Our reading today comes from the beginning of Mark’s gospel. We will be dipping into this fast-moving account of Jesus’ life quit a lot this year. We find Jesus and some of the disciples in Capernaum on the northern shores of Lake Galilee. Capernaum was no rural back water. It was on the main road, the Via Marius or the ‘way of the sea’ as Isaiah had called it. Traders were always passing through between Mesopotamia and Damascus and the Mediterranean Sea ports and Egypt. There was also a recently imposed border just to the east between Galilee proper and Gaulanitis, a sort of Brexit. Capernaum had become the customs point where the tariffs on goods would be paid. It is possible that the fishermen disciples of Jesus had relocated there from Bethsaida, the other side of the border, to avoid paying tariffs on their fresh fish. Somethings never change!
Capernaum was a great place for Jesus to centre his ministry and engage with a range of people and cultures but central to his ministry was the Jewish synagogue. Come the sabbath, which for Jews then as now stretches between 6.00pm on Friday to 6.00pm on Saturday, Jesus goes along.
To get a feel for what happened next, we need to try to remember what going to church was like back in the day when you did not need to book, wear a mask or sit 2 metres away from anyone else. Imagine that you are in church for a normal Sunday service. All the regulars are there possibly one or two you’ve not seen before. Then in comes Jesus. How would you know it was Jesus? Well things things get edgy from the start.
We read that Jesus went into the synagogue and taught. We’re not used to a newcomer being invited up front to speak. You need to be coming at least ten years before you get to hand out the books! But it is the custom at a synagogue for any of the men to read from the scriptures and to teach.
When Jesus gets up, it’s the end of normal. There is astonishment. He teaches as one having authority…not like the scribes. The scribes were the regular turn. They were not priests involved in a sacramental ministry but were more like lay readers or chapel preachers. They were well versed in the old testament and traditional teachings which often laid heavy religious burdens upon people. Although we do not know what Jesus said here, it may have been about how the sabbath should be used, how cleanliness was not just about the outside of a person but inside as well and about marriage. In his own words, Jesus teaching was like new wine which needed to be put in new skins otherwise it would burst out of old ones. What people would have heard in the Capernaum synagogue was a message that was fresh and compelling in which they could hear the voice of God himself. Above all, it was delivered with authority. Jesus spoke for himself with out needing to quote someone famous to support what he was saying.
If the people thought they he was authoritative in the pulpit, what happened next blew the predictable gathering right out of the water. A man shouts out: ‘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.’ You can imagine the hubbub, the whispered conversations: ‘who’s that!’ ‘isn’t that Caleb the baker?’ ‘What’s got into him all of a sudden?’ ‘Has he gone mad?’ ‘There always was too much inbreeding in that family if you ask me!’
But writer has told us already what it was really about. The man had an unclean spirit. It was not the rational mind of the man speaking but the unclean spirit that inhabited him. Jesus deals with the situation immediately and authoritatively. He addresses the unclean spirit, not the man. ‘Come out of him!’ After a bit of a do and some more noise, out comes the spirit and calm is restored.
What are we to make of this instance? Some have wanted to say that the man suffered from some form of mental illness which explains his behaviour. This they say was misunderstood by the gospel writer as demon possession. It is certainly true that developments in medical science allow us to have a much better understanding of mental illness today than was available in the first century, but the gospels do make a distinction between Jesus exorcising as here and healing as elsewhere. Intellectually as a society, we tend to deny the existence of evil or unclean spirits and presences in people and things which other cultures are much more aware of. Under the surface however, many still know such spirits unclean or otherwise are very real in places and sometimes in people. The church still offers a ministry of exorcism when it is clear that medicine and prayer for healing are not the only answer.
The touch stone of this passage is the authority of Jesus Christ. That’s what disrupted the Capernaum synagogue service. That’s what the congregation were so amazed by. That’s what the unclean spirit recognised. That’s what our gospel writer Mark want’s his readers to understand. Over the next 14 chapters, we will see Jesus having authority over sin, over a storm at sea and even over death itself. Nothing stands in the way of his voice. It is the same voice, the same authority that ushered the universe into being.
And the authority of Jesus has not diminished with the centuries. It is the internet along which information is traded today in all parts of the globe, not a Roman highway. But just as Jesus started his ministry in Capernaum so that his authority could be talked about across the region, so he still speaks with authority through the communication channels of today.
As we consider our church life and how we interact with our fast-changing society, we do well to remember that our basic human needs and predicament have not significantly changed. We also do best when we recognise that Jesus has the ultimate authority and allow him to speak. He may not be physically in our pulpits or on our online worship, but it must be Christ who is heard to speak. That is why the bible must remain the first authority in the church because it points to Christ. The testimony and witness that it bears to his life and teaching must be the voice we hear and proclaim.
It is not the church or any slick methods and formulars that bring healing and wholeness to individuals or our communities and cast out the demons in our midst. It is Jesus, our risen and ascended Lord. When we pray believing prayers, we unleash that same authority of Christ. In the name of Jesus are powerful and awesome words.
The simple early creed of the church still stands: ‘Jesus is Lord’. May we live, pray, worship and witness in such a way that acknowledges and practices his Lordship over all that is seen and unseen.
Epiphany 4 31.01.2021