by James Kenneth Echols
As a twenty something, it first gripped my being, and there are some things that we encounter and experience in life that we never forget. Then, a couple of weeks ago as a fifty something, it gripped me once again. At the time, I was doing what couch potatoes do best, surfing the cable channels, looking for something that would engage my interest. At the time, I was tired of watching news programs with their talking heads, their repetitive reports, and their partisan perspectives. And when I started surfing the sports channels, neither the ESPNs or the Golf Channel had much to offer. But since I was committed that evening to being nothing more or less than a couch potato, I continued to surf, moving on to the movie channels, and that's where it gripped me once again.
If you've seen it, you know the plot very well. Set in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a distressed and desperate mother seeks out the ministry of the church for help.You see, her twelve-year daughter, named Regan MacNeil in the movie, is possessed of an unclean spirit that makes the child vomit, curse at will, spin her head 360 degrees and commit various grotesque acts of blasphemy. And so, as the drama unfolds in "The Exorcist," two priests, invoking the power of God, seek to cast out the unclean spirit and restore the young woman to health.
In many ways, that movie could not have been conceived, imagined, or made were it not for the Gospel text before us this morning. According to Mark, the Holy One of God had just begun His public ministry, calling His first disciples before entering the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath day. On this occasion, the Holy One came near. There, Jesus encountered a man with an unclean spirit. The text does not tell us much about him. We do not know his name. We do not know his age. We do not know his occupation or whether he had family. All we know is that he was in the synagogue on the sabbath and controlled by an unclean spirit.
Do you believe in unclean spirits? If you do, what are they? Do you prefer to have them personified in realities like the devil or demons, or would you rather think about unclean spirits as forces of evil that dwell among us, indeed, that dwell in us?
Those in Jesus' day did believe in unclean spirits, and so they knew that this man was possessed. As one biblical commentator noted, "The whole world and atmosphere were filled with devils; every phase and form of life was ruled by them. They sat on thrones, they hovered around cradles. The earth was literally a hell."
In "The Exorcist," the priests needed to invoke the power of God in order to free Regan of her unclean spirit and struggled for many days. But in this text Jesus, who was and is the incarnate power of God with authority, declared, "Be silent and come out of him," and the unclean spirit, convulsing and crying out, immediately came out of him, restoring the man to health and amazing those assembled in the synagogue. Already at the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus established His reputation as a worker of miracles.
Do you believe in unclean spirits? If you do, what are they? Do you prefer to have them personified in realities like the devils or demons, or would you rather think about unclean spirits as forces of evil that dwell among us, indeed that dwell in us?
With whom do you identify in the text? As we begin this new academic semester, I invite you to identify with both the anonymous man and the Christ, the Holy One of God whose death has brought us life and made us sisters and brothers in the faith. We are the anonymous man possessed of unclean spirits that control us. This is why we confess that "we are by nature sinful and unclean." And this is why we know the truth of the Apostle's statement that "the thing I would not do, that I do and that which I want to do, that I do not do." Yes, like the anonymous man in this text, we are controlled by demons of hatred that keep us from loving as God in Christ has loved us. And yes, like this man, we are controlled by the devil who sows apathy and enmity in our hearts rather than care, compassion, and concern for all God's children. To experience the grace and mercy of the Holy One is to look deep within and to know our need of the kind of transformation that will cast out our unclean spirits, recognizing that we remain always simul justus et peccator. As children of God standing before the throne of God, we are the one with the unclean spirit.
Simultaneously, we who are or seek to be public servants of the Good News know that, in Christ, God seeks to cleanse all of their unclean spirits. There are many ways of thinking about the identity of the minister. In his 1979 book, Henri Nouwen would have us think about the minister as a wounded healer. Another author would have us think about the minister as a spiritual guide. And last Thursday in an address, Martin Marty invited people to think about the minister as exemplum, an example or model of the Christian life. And the truth is that all have their validity.
This morning, Jesus' ministry in the synagogue calls us to affirm that we who are or seek to be public servants of the Gospel are also exorcists whose proclamation of the Good News intends to cast out unclean spirits, the isms, the hatreds, the apathies that harm and hurt people and run counter to the way and will of God.
You may never be called upon to perform an exorcism akin to what Jesus did in the synagogue or similar to the one that took place in "The Exorcist." Our casting out of unclean spirits may well be far less dramatic and spectacular. But that doesn't mean that God will not be using us in just the same way!
"And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of the man."