1 Corinthians 8:1-13
The story today is pretty simple. Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue in Capernaum, which is Simon Peter's hometown, and he teaches in the synagogue. In those days people would be invited to read the passage appointed for that day, and comment on it. The people were amazed at how Jesus taught. It was a different style. He taught with authority.
The difference to other stories about Jesus teaching in a synagogue is that the story is followed almost immediately by the casting out of an unclean spirit. In fact, the casting out the unclean spirit takes up more of the story that the fact that Jesus taught.
It is interesting that the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is, and is afraid, whereas the people around Jesus notice that there is something special but they miss his power. This is pretty important. It is a theme in Mark. Jesus often tells spirits not to say who he is. It is a puzzlement.
I read this week an amazing observation about his story which increased my understanding of just how subtle and insightful a teacher Mark the evangelist can be.
The fact that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, and the fact that an unclean spirit was cast out of this man, are not unrelated. They are two sides of the same coin. Jesus' authoritative teaching can free us from the powers that grip us, cause us pain and fear, keep us from loving God with our whole heart, keep us from loving our neighbor as ourselves, and rob us of our true joy.
The most powerful destructive powers in our lives are ideas and thoughts that take up residence in our minds and control our lives. Mark is telling us that the teachings of Jesus can free us from these things.
But it is even more subtle than this. These destructive powers that take up residence in our minds and control us know they are false, but they deceive us. They know Jesus for who he is, but they try to convince us that Jesus is not the one who can help us.
These makes complete sense to me because I have learned some of the philosophy of 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Al-Anon.
In these groups the only way to address addiction to some substance or compulsive behavior is to maintain clarity. Many people turn to alcohol, or drugs, or food to avoid the pain in their lives. The alcohol, drugs, food, sex whatever help them check out, take a break from all that they find hard in life. The obvious thing is that on an occasional basis taking a break from our hurts, fears and challenges can be a blessing. But when we turn to these escapes more than we actually live it begins to destroy our lives, our careers, our relationships, our spiritual life.
People begin to say I need this drink, I need this "toke", I need this piece of cake in order to feel better. They say I will stop tomorrow. Or I can stop anytime I want to. These destructive powers are powerful and take hold often because they are half-truths. But when confronted with the whole truth their folly is not hard to understand.
Addiction is an unclean spirit, it is a destructive power that can take possession of one's life.
The wisdom of the twelve steps is that by constantly confronting this with the truth, and by claiming the willingness to act on it, a person can receive the power from above to live one's life and abstain from the compulsive at or additive substance.
It is called clarity. In religious tradition it is called wisdom. In spirituality it is called awareness.
Our Christian insight is that this lack of clarity does not just affect people who have addiction or compulsive behaviors. We all have destructive ideas which take possession of our minds, and we are often unaware just how much they have taken hold in us. They fool us because there is some small element in them that is true or attractive, and so we do not dig dipper, encounter the whole truth.
There are people who say they are not religious. But I do not agree with them. They think that religion is about belief in a God. I do not agree. Religion is the way you practice your philosophy of life in your everyday existence. All of us have ideas about our world and our lives, we all have a philosophy of life, even though we may not know it. And that philosophy of life causes us to make choices every day.
Jesus who teaches with authority wants us to have a philosophy of life that is life giving, satisfying, healthy, wholesome, joyful, blessed. He wants to cast out of us the destructive ideas that take possession of us and keep us from having this type of life.
In my life as a Christian, but essentially in my ministry, I have met many of these destructive ideas that take over people's lives. Each and every one of them have been operative in my life and I have to constantly feed on the teaching of Jesus and ask God to keep them at bay. I will list some here to help explain what I mean, even though each of these is probably worth a sermon in its own right.
One of the most destructive idea people have is that they are not important, or that they have no worth. They forget that God loves them and could not imagine the world without them. They want to hide from God or others, or are afraid that if they are truly known they will not be valued. They forget that they have qualities and gifts that will make the world a better place if they will only truly love themselves and live in this world with joy. We are often tempted to think that because our life is not the way we would prefer it, that it is not wonderful. We often miss out on the blessings in our life because we are constantly wishing we had other ones.
Another very destructive idea I see people have is that they thing that they are a good person. THey think, "Sure, I'm not perfect, but I am not really awful like other people." This thought is destructive because it stops us from looking deeper. All of us have much to learn in the art of love, and all of us cause hurt to people around us through either action or inaction. All of us have growing edges. When we start to think that we have nothing to confess to God and to ask for forgiveness it is very destructive. When we begin to think we are okay we begin to judge others and this is very dangerous. When we stop scrutinizing our life we open ourselves to all sorts of spiritual danger.
A third destructive idea that I think people have is that they believe they are okay if they just take care of themselves and try not to harm anyone. This idea causes us to miss out on the greatest blessing in life which is to be in generous relationships with others and to discover our gifts that can be used to honor God and serve our neighbor. It is an idea we get from the rabid individualism of our culture. This is why many people believe they do not need to go to a worshiping community. They do not realize that in a community we help one another. Sometimes I am the one being helped, sometimes I am the one helping, and very often just by being with each other we are helping each other. If we simply seek to do no harm, the awful consequence is we also do not good, and do not have the joy of generosity.
Our collect today asks God to grant us his peace. May we listen to the teachings of Jesus in scripture and tradition, and allow it to bring us spiritual clarity and wisdom. May Christ free us from the destructive ideas, the unlearn spirits, that hold us back spiritually. May Christ make us eager to grow in love for God and one another, receiving from him the power to live lives that give him honor and bring us peace.