capernaum. His teaching is controversial, but it is not crazy. It has authority; authority that cannot be denied when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10.34): there is no room in God’s kingdom for the demonic powers of the world and the human heart that are fundamentally opposed to God’s reign. Part of Jesus’ baptismal vocation is to confront and drive out those powers and to make way for God’s kingdom.
In the baptism we share with him, Jesus also calls us to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. Like Jesus, we also are called to exorcise the demonic powers that resist God’s reign of wholeness and healing. At first, we might imagine that we are called to be like Jesus, prophets going into synagogues and casting out demons, teaching with authority.
That sounds good on paper, but real life is a lot messier. The truth is we can’t just go around declaring what the will of God is because we just don’t know. We don’t need to look very hard to see that there are a lot of different Christian traditions in the world that teach a lot of different things. There are a lot of Christians who believe a lot of different things. The Church is divided on all kinds of issues ranging from the acceptance of LGBT people to gun control to abortion to care for creation. What clearly seems like God’s will to some appears evil and demonic to others. It is easy for us to begin to wonder who among us is speaking the words commanded by God and who is speaking a word that God has not commanded them to speak.
In the face of this ambiguity, it’s a lot easier to keep quiet, to leave the hard and often dangerous work of proclaiming the good news and striving for peace and justice to those who are called to be prophets. We’d rather not risk upsetting all the good, church-going people around us by saying something that might be unpopular. What this means in practice is that most of us keep silent while the loudest and brashest fight amongst themselves. What it means is that the same unclean spirit entraps us, causing us to wonder, “Has he come to destroy us?”
Christ has called each of us through baptism to be a part of God’s kingdom. God wants us to be proclaiming and striving, and as you may recall, God always gets what God wants; to resist Jesus’ call doesn’t lead to anything good. But we sometimes forget that Christ does not call us to do these things alone. We are also called to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, and to love and serve all people, following the example of Jesus. Part of fulfilling our baptismal calling is doing this work together. Like Jesus, that will lead us into controversy and confrontation. It may even mean some noisy showdowns in the middle of worship; but it also means that when we disagree with one another, we disagree not as enemies but as siblings, washed in the same baptism, members of the same community, each of us following the same Jesus.
God doesn’t call us first and foremost to be correct, but to be active. We may not always get it right the first time, but that is why we practice confession and forgiveness within this community God has given us so that we can learn and grow together into a fuller understanding of God’s will. We are mistaken when we think that salvation is an individual thing; God intends salvation to be communal. That means that all those different ideas and diverse perspectives that exist within the Church are not only acceptable but actually the way God wants it to be.
We need one another: left and right, extreme and moderate, loud and quiet, confident and doubtful, God calls us into community together so that we can push and pull one another, so that we can reign each other in and egg each other on. We are baptized into a community so that our community can shape us, and so that we can shape our community.
In our confrontations, in our disagreements and our conflicts, love is our starting point and our destination. We may know lots of things; we may know how right we are and how logical our own position is, but as St. Paul says, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. In love we are called to listen to one another, to talk together, to grow together. In love, we are all swept along together into the imminent and inexorable reign of God.
We will not always agree on what God is calling us to, but we are called to move forward; as Luther put it, we are called to sin boldly, and to trust even more boldly in Christ, that he will continue to cast out the unclean spirits that tell us not to rock the boat, to keep our heads down and keep quiet. As we continue to work for God’s kingdom, we do so in confidence, following where Christ calls us, repenting where we must, forgiving when we can, but always trusting that with Jesus at the head, we will end up right where God wants us to be.