It all started so fast, so intensely. Jesus is baptized, calls four disciples, and then is in the synagogue teaching on the sabbath and healing a man with an unclean spirit. No flowery language, no angels singing, no back story – Mark gets right to his point from the start.
Imagine it with me, this early scene of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus walks to Capernaum with his new friends and converts, James, John, Andrew, and Simon. Since they didn’t know much about this man they followed – much besides that they couldn’t explain their innate draw to him – there were likely some get to know you type conversations. Capernaum is on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus calls these four fisherman. Maybe it was a long walk or maybe not. We can guess that this walk was fairly uneventful as Mark hurries to the next scene – the scene where we get to see what this Jesus man is all about. As soon as they arrived in town, they entered the synagogue on the sabbath and Jesus began to teach.
We don’t know what he taught but whatever it was, it was with authority. The Greek for authority – exousia – also means power. And this power was set apart from the standard, established religious authority. Mark’s Gospel says, "They were astounded" – astounded at this newness, at his ready command of the Torah. No one had taught like him before – not the rabbi, the scribes, the associate rabbis or associate scribes, not the visiting rabbi, or the theologian emeritus – all good, solid souls, to be sure, but this guy was different.
Jesus, according to Mark, starts his ministry here, right in this scene. No practice, no dry runs, no dissertations defended or ladders to climb: straight out of the gate, Jesus teaches as if he’s known the Word from the beginning…as if he was the Word.
Mark establishes Christ’s authority as a teacher – as the teacher – in the beginning of this passage and immediately moves to the second emphasis of his Gospel’s interpretation of Jesus – as healer.
Jesus, in the middle of his beautiful, indescribable Scriptural interpretation, is interrupted by every preacher’s nightmare – unruly, undesired, unexpected shouting. Jesus grew up in a temple setting. He knew that folks milled around, coughed and rummaged through pockets for tissues, tapped feet in impatience. He knew that temples were places where the weary could rest and the curious could find their fill. He knew that a good temple, a healthy and hopeful temple, would keep its doors open for whomever walked in late and that those standing by the doors would welcome the stranger with a smile. So when this man walked in, I can’t help but think that Jesus’ gaze settled on him for he knew what was going to happen and he knew that the rest of the congregation had no idea what was about to take place. People walking in and out, to and from was normal, was expected. But then…the shouting. Gravelly voices emerged from from the depths of the earth, the man’s twisted mouth making terrifying noises. I imagine everyone else tensed, their shoulders grazing their ears. But not Jesus, not this new teacher with power and might. Jesus was waiting for him, waiting to embody the ministry he came to share.
To be shouted at, screamed at, is a terrifying thing, especially when the person screaming speaks seeds of truth. When I taught in Brooklyn, a mother once came into my classroom, mouth blazing with malice. She opened the door and began bellowing at me for the ways I was pushing her son. My body went into quick flight or fight mode, muscles tensing, spine lengthening. All I could think about were the ways I had pushed her son – demanding better work, expecting better behavior – she was right, even in her anger. The classroom assistants stood guard over our students as I held back the two trying to protect me. Each word she spat at me washed over my whole body, filling me with anger and regret and confidence and fear and every darn feeling I’d felt those years. I was speechless in her presence, unable to defend myself except to keep silent. I knew that every child in that room was as flabbergasted as I was, as fearful as I was. Their eyes wide, quickly glancing back and forth at the two of us in a showdown. It wasn’t until she was removed from my room that I realized how utterly speechless I had been, how unable to silence her and comfort her and assure her that I was indeed caring for her son with all I had in me. But to be caught off guard like that, I had no recourse, no plan of action. Usually quick with my words and ready to fight, I fell flat in the face of the truth she spoke.
So when I hear what Jesus did next, I can’t help but feel better about myself. I couldn’t have done what he did; my authority then and now and ever shall be miniscule in comparison.
As the man cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God," Jesus does not back down nor does Jesus flinch when the unclean spirit recognizes him as the Holy One. Remember – this is the very first scene of Jesus’ public ministry. No one knows yet that he is the Messiah. No one knows yet that he is the One the prophets promised. To be sure, the four new disciples sensed something was different about him and we hear that just moments earlier, the congregation at the temple were equally astonished but all these people were still speechless, still without words to describe what they were seeing. And yet, the one whom society pushed out the most, the one who was considered impure and dirty and despicable – something inside him knew what Jesus was about.
This is where our Good News comes in: Jesus isn’t afraid. Jesus isn’t afraid of confrontation or of the darkness that rests in this man. Jesus isn’t disgusted by him or ashamed that one of his children is in such pain. Jesus walks right up to the man and deals with him, face on, words flying with violent force. Jesus isn’t only fearless; Jesus desires a relationship with the man no one else wants to approach. And if Jesus desires a relationship with this man, how can he not hope to be in relationship with you?
Did Jesus stand even closer to the man now? Did he put his hands on him or look at him right in the eye? We know what happens next, what Mark emphasizes: with authority from heaven, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and says, "Be silent, and come out of him!" Two commands and the spirit was gone. It is likely that this man had been ostracized from his community for a lengthy amount of time, considered unworthy and untouchable. It is likely that this man had little to no resources and that he had been unwelcomed in all arenas of shared life. But in this moment, Jesus Christ lets go of all social cues, of all social norms, of all the false frameworks that make up society and he does what he came to do – to heal, to make others whole, to save.
Jesus isn’t afraid of this man. He isn’t afraid of whatever has been done before. Of the anger that courses through this man’s veins. Of the self-hatred that keeps him from receiving love. Of the ways choices have put himself before his family or put money and pride above relationships. Jesus isn’t afraid of the ways this person treated others – parents or children or friends or of the ceaseless harmful words spoken. Jesus doesn’t flinch when he sees that this person in front of him is exhausted from constantly trying to be somebody different, from trying to keep up with everyone else or when he sees how lowly his self-esteem sits. Jesus doesn’t back down or ignore the person in front of him. Ours is not a passive Savior. Christ actively confronts his beloved child and says, "I am not afraid of whatever is inside of you. You are mine and my hope for you does not ever go away. So be silent and listen – you are worthy and I will never leave you."
There are many Friday mornings when Blair and I exchange emails that go like this: "If you want to cry, listen to Storycorps this morning" or "I could barely drive through all the tears!" For those of you that listen to NPR on Friday mornings, you might feel the same way. A program called Storycorps chronicles short conversations of everyday citizens to be housed in the Library of Congress – a sort of audio diary of American life. In December, the story of Ruth Coker Burks told of a dark time in history when the AIDS epidemic tore through our cultural understanding of purity, of sexuality, of uncleanliness and of who deserves care. Ruth was visiting a friend at the Little Rock hospital where one of the first AIDS patients in Arkansas was actively dying. Ignoring all protocol and fear, Ruth walked into this stranger’s hospital room to check on him. He kept asking for his mother so Ruth went to the nurses’ station to honor his request. The nurses said to her, "Honey, his mama’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming." Ruth walked right back to his room and stayed with him for the next 13 hours until he drew his last breath. When he passed, Ruth called his mother who – terrified, ignorant, torn – refused to bury him. Ruth, unafraid and filled with boundless love, took his body, cremated it, and buried him in her family’s cemetery. For the next several decades, Ruth tended to over 1000 AIDS patients, burying over 40 of them next to her own kin. In the interview, Ruth is talking to Paul, the partner of one of her beloved patients who says, "You were the only person that we could call. There wasn’t a doctor. There wasn’t a nurse. There wasn’t anyone. It was just you. … You loved them more than their families could. You loved them more than their church could. Now it almost looks like looking back into another world." Ruth responds, unfettered and unwavering in her confidence, "It really does. It was such a horrible time. But we’re still standing."
The Good News is this, friends: Christ is still standing all these years – still standing right in front of you, confronting you, waiting for you to believe: you are worthy of approach, you are his, you are forever healed by his boundless love. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. "Caring For AIDS Patients, ‘When No One Else Would’", NPR. For more reading, see here.