How you begin a class or a conference or a retreat sets the stage about what’s important. What you teach first reveals what you think is foundational for what is to come. And as we all well know, how one is trained by their teachers, their parents, or their bosses – and what those people taught them about what was important or foundational, affects how they carry themselves into the future. In our text for today, Jesus jumps right in to training the disciples. This is the Galilee movement that will change the world, and Jesus has no time to waste. It’s time to show the disciples what they’ve signed up for. And Jesus does just that – he does not give them a lecture or have them listen to a podcast or view a YouTube video – he demonstrates through his actions what this movement is all about.
The disciples’ training begins with Jesus having a strange conversation with an unclean spirit. They are in Capernaum, and it is the Sabbath day. Jesus enters the synagogue and begins teaching. People are astounded at his teaching because he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes. What happens next reveals what kind of authority Jesus has. Just then there appeared a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, and people possessed by unclean spirits do not tend to keep quiet. He cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are!” The evil spirit senses that Jesus is a threat to all evil spirits. He sees the power Jesus has to destroy evil. Jesus rebukes him, saying something much stronger than the English translation conveys. Jesus says, “Shut up. Put a muzzle on it. Get out.” On the way out of the man’s body, the evil spirit puts up a fight, crying out with a loud voice and throwing the man into convulsions. Right here at the very beginning, we see evil putting up a fight with the good news of God’s kingdom that is embodied in Jesus. We see a battle between the old age and the new age. We see evil trying to resist the transformation that comes through the Galilee movement.
Those gathered are amazed by what has just happened. Jesus’ fame begins to spread. Those in the synagogue start wrestling with they have witnessed. They ask one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” The word for authority used here is the Greek word “exousia.” Exousia means conferred power. It has connotations of resources and means and pomp, or the display or show of power. Jesus’ teaching comes with power, power conferred on him by God through the Holy Spirit, power to engage with evil and make the good news of God’s kingdom a reality in the world. Earthly kings have power, but Jesus also has power. As the gospel of Mark unfolds, we will continue to see that Jesus uses his power differently than the kings of this world.
We, good church people that we are, tend to shy away from talking about power. We’ve witnessed too often how power has been abused in the church and caused devastating harm. Power is seen as a dirty word. We preachers don’t help because too often we fail to clearly state what we mean when we say Jesus is against the powers of this world. We don’t clarify that we mean abusive or corrupt power, so often we are all left feeling like all power is bad or evil, that it’s something to shy away from. But this fails to consider both the reality of power and the full story about power that is told by our scripture. Power is a strong force in our world. It’s necessary for things to happen. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. … there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”[i]
One of the reasons many white Christians don’t like to talk about power is because then we’d have to admit we have a disproportional amount of it and we may be called to give it up or use it differently. As Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes say in their book Organizing Church, “Those of us who have [power] like having it, and those of us who lack it either wish we had it and are trying to get it, or have simply given up. …it’s often those who have quite a bit of power who tend not to want to talk about it or recognize it within the purified confines of the church. This is especially the case for upper middle-class white folks, who tend to enjoy the benefit of power more generally. Often what scares us about power is first and foremost the fact that, should we begin to recognize it, then we’d have to begin to recognize how much of it we have relative to others. Recognizing power means recognizing how frequently we get our way and how the existing structures benefit us more than others.”[ii]
These are questions that privileged white folks don’t often take the time to ask themselves. I’ll offer myself up as an example. I show up in the world thinking that most people will believe that I have good intentions and that a conversation with someone could resolve any disagreement. This past week when we were headed to Charlotte to have the prayer vigil, someone asked me, “Do you have a plan if the police decide they are going to arrest someone while you’re on Department of Homeland Security property?” I replied, “What? What do you mean? I do not understand. We are not planning to break any rules. We’ve given notice to the police of our presence.” To which they said, “Yes, I understand all that, but there has been a lot of people bringing attention to this particular ICE office and if they decide they are going to arrest someone just to make a point, what is your plan?” As a white woman it had not crossed my mind that someone would dare arrest me or not treat me fairly or give me the chance to explain myself. It never occurs to me that someone would punish me even if I follow all of the rules. That’s what you call white privilege. That’s what you call having more power relative to others. The world is set up to benefit people like me.
Those who have power get nervous about conversations concerning power. But, as Christians, Jesus has a lot to teach us about what healthy power in our churches and communities looks like. It’s the kind of power that Jesus has that we should emulate, power that causes the evil of this world to tremble. As Conder and Rhodes say, “Power is ultimately God’s, and the church is by nature essentially a reality of this power…God’s creative power is what brings the church into existence and it is our mission to continue to participate in God’s ongoing act of re-creation. This ability to do something is exactly at the heart of the church as a community.”[iii] As our story for today shows, the good news of the Galilee movement is that Jesus has the power to engage with evil, to look it in the face, to silence it, and to tell it to get out. The good news is that Jesus has come to destroy evil and show the world a different way. Jesus is showing that the present evil age is coming to an end, that the reign of God is descending upon us.
Jesus’ power is not the same as the power of kings or empires. Jesus locates himself at the margins, not the center of power. From the margins, he engages the evil of the world, confronting and resisting it. Unlike kings of this world, he is not motivated by practicality or profits or reputation or his ability to be re-elected. When Jesus calls the twelve disciples later on in the gospel of Mark, Jesus sends them out with authority or power over the unclean spirits. Jesus gives the first disciples and then us, through our baptisms, the power of the Holy Spirit and the power over the evil in our world, and this power is power that reflects the substance of Jesus’ ministry, power that includes the marginalized, offers hospitality, liberates the captives, and loves the enemy.
When we hear about “unclean spirits” in the Bible we often think about movies like the Exorcist. Some of us think about the scholars who have tried to explain possession in the Bible as the way ancient people understood illnesses like epilepsy. But being possessed by an unclean spirit just means that the spirit is impure, contrary to that which is sacred. All that is against God and God’s ways is considered impure. If we turn to theologian Walter Wink, we find a much deeper, more compelling interpretation of evil spirits that helps us understand what Jesus is asking us to do in our time and place. Wink talks about the evil spirits and demons as the powers and principalities that are so often mentioned in scripture. He says demons can wreak havoc with humanity. He confirms what we witness in our scripture today, that demons have no power over us unless they are able to embody themselves in people or political systems. He says they exist in our structures in the real world both in specific places like families and churches or particular people and in systems, like factories, medical centers, and the prison industrial complex. [iv] Evil uses its power for destruction. Evil shutters at the sight of Jesus because it knows God can transform evil itself. But if evil is so deeply embedded, then how can we even begin to fight it?
We have to draw on Jesus’ power over evil; we have to claim the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus has given us. We have to have frank and truthful conversations about who has power and who doesn’t have power, and we have to start using power like Jesus did. We have to use the power that has been conferred to us by the Spirit. Sometimes we confuse organizing power with activism that focuses on raising awareness but does not engage in relationship building, strategy, and engagement with other institutions. For instance, we cannot just hold up signs and create petitions and expect for actual change to happen. I’m not saying that these things are not important because they have their place and their role, but you have to do other things too. You have to develop relationships and take actions. You have to fully engage the powers of this world and confront them with the power of Jesus. As Astra Taylor says, “The goal of any would-be world changer should be to be a part of something so organized, so formidable, and so shrewd that the powerful don’t scoff: they quake.”[v]
In order to seriously engage and confront the evil powers of our world, we have to use the power given to us by Jesus. This is not power over other people that gets them to do what you want. It’s not power for other people either, that allows you to do something for others that they could do for themselves. It’s power with people. It’s relational power. It’s power that is not about the interest of one but joining in solidarity with all of God’s children. It’s power that unifies. It’s power that has no limits. When together as the body of Christ, we tap into the power that is given to us by God to destroy evil, we can open up the possibility for the world to look more like God’s kingdom. As Conder and Rhodes suggest, “Churches [can] become power-bases through whom the reign of God ripples out in waves of solidarity and political engagement to contest and challenge the distorted dominion of…[evil].”[vi]
As a church we’ve come face to face recently with evil, evil that’s manifested itself in the structures of the immigration system in our country. Where have we witnessed this evil? It has been hidden in plain sight. As we drove to Charlotte on Wednesday to hold a prayer vigil for Gilles, we drove down Tyvola Road, a major road in the city. It was a curvy road filled with beautiful trees. We passed right by a really nice apartment complex. It looked just like another sunny day in suburbia. We drove up to a beautiful brick building with a beautiful sign letting us know it belonged to the Department of Homeland Security. It was a sign that would have made the sign ordinance committee at the Town of Cary very happy! You could drive by that building, live on that road and never have a clue about what is happening. You’d have to go inside to see the armed guards who won’t let you enter without an appointment. You’d have to look very carefully to notice the white vans with tinted windows that go out every couple of hours taking another load of people to the York County Detention Center. I have to wonder how many cars that they’ve had to quietly tow out of that parking lot. Evil is subtly embodied all around us, in systems and places that look benevolent to eyes that have long stopped paying attention.
Evil spirits have embodied themselves in the structure of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Evil spirits have embodied themselves in the immigration laws of our country, laws that are in deep need of revision, laws that do not make sense, laws that do not allow people like our brother Gilles a legal path to citizenship, laws that don’t allow people like Gilles to claim asylum because of their dire medical conditions. Evil spirits have embodied themselves in people who though they may think they are just doing their jobs are caught up in a web of sinfulness. We’ve come face to face with recognizing the power that we have in this world that other people don’t have. But we’ve also come face to face with the power that’s available to us from God, the power that Jesus made known in the world as he trained those first disciples, the power to destroy evil, to call evil out of humans, to make it cry out and convulse.
Jesus has been training us, too! We are beginning to understand what it means to organize the body of Christ as a power-base from which the reign of God ripples out in waves and challenges the evil manifested in the structures and people in our world. It’s not about standing out in the street and yelling to the wind, but it is about courageously calling evil on the mat when you see it, actively engaging with other people and institutions and structures in our world, and cultivating relationships in a Christ-centered way that moves us all towards God’s transformation. It means using our power to treat people with hospitality, freedom, compassion, and boundless love. It’s power that can look like foolishness to the world. It’s just the beginning. These experiences will serve as a foundation for what is to come. It will inform how we use our power and understand the power the Spirit has conferred on us in the future.
Evil continues to embody itself in many structures in our world, and we have a lot of work to do. This story of Jesus’ conversation with the evil spirit calls on us to take hope and remember the power we have inherited from Jesus. I believe that the church in our country is starting to find its way again, starting to remember its role in engaging kingdoms and empires. If we can accept the power of the Holy Spirit that has been conferred to us, evil will start to quake. Evil will cry out when it sees us coming: “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Yes, yes we have. We are the disciples of Jesus, members of the Galilee movement, who have the power of the Holy Spirit, the power to destroy the evil of this world, the power of God’s kingdom. To evil we say, “Shut up. Put a muzzle on it. Get out. God is transforming the world.”
[ii] Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes, Organizing Church: Grassroots Practices for Embodying Change in Your Congregation, Your Community, and our World, 29-30.
[iii] Conder and Rhodes, 32.
[iv] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millenium, 31.
[v] Astra Taylor as quoted by Conder and Rhodes in Organizing Church, 31.
[vi] Conder and Rhodes, 44.