28 January 2018
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Proper 4, Year B
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Jesus enters a synagogue, as is customary for him. He encounters a man who has an unclean spirit. We moderns are not entirely sure today about what that means but what is clear is that he is unclean when the whole thrust of religious rituals was about being clean. Imagine you go to the synagogue and instead of being ritually clean you become defiled because there is this fellow who should not be there. I mean, it’s almost fanning the flames of those who say they don’t go to church because of all the hypocrites they’d find there.
I came across a reflection on this story by another preacher who said that she had trouble with this story because the unclean spirit is cast out so quickly and she has never seen anything like it. The demons she knows tend to be more persistent. But then she goes on to say that the problem with our demons is that we either deny them or keep them away from others, sort of like the scribes likely would have wanted the fellow to stay away, ‘Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’ But we know what happens when we try to suppress things: They only grow and become a greater problem, and we become lonely because we always pretend to be someone we’re not.
Now, it’s not easy to figure out how to reveal our unclean spirits to one another. I am not saying it’s simple but Jesus is OK with it, for nothing we could do or say could keep God from loving us. And so Jesus does not say to the man with the unclean spirit, “Don’t you know where you are? Get out of here, get away from this place.’ Jesus is not afraid of this man’s unclean spirit, nor of our unclean spirits, and so Jesus turns to the man and liberates him. That he does not ignore the man or send him away restores his dignity and frees him from the social isolation he has endured.
There was fair bit of talk about social isolation last week, something the man in our text experienced until he met Jesus. The news reported that Britain had appointed a minister of loneliness who is to tackle a problem experienced by 9 million Brits (that is 13% of the population!).1
CBC’s Cross Country Check Up asked whether Canada too should create a similar office.2
It is an irony that the greater our means of electronic communication, the greater our social isolation. It is an irony but it is a fact. What we long for is to be known and undoubtedly this is one reason we post selfies. Did you notice that in our reading from Corinthians Paul talks about being known by God? (v. 3)
An article I read recently sees loneliness, the breaking social bonds, and waning trust in institutions as all part of the same issue, an issue that creates another problem. The author argues that “… if social bonds are broken, then democracies, economies, and societies are more likely to become authoritarian, tribal, feudal places. The world plunges … into tribalism, division, hate, spite, anger, rage, and fear — for the only projects that a society which doesn’t trust itself can engage in, ultimately, are segregation, servitude, and building a caste system. How then can such societies, one in which people enjoy few bonds, do not trust each other, hope to solve its real problems — whether climate change, inequality, stagnation, or declining democracy?”3
In our Gospel reading we see Jesus cast out the unclean spirit and all is good. It is true that our lives are not as simple as that. But think about what it could mean that Jesus taught with authority, unlike others. Surely it means that the authority and presence of God are vested in him and that where Jesus is there is God. One can look at the reference to authority as the authority Jesus not only has over the unclean spirit who had taken control of that man, but also the authority Jesus has over me, and you, and the church. This would be the authority that would guide our behaviour, much like the slogan from a few years ago, ‘What would Jesus do?’
And that may be true but the thing is that Jesus’ authority is not so much prescriptive as it is descriptive. Jesus is less about telling us what to do and more about making us new by facing our unclean spirits and by not being ashamed of us, as he is not afraid to meet this man.
I was listening to a sermon on Philippians 2 last week. The preacher, Christine Pohl, begins by lifting up the wonderful image Paul gives in v. 15, that those who are of the same mind as Christ Jesus who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, would shine like stars.4
She reminds us of Wesley’s dictum that Jesus emptied himself of all things but love. This love makes it possible for Jesus to be in communion with us who are still plagued by unclean spirits.
And, because Pohl speaks of Wesley, she speaks holiness and explains that for Wesley holiness was not an individual category but holiness is a social category because it is not by avoiding those with unclean spirits but in community with them that God makes us holy. And further, that our acts of charity, as we may describe them, are not actually our holiness or sign of our goodness, but are a place where God comes to us and visits us. Those who serve become the ones blessed.
And so I think that we as the church need to cherish being the church, being a community, which includes to be honest about our unclean spirits. This is good for us, for it is the place that God comes to us.
But it is also good for the world, for in a time of much social isolation we offer the communion of the Holy Spirit that God has gifted us with. And as people who live in communion with God and one another, we will honour others and therefore be less open to tribalism, hate, and division.
Thanks be to God.