Claim Your Authority
Scripture: Mark 1:21-28
Title: Claim Your Authority
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
It is Sunday morning and there are somethings that you can expect from church on Sunday mornings. Children can expect to come to church to learn the stories of Jesus, learn and rehearse songs for their upcoming musical with Erin. They can get excited thinking about how to challenge the pastor leading Conversation with Children. Some youths expect to catch up on their sleep during service since they had to wake up “too early” to come to church. 😉
On Sundays, you can expect to hear inspirational music prepared by Gretchen, Grace, and the choir; Henry to give a thoughtful sermon; hear some announcements about programs and news of friends needing our prayers. You can expect to be recharged to go back out into the world to serve the Lord! Sure, there are various programs and activities that changes from Sunday to Sunday, like today, we have the New Member’s Conference and next week we will have the Wellness workshop learning about the Medical Impacts of Stress, but for the most part, you know what to expect in church on Sundays. There is a certain comfort to expectations, rituals, rhythm associated with church on Sunday mornings.
So, imagine, coming to church on Sunday morning, with all your expectations in tote. The door is open, the lights are on, the coffee is in the pot. Music is being played and the worship service begins and continues as you expected. Then, something completely unexpected happens. An Exorcism in worship!
This passage reminded me of a church interview I once had. The interviewer asked how I felt about performing exorcisms. They were not pleased with their previous pastor’s lack of enthusiasm in performing exorcisms and wanted to make sure that their next pastor would be different. Yes, this was a PCUSA church. No, they did not call me back.
It was the Sabbath, so they went to synagogue. They were: Simon, Andrew, James, and John, who had been invited to go fish for people with Jesus. They expected to recite the liturgy, listen to the rabbi read and teach from the Torah, sing some doxology, then go home to a feast day meal at noon. Nothing less, nothing more, but a good old traditional Sabbath worship.
Except, on this Sabbath, something unexpected happened. A young man by the name of Jesus from the Nazareth region was there as a guest teacher that day. The majority of the folks gathered there did not know who this Jesus was; he was neither a member nor a regular guest of this synagogue. Those who were there probably did not expect anything out of the ordinary. However, when Jesus started to preach and teach, people could not help but to pay attention. It was not just that he was articulate, but that he had this presence about him. Even the youths who had been dozing off woke up and began to listen. He had an authoritative presence, without the usual air of self-importance or arrogance accompanied by such sense of presence.
Then all of sudden, a man, clearly not in his right mind, possessed with some unclean spirit came towards Jesus shouting at the top of his lungs, “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH US, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
Right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching – people are confronted with the question of Jesus identity and purpose: Jesus of Nazareth – Holy One of God, here to destroy all unclean spirits.
Jesus responded to the disruption by rebuking the spirit within the man, “Be quiet and come out of him!” Then the unclean spirit started convulsing the man and came out of the man with loud crying. You do not see that every week at a synagogue! Not surprisingly, everyone who witnessed this were amazed at Jesus’ authority in his teachings and his authority over the “unclean spirit.” At once, Jesus was making headlines in people’s gossips throughout the region.
Sure, exorcism will get people talking. But Jesus’ miracle of casting out the unclean spirit was not the only thing people were talking about. It was Jesus’ authority – not only in casting the unclean spirit out of the man, but in his teachings. Mark does not necessarily draw the people’s focus on the miracles by itself, but rather what the miracle teaches or reveals about Jesus. Mark is intentional and deliberate in presenting Jesus’ teaching as having authority even before the miracle of an exorcism is performed. The miracles in Mark functions to strengthen Jesus authoritative teachings, so that the readers can take seriously the teachings of Jesus Christ to learn from his teachings. Along that line, Marks wants us to go beyond “amazement,” because being amazed is not the same thing as believing in Jesus and following Jesus’ teachings. If you watch any of the TED Talks, you will find that there are many people who are doing amazing things in a variety of fields, science, technology, art, and more. I am amazed by brilliance and creativity of many different folks, but I do not place my faith in them or follow them. With Jesus, we are being invited to believe and follow in his teachings, to claim for ourselves the authority inherent in the truth Jesus has to offer.
What is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, his ministry? What is the good news?
At the heart of Jesus’ teachings and healing miracles, is restoration. The good news is that Jesus Christ restores us to our true self; restores our relationship with each other; and restores our relationship with God.
Jesus restored the man back to himself, by driving out the spirit that possessed him. The man is able to claim his own life and live in freedom. We are not comfortable with words like “unclean spirit” or “possessed,” but we, too, suffer from having unclean spirit within us that keeps us from claiming our identity as the beloved of God, bearing God’s image.
John Fairless stated it in this way, “ Alexander Solzhenitzen said something to the effect that, “the line between good and evil does not go between countries or empires or religions or political systems. The line between good and evil goes right down the middle of every human heart.” Jesus comes to remove the unclean spirits from all of us, to attack that line that goes down the middle of our hearts. Like the man with the unclean spirit, we often wish the holy would leave us alone to live lives of selfishness, materialism and devotion to the pleasures of the flesh.”
This statement is particularly powerful, because we are a culture that is quick to point the finger of judgment, drawing a clear line between good and evil that is out there, outside of ourselves. Jesus has the power to reveal that which hold us hostage inside and frees us! This is indeed good news.
According to the traditional law, this man and others like him were excluded from taking part in the life of the community. The strict divisions between what was clean and unclean meant that he was not welcomed. Of course we would not categorized people as “clean” or “unclean,” but we see this play out in different ways with different labels today. Jesus broke down that barrier once and for all on the cross. Jesus welcomed all people to receive God’s mercy and love. We may try to define in human terms what is acceptable to God and try to put up divisions according to our particular political, social, religious, ethical, racial, sexual, gendered, or economical perspective. Yet, Jesus’ authority overcomes all barriers. Jesus breaks false boundaries to connect us to each other.
God’s commandments were given and established to create a healthy, faithful community. However, the laws have been mis-interpreted and mis-understood to create barriers in the community over the years. Jesus was harsh in his criticisms of those who kept the law for tradition sake, and openly called out those who benefited from the broken system. Jesus challenged the belief system that focused on keeping the law for tradition sake. He reinterpreted the laws and retaught the nature of God’s kingdom in terms that were simple and relatable. “The kingdom of heaven is like this…like a sower who went out to sow…like a mustard seed…like a shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep” Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is seen in our daily life, in the way we live and the way we treat one another.
Throughout the Gospels, the religious leaders confronted and accused Jesus for breaking their traditional laws, setting bad examples by hanging out with the sinners, welcoming them to fellowship with him. Jesus used those opportunities to teach the purpose of God’s law – which is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. God is not someone who is happy with our right doctrines or traditions, but our right hearts that desire to seek God’s will for our lives, practicing compassion and mercy that we have received from God.
We are reminded through today’s lesson that Jesus teachings restores us to claim our humanity in ourselves, in the community, and in God. More than that, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus, we have been given similar authority to bring this good news to others. The resurrected Jesus commanded his followers ,“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20).
We can accomplish and bear witnesses to amazing transformations when we claim our God given authority to preach the Gospel of restoration. Father Boyle did and does just that. Gregory Boyle is an ordained Jesuit priest, who founded Homeboy Industries, located in downtown Los Angeles. In 1986, he was appointed pastor of Dolores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East LA. At the time, Dolores Mission was the poorest Catholic parish in the city, located between two large public housing projects with the highest concentration of gang activity in Los Angeles. There, he witnessed the devastating impact of gang violence on his community during what he has called “the decade of death.” The law enforcement and the criminal justice system was not successful, only using mass incarceration as the means to end gang violence. Having buried too many young people to gang violence, Father Boyle and his community decided to adopt a radical approach: treating gang members as human beings. Instead of labeling them as “unclean” or “dangerous” or “hopeless” or whatever label we normally put on gang members, Father Boyle helped them to restore their identity as beloved children of God. Father Boyle claimed his authority to accept these gang members, treat them as human beings, restore them to themselves, and restore them to the community. His establishment of alternative school and day care program, expanded to establish a business enterprise called Homeboy Bakery. The success of Homeboy Bakery created the groundwork for additional social enterprise businesses, leading Jobs for a Future in 2001 to become an independent nonprofit organization, Homeboy Industries. Today, Homeboy Industries employs and trains former gang members in a range of social enterprises, as well as provides critical services to 15,000 men and women who walk through its doors every year seeking a better life.
Sergio who was arrested at nine, in a gang by twelve, now works with the substance abuse team at Homeboy to help others find sobriety. Jamal who was abandoned by his family and his schizophrenic mother, found a way to forgive his mother. Homeboy Industries embodies the teachings of Jesus Christ – choosing to practice radical love Christ has shown us. Friends, Jesus calls and invites us to join him in claiming our authority – to bring good news – the good news of restoration – to free the captives, feed the hungry, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, give voice to the powerless, to proclaim God’s restorative power for all people. Let us be attentive and creative in responding to that call God has places on our hearts. Amen.