Last Wednesday I was invited as a guest to a Christian men’s book and Bible study in Auburn. Nine of us gathered to share a potluck meal, a check-in time, and the study itself. I was the only pastor in the group and was younger than almost everyone because this is a retired men’s Bible study. But as remarkable as all this is, what’s really impressive is that this group of men from different denominations has been meeting in the same home every week for fifteen years.
Each of us chooses who or what will have authority in determining what we believe. This group of men I met has chosen to make God’s Word their highest priority. They do that by gathering with others to pray and discuss and discern God’s will and direction.
In today’s reading the question of authority is the highest priority. Jesus shows up in the synagogue to teach, and according to Mark’s gospel the people who heard him were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority… A few verses later, once again the people were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!”
What is the foundation for your beliefs? Who—or what–is your authority? None of us can claim that God and God alone has authority over all that we believe, for as Paul writes in today’s second reading, there are many gods and many lords. We are constantly tempted to substitute Christ’s authority with our own authority: our own fears, our own needs, our own habits and traditions.
What happens when our own authority is threatened? We get upset, we get angry, we make a lot of noise—which is what happens in today’s story. Mark writes that as Jesus was teaching, just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?
This is the question the people of Israel asked Moses after leaving Egypt. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
This is the question behind any resistance to change. Have you come to destroy us? Today God’s people ask the same question: “Have you come to take away our traditions? Have you come to take away what’s comfortable and familiar? Have you come to take away our security? Have you come to take away my most cherished values, my independence, my way of life, my beliefs of a lifetime?” The unclean spirit relies on itself. It is a spirit of scarcity; it sees only what might be lost. A spirit that rests in the authority of Christ is a spirit of gratitude, joy, abundance, and hope for the future!
How hard it is to let go of our own authority! Notice that the man in the synagogue knows the right things to say. I know who you are, the Holy One of God, he says. This is the one who comes to church every Sunday, who says the words of the Lord’s Prayer but, although he prays “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” he’s not really that interested in God’s authority or God’s will. He’s the one who week after week says the words of the creed: “I believe in God the Father…I believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit.” But saying we believe doesn’t make Jesus Christ the authority of our lives.
All of us have an unclean spirit vying for control of our life. All of us have fears and worries and needs that distract from God’s work and God’s will. The question is, do those fears have control over us? The proof of Christ’s authority has little to do with showing up in church or saying the right words. It has little to do with how much money we have or how long we’ve been a church member. The proof of Christ’s authority is, as Jon preached so powerfully last Sunday, repentance. Repentance–not as in shame and guilt but as in, turning in a new direction. It is, as Martin Luther taught, something we strive to do every day.
The good news in today’s story is that the man did change—literally, kicking and screaming!—but he did change! Be silent! Jesus said. Just shut up! The unclean spirit came out of him, and this is a marvel. Because we know it doesn’t always turn out that way. Just because Christ tells the unclean spirit to come out doesn’t mean it will. Just because he says to us, “Change!” doesn’t mean we will. There were many in Jesus’ day who heard him and refused to change.
I shared with you earlier about the retired Christian men’s group that’s been gathering for study every week for fifteen years. There’s one detail I left out that you might find interesting. Every single one of those eight men is gay. Think of that. The gay community has traditionally been labeled by society and the church as “unclean”—and yet, here is a group of men wounded by society and by the church who have gathered every week in the name of Christ, finding hope and healing. As today’s story reminds us, it’s not so much those whom society has called “unclean” who need to repent but those on the inside of churches, whose hearts need to be re-shaped and molded to resemble more closely the heart of Christ.
We live in a time of new teachings and new understandings. And we’re not the first. Hearing Jesus teach, the people were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” We live in a time when it is especially easy to rely on traditions and personal fears, rather than relying on the authority of Christ. But by the authority of Christ we have been given a new teaching, which actually is a very old teaching; and that is, to love one another as Christ has loved us. So–who is your authority and how will you respond this week? AMEN