Monday, February 02, 2009

does the church have integrity? (mark 1. 21-28)

Jesus enters the synagogue, on the sabbath, and he teaches. The place is important, and the day is important. He is in God’s place. This is God’s time. Capernaum was a small village in the Galilee; the ruins of the synagogue still stand today, you can walk on them, it is smaller than the size of our atrium. Jesus had been prophesied by John in the desert, Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan River; he has been tempted, and he withstands the trials of the wilderness; he announces the coming of God’s kingdom; he calls the first disciples.

In the past few weeks we have renewed our baptisms, and focused on the call of Jesus to his disciples; his word, to them and to us, is simple: follow me. Now we find Jesus in the synagogue teaching, and Mark tells us that he teaches as one with authority, and not like the scribes.

Authority is an important word. It is about the coming together of the role that we have in life---in our family, in our workplace, in the church---and the person that we are. It is also about the coming together of our words and our actions. In short, authority is about integrity. The scribes had the role of being teachers, but they had lost touch with the real meaning of the scripture. The scribes knew the words, but their actions did not embody those words. This can easily happen---I know the words of the scripture for today, even the original language in which they were written, but that doesn’t mean that I am ready to listen to them, or act on them. It is not accidental that a scribe passes by the man who fell among thieves in Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke 15.

Sometimes our actions do not embody our words. Years ago I witnessed one of the most memorable sermons in my life. It happened to be a children’s sermon. This morning, in between the two services, I am going to be teaching one of our Most important Sunday School classes: the fourth graders! Children grasp all of this, and they get it pretty quickly.

The minister had gathered a group of children together, and he began to speak to them. It went like this: “children, I have made an important decision. I saw the doctor this week, and I need to do something about my health. So I’m going on a diet”. Here he opens a big candy bar and takes a huge bite into, and begins to chew. He talks, whiles he’s eating. “If I don’t change my way of eating I’m going to be in trouble”. He takes another big bite. Then he says, “I’m going to limit my eating to fruits and vegetables, mostly, a little meat and no sweets”. Then another big bite!

Well, the children’s eyes are getting bigger at this point. He goes on: “I also need to tell you that I am growing stronger as a Christian too. This week I have been reading in the Bible about sharing, and I think sharing is what God wants all of us to do”. He takes another big bite, and finishes that candy bar. Then he opens another one, holds it there for a moment, and continues. “Sharing is what life is all about”…then he takes another big bite…”sharing what we have with others. Don’t you think sharing is important?” By now the kids are almost jumping off the floor.

“You’re not sharing”, a little girl said to him. And of course, she was right! In her own way she was saying, “your teaching has no authority”.

Authority does not come from degrees, or titles, or even achievements. Jesus had no formal education, no recognized title, nothing to claim for himself in the way of authority, except for one thing: his relationship with God. His authority came from God, and it was an authority that he used very sparingly: he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

In the synagogue, on the sabbath day, Jesus meets a man with an unclean spirit. It is not always true that the Holy Spirit is in the church and the unclean spirit is in the world. Sometimes the unclean spirit is in the church, and the Holy Spirit is at work in the world. Jesus encounters the unclean spirit in the form of a man who says to him, what do you want to do with us Jesus? You have come to destroy us! You are the Holy One of God!

From the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, there is a contest, a battle, a struggle, between the unclean spirit and the holy spirit.

The unclean spirit takes, the holy spirit gives.
The unclean spirit divides, the holy spirit unifies.
The unclean spirit confuses, the holy spirit reveals.
The unclean spirit discourages, the holy spirit encourages.

The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, to the unclean spirit, “come out…be silent”. At the beginning of the gospel, there is a recognition and naming of evil in the world. Jesus does not look away. Jesus does not avoid the unclean spirit. Jesus says, “come out…be silent.” I am wondering, in reading the gospel this week, how the church of Jesus might say, in our time, “come out…be silent” when we encounter the unclean spirits of our time.

We have not always done so well at this, and this in part is why the church does not always have great authority in our culture. We have not always recognized the unclean spirits, or called them to come out and be silent. At times we have supported unjust and inhumane systems. At times we have been silent, or we have looked the other way. Whether the unclean spirit has been racism or the holocaust, abortion or torture, discrimination against gays and lesbians or sexual trafficking of children, destruction of the environment or poisonous greed.

The church has not spoken to the unclean spirit and said “come out…be silent”. I am not talking about being politically expedient, or politically correct, or politically partisan. I am talking about the integrity of the gospel.

Where Jesus is, men and women are healed. Where Jesus is, relationships are restored. Where Jesus is, life flourishes. Where Jesus is, there is wholeness,. Where Jesus is, there is integrity. The church finds itself in a culture of unclean spirits, and sometimes the church itself is fully immersed in that culture.

Jesus speaks to the man with an unclean spirit and says, “come out”. And the unclean spirit comes out, “convulsing”, Mark says, “with a loud voice”. This is the trauma of being healed. This is the difficult process of being purged. It’s like we have been dragged out of the water, and we are struggling to breathe, our lungs have been polluted and the evil spirit/breath within us has filled us to the degree that it has to come out and it is painful.

Salvation is never easy. Something dies. The old passes away, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, the new has come. Salvation involves confession and repentance and change. The unclean spirit was right---Jesus had come to destroy something. But it was more in the spirit of a surgeon who removes something---a tumor---in order that the patient might live.

What is destroyed in us is everything that is opposed to God. Paul, writing to the Galatians (5. 19-23), describes this very well, as the works of the flesh: Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

As Greg Jones, the Dean of the Duke Divinity School has noted, we can almost hear Julie Andrews singing, “These are a few of my favorite things…”. In contrast to the works of the flesh—we might also call them the evil spirits—there are the fruit of the spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In the synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sabbath, there was a struggle between the unclean spirit and the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus. The good news is that the power of God, in Jesus Christ, is always greater than the evil powers of this world. And yet the great battle, good over evil, fruit of the spirit over works of the flesh, often takes place in small ways and in hidden places: we decide not to retaliate; we decide not to say something that is hurtful; we forgive; we speak the truth in love; we move on; we let something go; we extend compassion.

The people are amazed at what Jesus has done, and word gets out. He teaches with authority. What if word got out about Providence? What if we spoke with the voice of Jesus in calling out the evil spirits of our time? And what if we had the humility to recognize the evil spirits that live within us?

A world scorched by economic abuse yearns for transparency, a world jaded by religious pretense longs for authenticity, a world damaged by fractured relationships searches for reconciliation. This is not a time for positive thinking, sticking our heads in the sand, or living in denial. In the words of the Apostle Paul, it is a time to name the principalities and powers.

It is a time to acknowledge that we are, all of us, the man with the unclean spirit. We are all asking, if the gospel has really penetrated our hearts and minds, “Jesus, what do you want to do with us?”. And we must all confess with him, “I know who you are, Jesus, you have come to destroy us!”

Only when we ask that question—“Jesus, what do you want to do with us?”--and only when we make that confession---“I know who you are, Jesus, you have come to destroy us”, only then we will know that he is “The Holy One of God”, only then will the healing begin.

Only then will the church have integrity.


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