Epiphany 4 – January 31, 2021
Faith Lutheran Church
Grace to you all and peace from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.
One of my favorite parts of talking to families about baptism is when we get to talking about EXORCISM. That’s right–exorcism. Usually, when I first mention exorcism when preparing a family for a baptism, I see some “wide eyes.” I don’t know about you but when I think about baptism, the first words that come to mind are water, or baby, or forgiveness. Not exorcism. And yet, in light of todays’ gospel reading of Jesus in the temple and the joy of having a baptism as part of worship, it seems like the perfect time to engage with an identity of Jesus we often overlook–Jesus, the exorcist.
Now before we start thinking of Jesus as an exorcist, it can be helpful to consider what the role of exorcism was in the ancient near east.
Yes, Jesus was an exorcist, but that was but a part of his broader function as a healer. Throughout the gospels, Jesus engages with actions of healing: There was the paralyzed man whose friends carried him to Jesus on the mat; there was the woman with the hemorrhage that reached out and touched Jesus’ robe; there was the man in Bethsaida who was blind and saw people “as trees walking.”
This is just a small sample of Jesus’ healing actions in the Gospel of Mark–Throughout all four Gospels, Jesus’ work as a healer is present in many different forms. Yet a common thread is that in his ministry, he addressed the very real needs that people brought to him. And very often, those needs were embodied. That is, they had physical ailments, and he healed them physically. Just as is written in 1 John 3:18, Jesus did not only love in word or speech, but truth and action.
However, he was not the only healer of the day. There are in fact many other healers who were operating in the same time and area of the world. Especially influenced by the Greek healing temples, there were places where contemporary medicine and religion intertwined. There were other healers, such as Apollonius of Tyana and Hanina ben Dosa, Greek and Jewish miracle workers respectively. But Jesus was unique among all of these colleagues.
One of the biggest things that set Jesus apart from his contemporaries was the fact that he did not charge any fees.
While we live in a world where people with insurance have access to almost any medical care they could desire, the same was clearly not true in Jesus’ time. Without any social support, people who desired healing from many ailments would have to simply adapt to them, and live through them.
But as we heard in our Gospel last week, Jesus proclaimed that the dominion of God had arrived. That dominion of God was the transformation from the way that the world was into what the world could be. It was the inversion of systems that kept people from flourishing as God intended and it was an establishment of a new way of being.
Jesus’ healing was a way of enabling humanity to flourish. The interactions he had brought about changes in the healed people’s lives that enabled them to engage more fully with all those around them. The healing made it possible to participate fulling in their worship and family lives in ways that previously had been impossible. And Exorcism was a part of this healing activity.
Living in the world in a time after the scientific revolution and the enlightenment period, it can be easy to brush off any idea of what it might have meant to be possessed. Especially for people who have grown up in traditions and families where the supernatural and mysterious have been mostly avoided, even considering that a person could actually be possessed seems outlandish.
Yet, for those living in the times of Jesus, possession was not an outlandish thought, but a familiar reality. And possession could have been experienced in a positive manner–giving a person the ability to engage with the spirits beyond the physical, or in a negative manner that overtook a person and brought about pain and harm to a community.
The exorcisms that Jesus engaged with were experiences with this second types of possessions, which were perceived as having a negative impact on the individual and community. And this understanding leads us to Jesus’ engagement with the man possessed by the spirits in the temple in our Gospel reading.
“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.”
Jesus was a healer, and part of that identity was as an exorcist. In this scene in the synagogue, Jesus confronts this unclean spirit, and by the power of his voice commands that it leave the man it is possessing. The unclean spirit had recognized that Jesus, the Holy One of God, was bringing the dominion of God with him everywhere he went, and that meant that meant bringing freedom to the man who had been possessed. And so it is in our lives when there are unclean spirits or evil in the world that possess people and systems.
Now you might be asking yourself, “Why Pr. Ian, do you think of exorcism when you think of baptism? What possibly do they have to do with each other?” I am glad you were thinking that, because that is a question we should all be thinking.
Very plainly, baptism in some of its oldest forms included exorcism as part of the sacramental rite. Even to this day, our Roman Catholic siblings continue to include a very explicit exorcism in their baptismal order. In fact, the current Roman catechism says that “Since Baptism signifies liberation from sin and from its instigator the devil, one or more exorcisms are pronounced over the candidate.”
And, dear people, as Christians who are spiritual descendants of the Roman church, we too still include the remnants of exorcism in OUR baptisms. When we partake in the renunciations, saying that we renounce “the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin that draw us away from God.” We are following the example of Jesus renouncing this unclean spirit in the temple in Capernaum.
And while it may seem that Jesus in this scene in the temple was only rebuking a single spirit, he was truly setting an example for how any evil spirit that possessed humanity should be dealt with. He demonstrated the liberation of humanity from any evil that should seek to possess it.
In our world and in our lives, being able to name and rebuke the evil that possesses individuals and institutions is a necessary yet challenging task.
In his life and ministry, we acknowledge that Jesus–as one who named the evil in the world and sought to work to being about a new reality–was seen as being a revolutionary. Through actions, including exorcism, he worried the people who maintained power. James Cone, the most prolific Black theologian of the twentieth century wrote that Jesus’ work of exorcism “disclosed that God in Jesus has brought liberation to the poor and the wretched of the land, and that liberation is none other than the overthrow of everything that is against the fulfillment of their humanity.”
There are many ways in which we can recognize those powers of evil that work counter to the fulfillment of the poor and wretches’ humanity. There are the evils of war, poverty and racism that Dr. King named in the 1960s that are still as relevant and recognizable today as they were 60 years ago. As people of faith, following the example of Jesus, we have a common call to renounce these evils. And like the man who was possessed in the temple, it likely won’t be an easy or smooth experience when we do this. Likely there will crying out with a loud voice and convulsing, or other shocking responses. It is a challenge to encounter the evil that dwells within oneself and then to separate that from a person’s core humanity.
But the good news, the news that enables us to do this challenging work, to name and exorcise the evil that is within ourselves and the systems we engage with is that we do not engage in these labors on our own. Now, we do this work in the community of all the baptized. I encourage you to pay close attention to the words of the baptismal liturgy as we join together and say
“We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share:
join us in giving thanks and praise to God
and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.”
As we continue to gather around this fount and this table, we do so in a community that bear’s god’s creative and redeeming Word to all the world. This is a Word that engages with the evil that can occupy, can possess us and the systems we love–and it can transform them -it can exorcise them- to reflect the fulfillment of humanity that we are all called to participate in. Amen.