“Jesus’ Other Job”
by the Reverend Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 28, 2018
Have you ever attended an anniversary party for a couple who’s been matted for fifty years? The stories of how they met, the details of their first date, and the jokes about what it was like to be honeymooners are romantic and funny and poignant. And… each member of the couple invariably remembers the stories a little bit differently. Sometimes very differently!
It wasn’t a Friday, it was a Saturday! You didn’t ask me, I asked you! It wasn’t at the Bell in hand, it was at the Oyster Bar!
As a family member or friend in attendance, what do we do at that point? Take Grandpa’s side or Grandma’s side? Tell them that they’d better get along or they won’t get any ice cream? Or, do we just accept that everyone has different memories and different perspectives on life’s events, even the very important ones?
The early church leaders who put together the New Testament had to deal with a similar situation. They had lots and lots of oral tradition and many written accounts of Jesus’ ministry that they could have incorporated into the Bible. None of these accounts said exactly the same things; all of them contradicted each other; and some of them included stories and sayings that really didn’t represent the Christian message as they understood it.
So, after much deliberation, in the end, they chose the four written accounts that we have in our Bibles today: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And each has its own priorities and style.
Some of you might know that Mark was the first of those four accounts to be written and that whoever wrote Mark takes us on a wild ride. The pace of Mark is so fast, it makes your head spin. Over and over, the author of Mark (whose identity has never been uncovered) uses the word, immediately. Immediately, Jesus went here and immediately did this.
One of the theories about why the author of Mark wrote this way is that the early Christians had a strong sense of urgency. They believed that the world as they knew it was going to end really soon and that they had to join with Jesus in spirit and in their behavior as soon as possible so that they could be a part of his new world, God’s new world.
What better way to communicate this sense of urgency than to write a story in which Jesus loses not one minute in preparing himself for and carrying out his ministry of truth telling and faith formation and compassion?
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, there is no birth story. No shepherds, no wise men, no manger, no animals or angels. It’s as if the author decided to dispense with all of that in order to get directly to the meat of the matter: Jesus is the one who is going to make the difference in joining humanity in a closer relationship with the Divine and Mark’s got no time to spare getting to how that happens.
Mark uses just eight verses to introduce us to John the Baptist, three verses to describe Jesus’ baptism, two verses to tell us about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, two verses to announce the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and a whopping five verses to tell us the story of how Jesus called the first disciples.
By verse 21, Jesus is already preaching in Capernaum (a town on the banks of the Sea of Galilee; the hometown of Peter and Jesus’ other core disciples; not all that far from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth).
And in that synagogue in Capernaum, before we even get to verse 27 in the very first chapter, Jesus has cast out an evil spirit (or a demon, as Mark describes it).
What is this all about?
It doesn’t surprise me that Jesus begins his ministry by preaching. We all think of Jesus as a storyteller, an orator, one who uses his voice to communicate wisdom and to call all kinds of people to a faithful life. Rabbinic Judaism was just getting off the ground at that time and it was all about teaching.
We are comfortable with this. As Congregational UCCers, we are totally into the intellectual side of the Christian faith. Help us to understand the Bible and Jesus and our ethical obligations and we’ll be OK, we think.
And we find ourselves skipping forward a few verses. Aha! Jesus heals some people. Uncomfortable, but nice. He goes on a retreat. Great.
What is all this about casting out demons? If it is part of Jesus and Mark’s urgent desire to prepare their people for God’s new world, then great. But what does that have to do with our lives now, in the 21st century? We don’t think this way. We don’t talk about good spirits and bad spirits. I never preach about that stuff.
We were raised on science and math and many of us use these disciplines every day to make a living and make a positive difference in the world. We are relatively affluent people and we live every day in the illusion that we control our world. We are not controlled by some mysterious body of good and evil spirits. That’s just silly.
We are totally fine, aren’t we, with Jesus’ sayings. Sticking with Mark’s account, Jesus says, No one puts new wine into old wineskins… We love that kind of thing because it makes us think.
And we are totally fine with Jesus’ parables. Mark gives us the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. We love those! We can accept Jesus, the wise teacher.
When he confronts the unjust powers, both religious and secular, we love that, too. Go, Jesus! Give ‘em hell!
When he feeds the hungry, metaphorically and physically, we go nuts. This is the Jesus we can relate to best of all. Jesus, the kindhearted leader of a nonprofit food bank.
When it comes to Jesus healing the sick, we start to get a little uncomfortable, but those are harmless stories that we can appreciate because they communicate the compassion of God.
Jesus the angry judge is not our favorite Jesus, but he’s confined mainly to Matthew’s Gospel and we can look to other accounts for a gentler savior.
But Jesus the exorcist? He makes us feel really uncomfortable. As I said before, we don’t think this way.
But our spiritual ancestors definitely did. They lived in a world they believed was dominated by good and evil spirits. And I think we can learn from our spiritual ancestors as we do our best to navigate the present, our 21st century world.
Though their language might not be ours, what might they have to tell us about life? That there is evil in the world and that there is good? We sometimes try deny these facts. They make us squirm. We don’t want to appear ignorant. We don’t want to be judgmental.
But there is evil in the world, isn’t there?
There are of course those illnesses that feel like there is an evil spirit inside of us — mental illness, addiction, cancer, and others.
We enter dangerous territory when we name specific individuals or groups as demonic, but it is true that evil can get ahold of and inside of people and communities.
Xenophobia is evil. Homophobia is evil. Racism is evil. Hateful violence is evil. Unchecked privilege and greed are evil. Sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault have been much in the news lately; although each is different, all are evil. Using fear to consolidate ones own political power is also evil.
As Jesus’ representatives in this day and age, how can we cast out these evils without becoming evil ourselves? Without being hypocritical?
How might we cast out evil while retaining our humanity and humility, while still keeping open the possibility of reconciliation? How can we do it with grace and compassion, but still do it? How do we cast out evil without hating the other, without becoming impossibly self-righteous?
Not easy. It maybe seems impossible. But the alternative — allowing evil to persist — is unacceptable. How can we be followers of Jesus, the one who cast out evil spirits, without being aware of, and determined to name and resist the evils of our present time?
I invite us to resist evil by first of all turning to God for inspiration and guidance. That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. did, and it was most effective. And I suggest that we get in touch with our best and most honest selves, those good spirits within us, and the good spirits around us. The spirit of humility. The spirit of compassion. The spirit of wisdom. We see those spirits in one another. This is not something we can do alone.
May God strengthen us with courage as we venture back out into a world full of good and evil as people of faith, hoping for a better world.