1 Corinthians 8
... there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit ....
- Mark 1:23
This week in our Worship, we plan to offer Holy Communion. In our tradition at Bethel, this is a very “equalizing” ceremony, in which everyone gets the same bread and juice, passing the plate and the cup among the pews. Now, during the COVID pandemic, it is more equal than ever, because we are using those little, sterile, individually-packaged portions. But it is at the same time a little less equal, because now the Deacons attempt to bring the elements directly to each person, rather than having everybody pass the cups and plates to everybody else. There is something sweetly family-style about passing a plate of bread from neighbor to neighbor, down the row. We miss that aspect of doing things our “normal” way.
You are probably aware that, in many churches, the priest or minister gives the elements directly to each individual who presents herself or himself to receive it. That arrangement symbolizes the authority of the priest or minister over the lay people. But we don’t do it that way, here.
Authority is a dangerous thing.
We begin to experience authority as newborns, when we figure out that somebody has milk and a clean diaper that we want— NOW!! But do we get it how we want it, when we want it, every time we feel we need it ? That’s when the crying and fussing begins. And it seems like it goes on and on, because somebody always has the authority to bestow or to deny the things that we want.
In the story of Jesus showing up at the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), we see Jesus speaking to the people “with authority,” and his hearers were “astounded,” because they were not accustomed to teachers who taught like that.
And immediately, an unclean spirit spoke up and protested against Jesus. Huh ?!?
First of all, what is an unclean spirit ?
You have heard that we humans are gifted with free will, which means the authority to choose what we will do and say, and with what attitude. Maybe you have not recognized them, but there are other beings with whom we share this world, which do not seem to have physical bodies of their own, but which are able to dwell in the physical bodies of other beings in some way. Such “spirits,” if they are using their free will in an ungodly way, may be called “devils” or “demons” or “unclean.” Now that you think of it, you may realize that you know some people who are possessed with unclean spirits. Perhaps we Twenty-First Century people would call these demons “addiction” or “depression” or “bad temper” or something else— but the more you look at them, the more they show themselves. And they want authority. The unclean spirits want to dominate their victims and oppress them down to the ground.
Here is where we hear the devils start to squeal: where Jesus shows up, or somebody who is working for him, the unclean spirits understand that in the contest of authority, they will LOSE to Jesus every time. Because, as Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18). He is Lord of all.
In Jesus’ ministry, he proved his divine authority again and again. But he always gave human beings their free will, to either cooperate with him or not. On one particular Passover festival weekend in Jerusalem, Jesus even gave them their free will to drive him out of their city and nail him to a cross to die. Between that Friday and Sunday, the devils may have thought that they had overcome his authority. But we know what happened on that first Easter morning. The dirty work of those unclean spirits was overturned, and Jesus arose in power: authority. But not before the demons had their day. God, for reasons we can only struggle to comprehend, let them have their will for that brief while. Weird, huh ?
Sometimes, we followers of Jesus are able to exercise godly authority in ways of blessing and righteousness. We may, at times, have the heavenly grace to love people, to liberate people from bondage to sin and death, to proclaim good news to the poor. But other times, we abuse our free will by judging other people, squelching them, failing to recognize the dear child of God who is crossing our path under their heavy burden.
As Paul told the church at Corinth: “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
- 1 Corinthians 8: 9