The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, 28 January 2017

January 28, 2018 | by Bruce G. Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Psalm 111 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Mark 1:21-28

Jesus was a healer.  He used a variety of media to bring wholeness to persons’ minds, bodies, spirits, and relationships and to overcome the gap between the clean and unclean, and insider and outsider.  Today, healing remains an important aspect of the church’s ministry and our individual quests for wholeness. We are called individually and as churches to be God’s companions in healing the earth, one moment, encounter, person, and policy at a time.   Our churches, as Deuteronomy asserts indirectly, are called to be palaces of prophetic utterance where people hear and share God’s inspiration with the wider community.

In an era in which healing ministry is often identified with supernatural intrusions, prosperity gospel, and flamboyant flimflam histrionics, what insights can a process preacher bring to reflection on unclean spirits and demonic possession?  How can we help the church reclaim its healing ministry in a scientific and pluralistic age?  It is tempting to disregard Mark 1:21-28 altogether as an irrelevant era piece, pertinent only to studies of a prescientific bygone era’s approaches to medicine.   Progressive Christianity seldom deals with the supernatural or demonic not to mention spiritual healing and energy work.  We have exorcized the devil and Satan from our theologies, and have doubts about angels and demons.  We are uncertain whether we should invest ourselves in praying for healing.  Yet, there is a side of life that goes beyond reason and human control.  We know that we can be possessed by “powers” beyond ourselves – addictions, mental illnesses, compulsive behaviors, and obsessional thought patterns.  Even institutions can be possessed by demonic spirits, aiming at death rather than life, and advocating a faith that tolerates no dissent. As intellectually erudite as we may be, we still may find ourselves under the influence of powers that we try to explain away.  We need God to help us find a way out of the powers that possess us, individually and as communities.

Today’s reading from Mark begs the question:  Are there spiritual powers that influence our lives for good or ill?  Do they actually have personalities and allegiances, or are the solely unconscious forces run amok? Are there demonic spirits that can overtake the centered self, robbing it of agency and integrity?  In many ways, we need to consider these questions simply because of the many television programs, novels, cable investigations, and movies depicting dark and destructive powers just outside human consciousness.  Many of us have inadvertently wandered into the “twilight zone,” experiencing shadowy realities or intuitions pointing to negative energies beyond ourselves.  Others in our congregations have encountered angels and other spirits.  Still, others claim or know people who claim to have had near death experiences in which they encountered God and deceased relatives.   We must honor these paranormal encounters even if we cannot explain them.  Philosophers err more in what they deny than they affirm, as Leibniz averred, and process theology can make room for more advanced beings than ourselves, whose existence is ambiguous, some positive, some negative in their impact on human life.  (For more on the angelic and demonic as well as Jesus’ healing ministry, see my books Angels, Mysteries and Miracles and Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel.)

The passage from Mark’s gospel suggests that even demons have a Godward bent.  More perceptive than the synagogue congregation, the unclean spirit knows precisely who Jesus is and greets the healer with apprehension.  Is the unclean spirit afraid of being destroyed or is it hopeful of healing?  In a process universe, in which many of us turn away from God’s vision and enter destructive paths, there is always hope that we may experience God’s vision of wholeness for us and others. God’s vision of wholeness is personal and ubiquitous, and accordingly must touch even the demonic elements of life.

Today, we might use terms like mental illness or dissociative disorder to describe this man’s condition.   But, whatever his condition may be, it does not preclude God’s loving touch and our hospitality. Uncomfortable with our own mental fragility not to mention the mental fragility of others, we are tempted to shy away from or ostracize (of course, politely!) persons with serious mental health issues.  But, even in their lives, there is a hidden wholeness, to quote Thomas Merton, which cries out for God’s healing touch and our loving presence.  The reading from Mark 1:21-28 might provoke a conversation on mental health issues or even forces beyond us that can control our behaviors.  Everyone is in need of God’s healing touch, healthy and ill, sound and broken, saint and sinner.  (For more on preaching Mark’s Gospel, see Bruce Epperly Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel in Year B)

The words of I Corinthians 8 take us beyond idol worship and food sacrificed to idols to healthy and life-supporting relationships.  As followers of Jesus, we have freedom to eat or abstain from virtually any food.  We can eat or drink most anything we desire, although it is good to remember that the body is the temple of God and we are called to glorify God in our embodiment.  But, our freedom is not individualistic.  There is no place for rugged individualism in Christian community.  My rights are always conditioned by responsibilities to seek the greater good of those around me.  Our behaviors and values shape others, and we need to be mindful of the impact our actions have on those who are spiritually or ethically “weaker” than ourselves.   What matters is embodying God’s love in the body of Christ, and not following an individualistic path.  Do our behaviors and lifestyle support the well-being of others?  Do we model health and wholeness for the more vulnerable members of our community?

The grace of interdependence invites us to responsible relationships that nurture the whole body of Christ, whose calling is to bring healing to our world. As we explore the paranormal, we need to take time for developing spiritual gifts, our prayers, and positive relations with loved ones, members of our congregation, and the wider world.   What we do truly matters to others and by our day to day actions we can bring healing to our world.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, UCC, Centerville, and professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure with God, and The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh.