4th Sunday after Epiphany 1 Feb 15
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.
She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”
Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.
In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.
Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?
But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.
Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.
So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.
But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.
For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.
But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.
You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.
The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.
As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.
That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.
Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*
That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.
Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.
All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.
Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)
* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66