On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 the place where I most felt Christ’s presence was in Capernaum. Archaeological remains have revealed a city of about 1,000 to 1,500 residents in the time of Jesus. Situated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, it was an important city whose main industry was fishing. What impacted me powerfully was spending time sitting on a stone bench on a side wall of the remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century. It was not the same synagogue where Jesus performed the miracle described in Mark 1. But it most likely was built on the remains of the sanctuary that Jesus entered in order to teach simple people a new way to see God. So I’m delighted that I have a moment to live in that space through the lectionary passages in the next few weeks. I hope you will be able to feel, even to a small degree, the stunning reality that Jesus lived powerfully among us with obvious traces of His time in Capernaum.
The movement in this passage shifts from a shoreline recruiting excursion to a holy space where the traditions of the Jewish people were safeguarded. The synagogue was a place for teaching the Jewish Law and we read that Jesus entered that sanctuary to do precisely that. We must also note that the disciples, under Jesus leadership, were in the habit of going to the synagogue on a regular basis to worship. It was a place where people gathered in hopes of encountering the living God. Worship invited weary Jews who had suffered much persecution to be in prayerful conversation with the Divine so that they might better understand what God was doing among them.
It’s almost funny how Mark immediately contrasts Jesus’ teaching with that of the most respected Jewish leaders, the Scribes. Richard Swanson states that the authority of the Scribes lay in grammar and stature. He viewed them as “soulless bureaucrats with fat salaries.” It sounds a bit like some upper echelon management positions today! Jesus, in contrast to that, did not operate out of windowless board rooms paneled in dark, impenetrable wood. He mixed with real people in real life, extending loving care. Whereas the Scribes sought to preserve tradition at all cost, Jesus jumped onto the scene blazing a new trail and dusting off old truths to find how they might speak to a new generation.
In reference to these religious practices, Swanson writes this: “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.” (Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B by Richard W. Swanson, p. 98.)
More than any other Gospel writer, Mark keeps the narrative moving. He uses phrases like, “and then” or “suddenly” or “immediately” to give us the feeling that Jesus is on the move. There’s a paradigm shift in the way that familiar religion was being re-interpreted. Their faith derived from a rich tradition that anchored people through difficult times. But Jesus wasn’t content to sit in the past, reciting outdated creeds. He was challenging the favorite notions of His people and breathing new life into them. That became frighteningly apparent with the eruption of a tortured soul at one of His Bible studies! If ever Jesus wanted a teaching moment to kick off His ministry, this was it!
The bad spirit in this man interrupts Jesus’ teaching and speaks to Him as if they’re old friends. It appears that the demon is accustomed to getting his way and throws a fit when he comes up against someone stronger! Mark’s description of this presence is an “unclean spirit.” It indicates something that has evaded control of God’s holiness and causes humans to be banished from God’s presence. This state of uncleanness came about by simply being involved in everyday life. Faithful Jews could be rendered unclean when dealing with birth, death and bodily cycles. The unclean spirit in this man was strong and vocal, acting almost as a heckler as Jesus took the tradition of the Law and painted a new picture of freedom. He toys with Jesus and challenges the authority with which He taught.
Jesus is unfazed. I think of attorneys or politicians who have bolstered their reputations by the effective way in which they responded to an unexpected legal battle that landed in their lap. With calmness and efficiency they have navigated turbulent waters bringing justice. Folks look in on them with awe and they become an overnight sensation. When Jesus preached His words don’t hang in the air like a boring lecture series by a professor who always talks over your head. His words effect results. There is so much that is familiar for those sitting in their Capernaum sanctuary, hanging on every word of a visiting Rabbi. But whatever felt predictable for the students that day suddenly became new material. Jesus not only honors the Sabbath on a regular basis. He and His disciples habitually violate the rules of Sabbath. In this Capernaum launch party Jesus upbraids an unclean spirit with unequalled power. The lesson taught that day to wide-eyed students is clear: All that is against God, both in the religious institutions and beyond, will not survive the assault of Jesus of Nazareth. In this passage I can almost picture Jesus dressed in cowboy apparel and bursting through the half doors of the saloon where folks nurse their beers in a semi-alert state. What felt familiar just a moment before becomes foreign. Holiness shows up in unlikely places and is dramatically re-interpreted!
I wonder if we can relate to the sense of disorientation those believers felt in their holy space on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? Many of us have been exiled from our beloved sanctuaries most of the past year. I am amazed and encouraged to see how many households from our congregation tune into our on-line worship each week. We are doing church in a new way! We are surviving and even growing (maybe in spite of ourselves) in the midst of a paradigm shift. We have learned to Zoom, Stream, breathe through heavy masks and look through fogged glasses! Whether doing ministry within the building or trying to keep up with each other in new ways, we often overlook those among us who suffer. Most congregations have unofficial assigned seating charts, right? But we might sit near the same family in worship for months and still not know about a grave diagnosis, marital struggles, or anguish over finances. We can faithfully attend to the business of our church but still miss the need for healing that sits among us. In this pandemic we have so anticipated “getting back to normal” that we’ve sometimes missed the ministry opportunities in the moment. Perhaps we have made an idol of the way we did things in the past. Truthfully, I don’t think we will ever go back to “normal”, whatever we might understand that to mean. We will be a changed people on the other side of the COVID 19 siege. How we live in the challenge of the NOW will greatly influence where we find ourselves when vaccinations have been widely dispersed. Looking for new ways to serve Jesus NOW will shape how we feel when we can finally sit next to someone in our familiar sanctuary again. Perhaps we need to pray for Jesus’ words to once again be powerful and performative as we re-interpret what it means to be holy both now and in the future?
This story of Jesus’ inaugural Bible Study tells us that His students were astounded by his teaching—and that’s even before He subdues a tormented believer! I wonder when you were last astonished or astounded by the work of the Holy Spirit? When have you seen the powers of wrong exiled from traditional forms of worship, city governments or national caucuses so that a new day can be celebrated? In the tension of the past months, when have you been an agent of grace to those around you who may have given up on hope? Our ministry in churches has, of necessity, been “out of the box” or out of the four walls of our sanctuary for months. So how have we channeled the power of Jesus to address wrong and bring healing?
Perhaps the upheaval in churches from COVID 19 is being used by the Spirit to remind us that our faith is not linked to geography but to hearts of service? Discipleship isn’t about space but is all about Spirit. I’ve been amazed that our on-line worship has broadened our congregation to include folks who have not previously and may not ever enter our lovely sanctuary. Yet together we walk with in the power of the Spirit each week, bringing that word of hope into our communities. In nontraditional ways, we are nourished by spending holy time together on the miracle called YouTube!
Just 28 verses into Mark’s fast-moving Gospel, Jesus’ fame is spreading throughout that whole region. As He enters their synagogue, the Spirit blows the dust off of their unexamined past and invites them to embrace a new way of holiness. The elements to their religious life that brought healing and hope continue to guide them. What no longer fits is left in the history books. A new teaching astounds them such that they no longer find themselves romanticizing the past. They face forward with anticipation.
Epiphany is the season of revelations. This text invites us to consider what opposition to the goodness of creation looks like. It invites us to expect action to come out of our favorite words of faith. This story confronts us with a Jesus who is more powerful than any other force around Him. He will not be silenced. He will not settle for the way things were. He will not overlook those who have sat quietly in the pews waiting to be noticed. He will guide us now and when we reconvene in person, to create spaces of freedom, places of healing, and a re-invented holiness that astounds!