“They were all amazed, and they kept asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.'”
We preacher types use a lot of tools to understand the story of scripture. One that I turn to often is the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. It’s often referred to simply as “Kittel,” the name of the main editor. While I use a digital version now, I still remember the hard copy in the seminary library that took up half a shelf! Kittel says the core meaning of “exousia” in the New Testament, the word for “authority,” is to possess both the right and resources to command, control, or govern.
It’s a good reminder for those in positions of authority today. Your position may grant you the right to command, control, or govern, but if you don’t prove yourself to have the resources to do that work well you probably won’t be in that position for long. Clearly, that was never a struggle for Jesus.
Right out of the gate in his ministry, Jesus speaks and acts with a degree of authority that astounds and amazes the crowd in Capernaum’s synagogue. His teaching presses beyond the tradition that the scribes faithfully taught. His presence resonated with them in a way they weren’t used to. Even the unclean spirit that came to worship that day obeyed his command…
Wait a second… The unclean spirit that came to worship? What is that doing there? How often had it been coming? Had the person it possessed been in the synagogue each Sabbath? Was this a chance encounter? What was the person bearing the unclean spirit hoping for? Did everybody in town know? Was he just “funny old neighbor Joe with his unclean spirit,” or did he keep that part of his life hidden away? I’ve got some questions about all this in case you couldn’t tell.
Yet here it is. The unclean spirit that came to church, and it’s the first voice in Mark’s gospel to make a confession of Jesus’ true identity, “the Holy One of God!” It fears destruction, Jesus commands it into exile, the unclean spirit obeys.
I’m never quite sure how to wrap my head around possession and exorcism like that described in the story. I’ve never been witness to such a scene. Yet despite not seeing something so dramatic, I’ve never had to wonder why passages like Psalm 51 are so popular with its plea to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a right spirit within me!”
We all have a shadow side that we try to keep tucked away. We are all possessed by some pretty unclean spirits. Every time we gather for worship, we bring a little darkness to church with us.
For many of us, the knowledge of that uncleanliness brings a sense of shame that keeps us away from God’s people. The first church I served was in a wonderfully gritty and intimate urban neighborhood. Most days I got to have pretty honest conversations with people who had no illusions about the dark corners of their lives. People with serious felony convictions. People in violent biker gangs. People who sold their kid’s Ritalin for crack money. When I suggested they might want to consider checking out church they often responded with some variation of, “If I ever showed up the roof would collapse!”
I wonder just how many people believe that their lives are so draped in darkness that God could not bear them being in His presence? That God would rather send down lightning and cave in the building we call “The House Of The Lord,” than tolerate them being in it?
My response was always the same: “Where else are you going to go?”
Our first impulse in reading the story in Capernaum is to ask, “Why is an unclean spirit in worship?” The far better question is, “What would have happened if it hadn’t been?” That person who carried that unclean spirit would have carried it to his grave. That shadow would have continued to dominate his life. The darkness within him never would have been cast away if it hadn’t come to church and been exposed to the Light Of the World that came to set captives free.
The crowd was astounded by Jesus teaching. They were amazed to see that he had both the right and the resources to command the forces of darkness and restore a right spirit by his words. He made the impossible possible and brought light into the life of one of their own.
The darkness comes with us to church no matter how hard we try to pretend like it doesn’t. What would it look like to welcome it? To acknowledge and name it? To proclaim to those we know and love that church is a safe place to come with all the shadowy, unclean parts of our spirits? What if the message of God’s people was that there is no better space to bring your darkness than into the presence of the Light and Life of all people?