Mark 1: 21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. 27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
If you have friends and family, as I do, who say that they are spiritual but not religious, you may be at a loss for what to say. I have. But after some reflection, I wonder if this answer might be helpful: First, I’d overlook the implied put-down. Just let it go. Then I hope I would say, “Good for you. I am glad that you are spiritual.” Or rather, “I’m glad that you are in touch with the fact that you are spiritual. For are we not all spiritual? Being spiritual is part of what makes us human. The question is not if we are spiritual, but how.” For beware: the demoniac in today’s Gospel story, who goes ballistic in the presence of Jesus, is a very deeply spiritual person. He’s just spiritual in the worst sort of way.
By the word, “spiritual,” I mean that we are each like an iceberg. We know only a fraction of each other’s complete self. We hear each other’s words, and see each other’s body language and actions. But there’s a whole lot more of us underneath that is invisible and mysterious, even to ourselves. Yet there are ways in which those deep mysterious parts of ourselves touch the deep, mysterious parts of other people underneath the surface, like icebergs bumping into each other. Maybe they are even connected, like the peaks of a mountain range. Connected with others, and connected even more deeply to God. Those connections are what I mean when I talk about “being spiritual,” or “spirituality.”
Some of these deeper, mysterious spiritual connections are wonderful. Like when we worship, or pray together. Some of them can also be disturbing. Like when people suddenly unite to scapegoat a member of their family or their community. They don’t have to say anything; it just seems to happen.
So, to my spiritual but not religious friends, I say its wonderful that you have connected with your spirituality. But don’t assume that everything about spirituality is equally wonderful, as do the people who go on pilgrimages and retreats to all the “in” places, on junkets from Bali to Tibet to Santiago da Compostela in Spain to the Mayan pyramids in Mexico, with extra servings of Jewish Kabala, Sufi dancing and Native peyote rituals thrown in, all in quest of every possible spiritual experience.
Yes, such things are spiritual. But we wouldn’t trek into the Amazon jungle nor the Canadian Arctic without a guide, would we? Not without someone who knows both the delights and dangers, and all the trails that will take you where you wish to go, as well as those that won’t. Nor would we eat any old thing we found in the woods or along the trail, unless our guide did. Likewise, we must not enter the spiritual realm without a trustworthy guide.
Today’s gospel passage demonstrates three things about spirituality: 1) That there is an invisible spiritual dimension connecting us; 2) this invisible spiritual dimension can be good and bad; it can be dangerous as well as delightful, enslaving as well as freeing, deceptive as well as revealing (just like the material world); and 3) Jesus is our most trustworthy guide to this realm; he has both knowledge of the deep, hidden terrain, and ultimate power and authority in it. Follow him; stick close to him, do as he does, and not only will we survive as spiritual beings, we will thrive.
As a case in point: Jesus enters a synagogue and begins teaching. A very spiritual thing to do. Suddenly all hell breaks loose. A demonized man goes berzerk, Something—or someone– in him reacts in terror to the love, the light, the truth, goodness and holiness that Jesus radiates. That was a spiritual event too.
Lets put ourselves into the shoes of that audience in the synagogue, and the disciples who were with Jesus. What do you think would have been their first reaction to the demoniac’s outburst?
Mine would most likely have been fear. Fear like that of the demonized man. Fear is infectious. Its one of those under-the surface spiritual realities that pass among us even without words. No doubt, we should have a healthy fear of certain things, like worn out brakes or rattlesnakes. Jesus’ stern and strong response shows that he takes the situation seriously. But he does not panic and lose his head, as does the demonized man.
I’d like us to think about that for a moment. Especially in a day and age of escalating fear. So many liberals and conservatives fear each other. So do many Democrats and Republicans. Religious and non-religious, rich and poor, Muslim, Jew and Christian, native-born and immigrants fear each other at ever increasing levels. Fear in our world today has reached a feverish pitch that I would call “diabolical.” And fear is the devil’s favorite tool.
Fear is probably what got this poor man in the synagogue demonized. If his case is like others I have known and read about, his spiritual enslavement probably began with trauma and fear: fear of someone, someone to whom he felt vulnerable, or someone who had injured him, someone against whom he carried resentment, or nursed a grudge.
So he likely sought security and vengeance through power. Even spiritual power. I can see him lapping up all the arcane and occult religious knowledge he could find, seeking invisible weapons against others, or seeking tingly feelings of excitement, superiority and invulnerability to overcome his feelings of inferiority and powerlessness, like when people develop addictions to pornography, until he was addicted to all that was dark, rebellious, and dangerous. But like other addictions, it had the effect of taking over his life and isolating him from others, until he was caught in the spiritual equivalent of quicksand. And then he felt shame. But all his struggles against the addiction and the shame only drove him in deeper, until he was not alone in wondering, What has gotten into me? Or who?
He had lost control. If you’ve ever been around fearful, angry and reactive people who are out of control, whatever the cause, you know its hard not to lose it as well, to jump up and down, stamp your feet, scream and yell back at them. But Jesus’ antidote to this man’s entrapment was not to heap more shame on him, but love. Not fear in the face of fear, but love, confidence, authority and peace. Just when I’d be tempted to fight back or flee, Jesus takes responsibility. That’s what he’s modeling to his disciples, and teaching them: when all hell breaks loose, someone has to keep their heads about them and assert the peace of heaven. That’s what Jesus calls disciples for.
So, why do so many Christians come across as so fearful nowadays? In the book, UnChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, the authors write of how they surveyed many Americans as to what they think about Christians and the first word that come to many people’s minds is “anti.” They are anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-environmental, anti-this or that; if we’re for it, Christians are against it, is what so many people say.
To be fair, some of those fearful stereotypes are the fault of the media. Fear sells, so that’s what they focus on, often to the exclusion of the peacemakers. Yet there is some truth to the fearful, angry stereotypes. They don’t have to wait too long until a few self-professed Christians show up at the funerals of HIV/AIDS victims, Pride Parades or abortion clinics with posters that say, “Shame!” and even more hateful, hurtful things. It only takes a few such people to get us all tarred with the same brush. And that so deeply, deeply saddens me. It even angers me, because it witnesses to fear, not love.
For advancing the kingdom of God and arresting moral decline, fear is as effective as nagging someone to stop drinking while they are drunk. They’ll only pour themselves more drink to drown out the nagging. Or to provoke more nagging. And so two people are sick and addicted: one to drink and one to fear.
Yes, of course we have serious moral discernment to do about such matters. And No, we can’t just rubber-stamp the name of God onto everything that anyone calls “liberation”. But if “anti” is the first word that comes to many people’s minds when you say the word, “Christian,” you have to wonder, Why would any of Jesus’ disciples be so fearful? If we have the most powerful and authoritative guide to life in Jesus, Why would we be the ones stampeded by fear? Jesus demonstrates supreme and ultimate power and authority over the worst that hell could throw at him, including death. So whenever Jesus shows up, its hell that should be panicking and throwing a fit, like what happened in the synagogue of Capernaum.
But see how deceptive, devious and dangerous the dark side of the spiritual realm is: conning Jesus’ disciples into carrying their burden of fear. You gotta give it to them. Brilliant.
If we want to help a sick person get better, of course we take them to the doctor, to the pharmacist, visit them, and pray for them. After that, the best thing we can do for them is to attend to our own health. Like what Jesus and his first disciples were doing in that synagogue. Do such things, grow in grace and godliness, and you might find that your health is infectious. Other people may start to come round and get better too.
….. all hell might break loose. Some people may want what they see in you, and others may just hate-hate-hate it. Like the man in the synagogue. Jesus has just demonstrated that the spiritual life often involves spiritual combat. But often this combat is like jujitsu. The adversary attacks you and defeats himself. Evil comes rushing at you out of the shadows– it can’t help itself– and the light destroys it. That may be why church growth is so amazing now in China, why there are more Christians there than here. Because until recently, the corrupt Communist government was persecuting every Christian who dared to declare himself as such, and now the church is one of the few communities there with any moral standing.
For that reason, I’d much rather have people marching around churches with signs saying, “Shame” and even worse, than to have Christians doing that anywhere else. I doubt that that will happen. But something like it did happen during the Freedom Rides of the 1960’s. Inspired and led by the African American church, many black and white Americans overcame their fears and rode together on buses through southern states where it was illegal for them to sit together, or on the same bus. They had wonderful times together, and made wonderful friendships. They were also scared. But when you see the pictures of burning buses and riders at the hospital with cuts and bruises from beatings and stonings, you know who was really most afraid: not them, but the self-appointed enforcers of racial segregation. I hope I remember that the next time anyone goes ballistic around me: this may be scary for me, but they are obviously terrified.
Oh, and one more thing. Where do we usually do our housekeeping? At home, right? Later, Jesus would send his disciples out to preach the gospel, heal the sick and cast out demons. But for their introductory lesson in Deliverance Ministry 101, Jesus starts his class with James, Andrew, John and Simon Peter on home turf, in their home synagogue.
“Judgment begins with the house of God,” this same Simon Peter later wrote in his second letter. There’s a lot of hurt, bondage and fear within and among us Christians that needs a lot of love, healing and deliverance. We’re only human. No matter how much we grow and heal in this journey with Jesus, we must never forget that we are all in the same leaky boat with everyone else. That’s what it means to be spiritual. And that’s why the first deliverance in Mark’s Gospel happens in the disciples’ home synagogue, before Jesus takes it to the streets, even to Gentile territory.
To stay alive and healthy in a world that is both delightful and dangerous, we must again: 1) remember that what is unseen and spiritual is just as real and powerful as what is seen and material—for we are spiritual beings; 2) that we have to be as discerning about this invisible, spiritual realm as we are about the visible, material one, and; 3) Stick close to the One who has demonstrated his supreme power over everything that hell can throw at him, from fear to death itself. Its a jungle out there. Or in there. Or down there. Wherever. But follow Jesus and do like he does, and not only will we survive, we will thrive.
To him be the glory. Amen?