"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Breaking the Power of Evil

          One of the most heated dinner-table conversations that I ever had with my teenage children was over the reality of Evil. “We know that people do bad things,” they asked me, “but is Evil really some objective power out there?” “Isn’t it just an absence of good?” “Can’t it just be explained away with psychology or historical analysis?” “If there’s no little red Devil with horns running around, come on, Mom, why talk about Evil with a capital E?”
          Their challenge made me think, yet I kept coming back to the language of our Prayer Book. Before baptism, we renounce not just our own waywardness but also “Satan, and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Are these powers and principalities merely outmoded imagery? If so, what do we do with Jesus the exorcist in today’s Gospel? Is the man with the unclean spirit really possessed, or is he just mentally ill, or perhaps someone with a misunderstood case of epilepsy?
Maybe that’s it… I understand medicine, psychology, and sociology. But deep-down in my heart I still have trouble letting go of the living character of the evil that I have myself encountered in this world. I’ve led a pretty sheltered life. I haven’t been in concentration camps, or wars, or third-world countries. Yet I have seen the creatures of God bound and shackled by powers that seem to have a life of their own. I’ll never forget, for example, walking away from my beautiful Gothic campus of higher learning at Sewanee, going through the woods and down a dirt path to the settlement of shacks, without heat or indoor plumbing, that sat less than a mile from my academic paradise. I’ll never forget looking into the innocent, intelligent blue eyes of three-year-old Jenny, a little girl at the Headstart Center there, and knowing with a chilling certainty that their brightness would soon cloud over with the despair born of a life in those shacks, those shacks right on my doorstep. Weren’t the chains that bound us each to our separate worlds an evil power that destroys the creatures of God?
And what about the sweet, frail lady that I would visit at Baptist East when I did my pastoral care training, the one whose entire family and all of her friends were dead or gone? Entirely alone in the world, poor, wasting away with disease, in pain—she would lie there week after week, knowing that she would either die alone or return alone to an anonymous nursing home bed. Weren’t the complex chains that bound her to her solitude and sickness an evil power that destroys the creatures of God?
And what about the brilliant man with the mental illness? Young, full of talents and possibilities, he was crippled in his prime by a dragon of despair that latched hold of his mind and spirit and would not let go, dragging him through dark, frightening places that no beloved child of God should have to see. Isn’t the combination of his mental illness and our world’s reaction to it a power that destroys the creatures of God?
I could go on and on. All of the myriad variations of our bondage to sin and death are powerful forces beyond our control, powerful forces worthy of the name of Satan, which really just means, “the Adversary:” the Adversary of the goodness and wholeness that God intends for creation. The reality of these powers among us is why Mark has Jesus confronting them at the very beginning of his ministry. “What have you to do with us?” the demoniac shouts at Jesus. “Why are you interfering with us?” he cries. In this one man, Jesus confronts the plurality of the powers of evil: sickness, sin, and death. In Jesus, the Holy One of God, filled with God’s Holy Spirit at his baptism, utters words that send the evil powers into a tailspin. They recognize right away that Jesus has come to destroy them, that Jesus’ words and deeds usher in God’s Kingdom, crushing their hold on the world. Hearing Jesus, they know that they are defeated. Jesus’ teaching is special not because he gives a more interesting sermon than the scribes. It is special because his words really shake up the balance of power in this world. Mark begins and ends our passage by commenting on Jesus’ “authority.” In the synagogue, Jesus teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” And after the exorcism, the crowds murmur, “A new teaching—with authority.” Authority here means the sovereign power of God, the power that creates out of nothing, the power of God in nature and in the spiritual world. It is a life-giving, liberating power, a power that makes whole. Beginning here in Capernaum with the very first acts of his ministry, liberating power pours from Jesus’ words and deeds. This is Good News!
Of course, I can hear my children’s response: “Well, Mom, if Jesus’ words have freed us from the powers of sin and death, then why are you still talking about Evil?” It is important to note that, in our Gospel story, we have the dawning of the Kingdom of God, and no one is catching on but the unclean spirits. The powers of evil recognize God in Jesus and shake in their boots, yet the crowds scratch their heads in wonder, asking one another, “What is this?” and spreading only the sensational news about the next up-and-coming exorcist in town. We, Mark’s readers, know what is going on in this story, because we live on the other side of Easter. We know about Jesus’ saving death and mighty resurrection, and we read this story and nod, “Of course God is present in Jesus. See—God’s Kingdom is dawning in Jesus’ words and works.” But not so for the Jews in that synagogue in Capernaum, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Here they were in an occupied land, weighed down by a corrupt political and religious establishment and struggling with disease and poverty. How are they to recognize that the strange, healing words of a young, dusty new teacher from Nazareth will inaugurate the Kingdom of God?
Today, we can easily see what is happening in Mark’s story, but we don’t do any better than the Capernaum crowd when it comes to recognizing God’s power in our own world, or in responding to it. We are an Easter people, yet we still look out of the window on a cold, rainy January day and see bare branches and gray sky rather than the buds and warm breezes soon to come.
We do not see Jesus’ power around us because we are looking in the wrong places. Rather than providing the kinds of worldly freedom of which we dream and for which we scheme, Jesus’ liberating authority actually causes controversy and forces us to abandon the guarantees that we seek in this world. It confuses what is seen as clean and unclean; it turns established structures upside down; it makes impossible demands. Jesus’ authority scandalizes not only the demons but also the other human secular and religious powers around Jesus, who are so threatened and disoriented by his strange authority that they condemn him to die on the Cross. In the end, God’s power conquers the power of sin and death by giving itself over to them.
We need to remember what kind of strange power God exerts in this world—not just so that we can feel comforted that someday everything will be OK, which it will—but because, as Christians, we are expected to exercise the same kind of power ourselves. Paul makes this clear to the Corinthian Christians in today’s Epistle. In Corinth, Christians don’t agree any more than we do how to live in the murky “already” but “not yet” of God’s Kingdom. Some Christians feel comfortable with a gospel of liberty that frees them from all dietary restrictions. Other Christians worry about scrupulously following directions and are less sure of their right just to decide things for themselves, fearing a slippery slope into chaos. (Sounds like some contemporary moral debates to me!) Paul warns the feuding Corinthian Christians about their use of power in their dealings with one another. He cautions them about how they wield the liberating authority that they have each received in Christ. Liberating power in Christ is slavery to Christ, says Paul, so that in the Christian life we all become responsible for one another. Christian responsibility is not a question of proving who is right and who is wrong, but of building up the community in love.
Evil is a power, I think, just like Love is a power. We can sense both of them swirling around us in the abstract, but they touch our lives in concrete ways. Christ has already set me free from sin and death. He has freed me to change my lifestyle in order to alleviate the poverty enslaving little Jenny at the Sewanee Headstart center; he has freed me to spend my leisure time visiting the lonely lady at the nursing home; he has freed me to love people who are strange, disagreeable, and downright hard to be around; he has freed me to do, not what I want to do, but what is best for my community. Like the unclean spirits in our Gospel lesson, we tremble before Christ’s liberating power because Christ’s power is freeing us not for personal glory, but for change… for difficult change that opens doors and windows into his Kingdom.

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