Epiphany 4B Sermon (2018)

4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:21-28;
1 Cor 8:1-13; Deut 18:15-20


Jesus commands an “unclean spirit” to leave a man, and it obeys. The man is healed. But this scene is alien to us and to our modern sense of healing. We would never hear a physician offer up a diagnosis of “unclean spirit.” And our doctors speak first about symptoms. Mark the Evangelist skips any mention of symptoms and simply introduces someone through a diagnosis: “a man with an unclean spirit.” But we need to begin this morning by admitting it is a diagnosis we no longer understand.

What comes next might be considered a sketch of symptoms. The man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In our modern context, this man appears to be a person who hears voices, an “us,” and speaks these voices out loud. We might then suggest a contemporary diagnosis of something like paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar disease — a condition that can include hallucinations, “hearing voices.” So do we make a translation here? Do we translate this picture of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit into Jesus healing a mentally ill person who hears voices that are not his?

Let’s switch gears for a moment. We have tended to call stories like these from the Gospels “miracles.” Jesus miraculously healed this man. But “miracle” is never a word that the Gospels themselves use. It’s our word, not theirs. In fact, in John’s Gospel he carefully chooses a word: the word “sign.” Signs point to something else, generally something more expansive and real. In the case of Jesus healing individuals, like in this morning’s Gospel, I think the Gospel writers are giving us a sign that points to something more and expansive and real. The fact that Jesus could heal individuals is a sign of something greater: he came on a mission of healing all of humankind.

And two thousand years later we can see this healing of all of humanity in progress. Yes, in progress. It was launched decisively with Jesus’ resurrection, but two thousand years later there’s still a long ways to go. That shouldn’t bother us, right? A mission that vast as healing all of humankind can’t be something that is going to happen overnight. That’s why the healing stories in the Gospels are signs pointing to something much larger and ongoing.

In fact, we can return to our original question this morning about how this healing story is so alien to us. We don’t think about healing anymore as a matter of casting out unclean spirits. I’d like to propose to you this morning that that’s precisely because Jesus’ healing of humanity has been underway for a long time now. It is finally transforming and healing our very approach to healing itself. In Jesus’ day, the primary approach to healing was to blame the victim. If you got sick, it meant that you must have done something to displease the gods. Sickness is God cursing you. Health is God blessing you. You can see this thinking all through the Bible. There’s vestiges of that thinking which persist even today.

But, for the most part, humankind didn’t make a huge step forward in healing until we took Jesus’ message of love to heart, until we followed the example of his healing ministry, and we finally stopped blaming the victim! When that happened we could finally begin to look for other causes, like germs and chemical imbalances in our bodies. We paid more attention to how our bodies actually work and could begin to figure out how to fix their malfunctions. We have a long ways to go, much still to learn, but the first big step was to stop blaming the victims of illness and to begin to look for other causes.

That’s why this morning’s healing story is so alien to us. The success of modern medicine has been to precisely bracket out the old spiritual explanations. People don’t get sick because of unclean spirits. They get sick because of alien intruders like germs or other malfunctions of our physical bodies. Jesus’ healing this morning is a sign of what was later to come when all of humankind turned more to physical explanations for illness than to spiritual ones. Do you see?

But I think we need to get to one more point this morning to see the full picture of the Good News of which Jesus healing a man in the synagogue long ago is a sign. Modern medicine has become successful by bracketing out spiritual matters and focusing on our physical bodies. But if Jesus came on a mission of nothing less than healing all of humankind we need to eventually get back to understanding the spiritual part of being human. Because, make no mistake about it, we are more than physical bodies. We are minds and spirits, too. And so I’d like to propose this morning that Jesus casting out this “unclean spirit” is a sign of the much, much bigger, and much, much more complicated task of healing humankind’s spirit.

What did we say the main approach to healing used to be? Blaming the victim. Well, how colossally that fails to be an effective way to healing is a sign of a spiritual problem — so much so that it took Jesus going to cross and being raised on Easter to begin healing it. I’ve actually been blessed over the past 25 years to come across a scientific approach to understanding human spirituality [speaking of René Girard’s Mimetic Theory], one that I think will prove to yield much fruit. But that’s too long of a story to tell you this morning, so let me cut right to the most important point: the deep spiritual sickness that has plagued humankind since our beginning is to metaphorically have eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And so we assume we can judge everything ourselves in terms of binaries such as “good” and “evil.”

That’s an element we see in this morning’s Gospel Reading: a man who is judged to have an “unclean spirit.” Well, the true “unclean spirit” within all human cultures is to think we can judge things like clean and unclean, good and bad. Our cultures and communities are thus always formed over-against both other individuals, the ‘scapegoat,’ and other communities and cultures of people, our “enemies.” The most basic binary is Us versus Them, dividing humankind into friends and enemies. And when our cultures come into crisis, the heat turns up on these binaries. Look at our politics right now: Democrats vs Republicans, citizens vs immigrants, white people vs People of Color, men vs women, Christian vs Muslim. On and on it goes, right? And do our leaders help to lead us away from this deep spiritual disease, or do they seek to capitalize on it and deepen it?

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Jesus came to heal all of humankind of this most original and foundational spiritual disease in our cultures of Us-versus-Them. He came to begin uniting the whole human family as the Creator God’s true family. He came to teach us a love that extends beyond all of our Us-Them boundaries, a love that even extends to enemies. He came modeling a ministry of serving the marginalized. He ate with tax collectors and other “sinners”; he ate with those his culture deemed as “unclean,” making him unclean, too. Finally, as the innocent, true Son of God he took his place as the ultimate unclean person, a Blasphemer; and as the ultimate enemy, a convicted and executed traitor to the State. He died on the cross as a cursed one of God so that he could begin the long journey of healing our deep spiritual disease of Us-versus-Them.

We look around at our splintered world today, and there’s a long way to go in that healing journey, right? But Jesus has also done something else crazy and daring: he’s called you and me as disciples to be part of the ongoing healing in this world. Recall last week’s Gospel: this is the first story after Jesus calls his first disciples. We might choose to see it simply as a miracle in the sense of an impressive display of divine power — thus yielding picture of discipleship in the sense of being a ‘groupie,’ those who tag along with a powerful person hoping some of it may rub off. Or we can see it as a sign of the much bigger mission of healing the human disease of treating people as unclean — a mission that continues on to this very day. In which case, you and I are called to actively be a part of that mission of healing. Being fed at God’s healing table once again this week, what can you and I do in the week ahead to help bring healing to a divided world? Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Peace Lutheran, Holland, MI
January 28, 2018

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