The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s116g09 Sunday 4 1/2/2009
'have you come to destroy us?' Mark 1.24
It is worth noting that the man in the synagogue is described as a 'man with an unclean spirit' whereas those possessed by demons come to Jesus later that night after he had left the synagogue. He was probably at the house of Simon's mother-in-law, or he could have moved on to somewhere else.
The man with the unclean spirit charges Jesus with wanting to destroy 'us' those who saw others as unclean, inadequate, unworthy. The religion of that day, and often the religion of today, often revolves around how others are not acceptable. How often have I heard sermons directed towards the congregation - that their contributions were not enough? As I spoke last week, people have been made to feel second-class Christians for not being able to convert their partners, keep their children from straying from the church into the world, convert others like Billy Graham, or be overseas missionaries to convert the heathen. Some 'high-church' and 'low-church' Anglicans make a fundamental tenet of faith that women are second-class Christians, and that gay and lesbian persons are alien to God.
So, of course, the answer to this charge of wanting to destroy these things is a resounding 'Yes!' Who wants to be considered a second class Christian? You and I and all people are meant to be ourselves, we are loved as we are, and we are bidden to love others likewise.
Has Jesus come to destroy all forms of worship? The answer is an equally resounding 'No!' Jesus wants all to praise God because God loves us as we are. I have no doubt that we may well see lots more people in worship if we really got this message and got it across to others. I have no doubt that many marriages would be a lot happier, a lot fewer young people would experiment with drugs, as well as there being rather fewer wars if we communicated this love that God has for all, effectively. Indeed the collections in the plate would be more than enough if this were the case.
This man with the unclean spirit knew precisely who Jesus was the Holy One of God and he knew the danger Jesus posed to the power of those in authority. It would be stripped away.
In fact this has been my own experience in my last three parishes - so stretching over the last 25 years. In each in different ways certain individuals recognised that I was not there to reinforce their religious authority - the 'heavies' - and I was 'persona non grata' from then on. I was recently told that someone said to one of the diocesan authorities that I am a 'dangerous person'. I am glad that I haven't become completely useless! :-)
While people want to retain their status and supposed authority over other people, the gospel is not advanced. I realised that I wouldn't recommend such a parish to my worst enemy - I had and have no interest in bringing people into a parish where the main object was to 'cow-tow' to an elite.
But of course, Jesus didn't come to destroy anyone. He came to remove the 'principalities and powers', not people. But, of course, so many people's personas are identical to their presumed authority. Jesus didn't come to destroy people - he came to make them, and us, human and humane.
And so this is not a new teaching it is the same old teaching but it retains its authenticity forever.
I must admit I cringe every time I hear in the service a licensed lay reader introduce the confession with the first of the great commandments: 'You shall love the Lord your God' for it is in some ways self-defeating. You cannot love someone who retains an eternal power over you. Any love will actually be fear, and self-serving in the sense that one 'loves' really only to avoid the dire consequences of not doing so. This is a parody and a charade of real love, and it is not the sort of love that God wants.
A person with an unclean spirit can't accept love, for love demolishes his or her power. It is therefore particularly critical of anything resembling unbridled sexuality. Young peoples' emotions especially have to be kept in check. John Lennon's 'All you need is love!' was and is a revolutionary anthem. In my fifty and more years I have never heard this sung in a church. I vividly recall the furore amongst a half dozen when the tune of 'Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer' was played as a recessional after a carol service and the rest clapped!
It is important to note that this happened on the very first occasion that Jesus goes to the synagogue after his baptism, time in the wilderness, and the first four disciples called. This is Jesus first formal encounter with religion and it is one of immediate conflict. And my mind goes back to the story of Cain and Abel and the perception that one person's offering was more acceptable than the other's. It is not too far-fetched to equate one sacrifice being more acceptable cleaner than the other. Interestingly Cain perceives that his brother's offering is more acceptable than his own, so he seeks to destroy both his brother and his brother's offering. Cain is the archetypical person with an 'unclean' spirit. He kills others in an attempt to make his own offering the only one brought to God and therefore the only one acceptable for there is no other.
When Jesus says: 'the son will make you free' it is because he declares all offerings clean, all offerings acceptable. (Jn 8.36) We are free from criticism from those who are never satisfied!
A while back someone commented that I was an Origenist that I believe that everyone is saved as opposed to those who believe only a few will be saved. I accepted the comment, but in fact I would want to go somewhat further than this. The real question always has been and always will be whether the chosen of God are saved not others! The real question is whether we, as the people of God, exclude others or include others and if we exclude others the curses of Matthew chapter 23 apply equally to us. With grace comes responsibility, a responsibility to realise our unearned gift is as much others as it is ours. So rather than worrying about whether those who haven't heard the gospel are saved or whether unbaptised babies go to heaven or not we need to be concerned with our own salvation, whether we use our grace to exclude or include others. 'For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.' (Matthew 7.2 KJV)
Our own judgement is in our very own hands. There is little or no point in begging God for mercy. All we need to do is be merciful to others. If we condemn others for not believing in our terms or living the sort of lifestyle we think is demanded by God, it is not the other who is condemned, but our very own selves. There is no point quoting: 'no one comes to the Father but by me' as an excuse to consign others to eternal damnation guess who is condemned to eternal damnation?
But again this is nothing new. I am reminded of Psalm 50.16: 'to the wicked God says: "What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?"' The people who recited the statutes, who affirmed God's covenant are the ones who are described as wicked! And it was precisely those who loved the Lord with all their heart and mind and strength, who had Jesus killed. It is the constant temptation and indeed consistently the failure of the people of God of both old and new covenants, to use their presumed status before God as an excuse to exclude others. So the question our gospel poses to us as members of the Church do we have an unclean spirit do we expect others to measure up or do we accept others as they are? If we expect others to measure up then those words of Jesus are directed towards us: 'Be silent'!
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