Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 31 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

It all moves so quickly, in the opening chapter of Mark. Jesus appears, apparently from nowhere, a man with no history, asking to be baptized. He is driven into the wilderness, he comes back from the wilderness, he tells some fishermen to follow him, and they drop everything on the spot. Then they are in Capernaum, and just as suddenly he goes into the synagogue and starts teaching. In one of Mark’s typically bold narrative moves, we aren’t even told the content of the preaching—it seems not to matter. It is something about the nature of the preacher himself which people notice, something they have difficulty putting into words. But the word they do reach for is an important one— exousia, translated here as “authority”, which is not incorrect, but it also means something much deeper. It is rooted in words which express freedom, capacity, possibility, the ability to choose—and it hints, if only accidentally, at something to do with identity, with the strength which comes from a profound selfhood. The exousia of Jesus is something which flows from the freedom of the realized self. To say that Jesus is not only fully human but the one fully human person we have known is also to say that he is both God in flesh, and the human creature unimprisoned by the cages which hold us, the one to whom the full range of human possibility is available. The one who chooses freely how he moves through this world, whose authority, whose strength, is not about domination but about liberation.

Of course, the authority which Jesus holds does not come without a cost, and as we move through Mark’s gospel, we will begin to learn what it is. We will see Jesus rejected by his own people, surrounded by a conspiracy of power, and finally killed. The strength, the authority, of Jesus comes finally not from anything this world can imagine as strength, but rather from utter weakness, absolute surrender. Jesus has authority over the unclean spirits of the world only because of his acceptance of suffering, of loss, because of his full and voluntary self-emptying in death. His freedom lies in this, in perfect openness to the world’s own pain.

But right now, in Capernaum, immediately—which is, by the way, Mark’s favourite word—a man imprisoned forces himself onto the scene. Whatever demon holds this man, he is in a state of absolute lack of freedom, lack of capacity, lack of possibility or real personhood. A man controlled, suffering, tormented. A man in deep trouble. This enigmatic teacher approaches him—and the evil spirit calls Jesus by name, identifies him as holy, as “of God”. It will be a long time, in Mark’s gospel, before anyone else comes as close as this unclean spirit to knowing who Jesus is. The mysterious charismatic figure is recognized for the first time—not fully recognized, not yet, but identified and named—and he is recognized first by sickness, by affliction. Affliction calls him by name. And things begin to change.

“What have you to do with us?” asks the demon which holds the man imprisoned; and the answer is both nothing and everything. The exousia, the full free personhood, of Jesus, is the precise opposite of this man’s affliction, and is also the one thing which can effortlessly counter it. So the strange and instant recognition has, I think, two sides. It is the voice of imprisonment, of limit, the voice of the iron bars of our inner jails, seeing the enemy who can break them down. And it is also the voice of affliction, of the person imprisoned, the man tormented and bound, seeing the thin edge of a possible escape, the hint of a new way of being.

In our own afflictions, we see these things, and we speak in both these voices. We are people afflicted—all of us, to some degree, especially now. Illness and the fear of illness, structures which cast risk disporportionately onto the poor and racialized, a future uncertain and impossible to plan for, with news one minute of vaccines, and the next minute of mutations which may evade them before we have time to react. This is the real and unavoidable context of our lives now, grief and anxiety our companions, isolation an ongoing fact. But we are also bound by chains of our own making. Maybe bound by a need to try to control the unpredictable situation by maximizing our safety and well-being at the expense of others; or willfully denying it and endangering the most vulnerable. Maybe trapped in confusion, or anger, or despair; maybe turning to damaging routes of distraction or escape; maybe just numb, and tired, and able only to stare blankly at the world. These demons hold us, and we both long for rescue, and cling to our chains.

And our escape is only through our identification with that life which is lived as perfect gift. Such strength as we may have will not be about jaw-gritting self-reliance or heroic independence. True authority, true freedom, our own exousia, doesn’t come from that kind of power any more than it comes from violence or coercion or material possession. It is a connected and vulnerable liberty, which acknowledges our absolute need of God and of human relationship, and makes no real separation between them. We begin to break free of our fears, not by denying or defeating them, but by accepting our weakness. In our affliction, acknowledged and known, we recognize the life which comes to free us. And we learn, little by little, as we can, to offer life and love in return to the affliction of the other.

Exorcism, of course, was fairly common in the world Jesus inhabited. That someone would cast out an evil spirit was not, in itself, remarkable. What is remarkable about this incident is how brief it is, how simple, how almost quiet. Most exorcisms required rituals, dramatic actions, loud appeals to God or the gods, required obvious struggle. There is none of that here. Against the drama of the demons, Jesus stands still, and speaks a few words, and it is all over. The strength which is freedom does not need drama or noise, does not need to struggle against the empty power of captivity. The work of liberation is a few words only.

It is this, this vulnerable human thing, which can begin to undermine the empire of the powers and of the unclean spirits, which can go out into the world and restore and heal, can call on us to repent, to turn, to re-order our priorities away from the powers of the world. Real identity and real authority, helpless, self-giving, needy and alive, giving life. As simple, as quiet, as a few words spoken by a human voice. For freedom Christ has set us free—a costly freedom, but one in which we begin to find our selves made real.

It is a small version of this freedom which Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthians today; apparently, some of the Corinthians, thinking not unreasonably that, since idols are essentially empty imaginings, there is no reason to avoid food which has been offered to pagan idols at the great festivals, the surplus of which has then been returned to the marketplace (which was, by the way, almost the only way that people of the lower classes were ever able to eat meat). And they are not wrong, necessarily, and Paul does not say that they are wrong. But he does ask them to be mindful of how they are affecting people around them; to hold their freedom in relationship, to be willingly constrained by the needs, even perhaps the irrational needs, of those with whom they are in community.

These are not precisely our dilemmas, but the principle remains. We must reach into and through our affliction towards healing and freedom; we are made for this, for liberation, for the capacity to live and grow, to move in the world as free and realized selves. But it is a freedom which remains open to the other, which will offer itself gladly for the sake of another’s pain, which is bounded by love, as our most meaningful human loves both free us and bind us. It is never a selfish or isolated freedom, but the freedom which devotes itself to playing our own small part in the liberation of the whole creation.