Can you imagine being James or John, Peter or Andrew? Jesus calls them out in Galilee and tells them to follow him, that he would make them fish for people (Mk. 1:16-20). Their call was part of our gospel lesson last week. The newly devoted disciples follow Jesus, and before long, they’re in the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is teaching, as one with authority.
Have you ever been in an experience like that before? Where you get on board with someone hook, line, and sinker? And then you find yourself in their company with others, watching from a different perspective how the one you’ve devoted yourself to is being judged, wondering how you yourself might be judged, too. Ever been in that kind of situation? Maybe you have a friend who is a seller of a particular product. It’s so good, and you’re all in. And then you find yourself in a situation with others, where now the one you’ve committed to is sharing their wares. Do you still have confidence in them, in the product? Of course you do! . . . if what you’ve experienced has been affirming. You have every reason to be proud of your relationship, of the product. Likely, you’ll share your positive experience with others in the crowd and support your friend.
If this example makes you feel uncomfortable, however, then likely you’ve had a negative experience, have felt like you’ve been suckered into some scheme and are none the richer for it. We know for a fact that there are Christians who have felt like they’ve been duped by the church because of negative experiences with those who have professed to teach with authority, in the name of Jesus, who have proclaimed salvation and unconditional love yet left folks high and dry when times got tough. Know anyone who’s been through that?
But Jesus isn’t into schemes, suckering people into blindly following his charisma and making large donations to fill the coffers. No, Jesus asks more because he knows there’s more to gain.
When Jesus tells his disciples to follow him, he invites their whole being. The disciples left their job, their families, their comfort to embark on the adventure of following one who in a glance seemed to know them completely. It’s soul-piercing to meet the gaze of one with whom we are willing to be known. And notice that Jesus doesn’t promise them a magic cure for anything. If they’d heard him before he called them, they heard his call to repentance, his proclamation that the kingdom of God has come near, the invitation to believe the good news. (That’s part of last week’s message, but I repeat it again because it is so important.) At the first meeting, he tells them that he will make them fish for people. And maybe that’s all they needed–something new and different, intriguing even. God knows when we’ve had it with the ordinary and mundane, we get a little haphazard in discerning what to do next (I believe impulse shopping would be a good example, right? Or shopping when we’re hungry, even if we don’t know what we’re hungry for?).
So the new disciples have followed Jesus to the synagogue in Capernaum, still in the northern area of the Sea of Galilee, and he’s teaching, “as one having authority, not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). Jesus isn’t a snake oil salesman. He’s the real deal. If the disciples can pull their eyes away from Jesus during his teaching to take a glance at their fellow audience members, they’d recognize the impact that Jesus is making. They can see it on the people’s faces, too, what theirs must look like when they’re talking with Jesus. What is more, they would have increased confidence in the one whom they’ve chosen to follow. Their experiences have been validated. It’s not to say that the scribes are snake oil salesmen, but what “authority” do they lack?
One might say that the scribes do not have the authority of authenticity of relationship with God. They seem to lack meaningful experience with the Almighty.
If I am talking to someone about the benefits of Medicaid, food stamps, or WIC when they are in hard times, how much more meaningful to them do you think it is that they know I have experience with those things, too? I know the relief of having childbirth expenses covered, the benefit of being able to purchase food when the budget is impossible, of being able to buy essentials for our young family, especially formula for a child. It is difficult to have authority if we have no experience with whatever it is about which we speak, teach, or proclaim.
Likewise, commending you to a life rooted in prayer would be foolish if I did not seek to do the same, if I did not practice drawing near to the presence of God, even–and especially–when it means wrestling through the difficult times. It doesn’t mean that God can’t speak to you despite my inadequacies: thankfully the power of God and insistence on Spirit is great. But how much more meaningful is it if we can be dedicated to our relationship with God together, in community, in common effort as we are in common prayer? How richer is our journey when we practice the ways of love together, with common purpose (being to have a deeper relationship with Christ)? Talk to me long enough, and we’ll get to specific moments when the presence of God has overwhelmed me. I can’t make you experience God, but I can share my own moments of fear and trembling or overwhelming peace.
Maybe the scribes had forgotten their meaningful experiences, had lost their way getting bogged down in rules and regulations, in administrative tasks and societal expectations. God knows the world can lead us astray, even if our work is in the church. But Jesus brings the Word to life. Jesus is a breath of fresh air to teaching that had become stagnant.
Not only is Jesus teaching with authority, but a man with an unclean spirit comes to Jesus. Apparently Jesus’ Word has spread even in the moment, reaching the ears of those who weren’t welcome. Our imaginations can go wild with this, can’t they? We might envision demon possession worthy of Hollywood, or, given the lack of scientific-based medical knowledge of the first century, we might envision someone with a mental illness. It is helpful to honor what is written for us– “a man with an unclean spirit” cries 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” (Mk 1:23-24). One who is unclean shouldn’t have been in the synagogue. Everyone else is probably keeping their distance from the outcast. But the unclean spirit speaks to Jesus, knowing where he comes from and of whom he is. Jesus tells it to be silent and tells it to come out of the poor man. The unclean spirit obeys. Jesus has passed a true test. He’s utterly amazed the crowd. His disciples are probably nudging their neighbors with a “See, I told ya.”
The healing becomes a testimony to the power of Jesus, and his fame spreads. But is fame what Jesus seeks? Jesus had told the unclean spirit to be silent. Why? Perhaps precisely because of what we’re told: his fame spreads. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Because then more people know and experience Jesus. But do they have understanding? Do they know what it means that Jesus is the Holy One of God? Jesus hasn’t been crucified yet, hasn’t risen from the dead. We just thought it was a test with the unclean spirit. Wait until Jesus himself is filled with all pain and suffering, when he gives his whole self for the will and glory of God. We read these texts with the whole scope of Jesus as Christ, too. But that revelation has not yet come for those who were meeting Jesus for the first time. But from the first, powers beyond our understanding and comprehension knew the Holy One of God, and they obeyed this one who taught with authority, with determination of purpose, with intent to reveal God’s will.
Anyone in a position of authority, with responsibility of power, is accountable not only to the ones who look to them but also to the one whom they follow. Our reading from Deuteronomy speaks to the responsibility of prophets and also of the accountability of others whether they heed the prophet or not. The letter to the Corinthians speaks to the importance of knowledge of the importance of our actions, especially for those who have a weaker understanding. Both affirm the primacy of the one true God.
For all of us, we, too, are accountable to one another and to God. As Christians, we’re still among the majority in the US (though just shy of 15% of the 70.6% of Christians as part of the Mainline Protestant tradition). When others are in our company, do they know we are Christian? Do they know we follow the Holy One of God? Almost 71% of this country is Christian, but children are hungry, people are sick, people are killed.
There’s a bill before our state legislature known as a “Stand Your Ground” law. There are those who would rather shoot first before they tried to avoid conflict. To be clear: I’m not arguing against the right to bear arms. I’m all for responsible gun ownership and safety, and I say that as someone who has been beside more than one body that has died by gunshot. I am arguing with what we as a people say is acceptable, especially people who profess faith in God. I am calling out the presence of an unclean spirit among us. Last night’s evening prayer reading from Mark, found later in Chapter 7, verses 21-22, gives us a litany of evils–among them is murder, theft, and pride. I’m no exorcist, and I know I can’t cast out evil on my own. But authority has been given me to share the Word of God, to teach and preach that others might know God through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and with this authority–however little it might be viewed in the eyes of our materialistic and capitalistic society–comes great responsibility because I fully believe I am accountable to God and to those who trust me.
Tomorrow I’ll be on a call with others speaking against the Stand Your Ground law. I’ll be on social media and talking among groups about our Community Debt Relief Campaign in the coming weeks and months. I’m in our Zoom meetings sharing in study and fellowship and on Facebook live sharing the Daily Office. But it’s not about me or what I do. I’m with you. I see the faces of you and others who are also amazed at the power of people who hope and strive to love radically like Jesus. And to you who might be questioning if this is the real deal, I invite you to walk with us as we seek to follow Christ, the Holy One of God, the true one with authority.