Today, in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus’ first day on the new job. Not a new carpentry job; this is the very beginning of his ministry. He has just called his first disciples. The business cards haven’t even been printed. But he is raring to go.
It’s the Sabbath, so he begins by teaching, but his sermon is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit, so Jesus decides to stop preaching, and teach another way. He turns to the man with the unclean spirit and addresses the spirit, not the man: “Be silent and come out of him!” And to the amazement of all, the man convulses wildly, shrieking as he does, until the spirit gives up its possession, and leaves the man peacefully sitting there before the gathered congregation.
This is an impressive first morning of work for Jesus, and he has only begun! Before the day is over he will cure Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, heal countless others in her neighborhood, and cast out even more demons, before calling it a day. Like I said, this is an impressive first day of work for our budding Savior.
But what are we to do with the report of it? How are we to evaluate stories like this, that are, frankly, hard for us to believe? It is pretty plain to see that we no longer live in an age of miracles. Or, if miracles do still happen, they are in too short supply to make a convincing case for them, or the God who parcels them out so abstemiously. I could spend the rest of my life listing and praying for the miracles I hope for, and never even account for half of the list you might come up with.
But Jesus begins his first day of ministry with a spate of miracles – like it’s his job! It’s almost as if, on this first day, he is saying, “If you want to know what I’m here for, have a look at this!” And because we - like the people at the synagogue, and gathered at Simon’s mother-in-law’s, and who came to find him in Capernaum that afternoon – we would wow-ed by miracles (if we decided we believed in them), we are impressed and confused by the way Jesus begins his work… still, it would be easy for us to conclude that this is a pretty cool job for Jesus to have: miracle worker!
But if Jesus came into the world to be a miracle worker, and if he had a good first day, and even if he had an impressive three days in Jerusalem down the line a little… still, as a miracle worker he has, in the intervening years, left something to be desired, at least to my way of thinking. I have been praying for miracles, one way or another, for years, and never witnessed one yet, of the sort described in Mark’s Gospel. So, as I read the Gospels, it seems I have at least two choices in responding to these miracles: I can sigh wistfully to myself that those were the days, sadly now long gone; or I can conclude that it’s a nice story that probably has another explanation.
But, in fact, I am not satisfied with either of those responses to the miracles of Jesus. Which is problematic, since the reason the church has told us to read this passage today is that it is one of these stories told after the Epiphany that are meant to show us who Jesus is. See, he’s the worker of wonders; he heals the sick and casts out demons; these miracles show us who Jesus is. A very sensible way to see things, I have to admit.
But I am still left a little unsatisfied, because it remains difficult for me to understand, why, in establishing his credentials, Jesus should do so in a manner of ministry that he would never, or only extremely rarely, extend to the likes of you and me. If Jesus is shown to be a miracle worker, and that’s how we know who he is, then where are the miracles for you and me?!?
So allow me to posit that the purpose of these miracles is not, in fact, to establish Jesus’ identity as the “holy one of God” as the unclean spirit correctly names him. Jesus does not stride into Capernaum and discover a tingling in his fingertips, or a rumbling in his belly, or a suspicion in his mind that allows him to wave his hands, Harry Potter-like, and with the correct incantation work all kinds of wonder. He does not begin his first day of new work intent on showing off his impressive powers.
So if he is not just showing off, let’s consider another possibility. Let’s consider the possibility that Jesus is more than a sophisticated street performer of miracles, who needs to dazzle his audience in order to get their attention and win their admiration. Let’s consider the possibility that on the morning of that Shabbat he sat teaching in the synagogue, and the words flowed easily out, prompted by the Spirit in his unfolding vocation…
… and in mid-sentence he was interrupted by this man, who, unbeknownst to Jesus (but known to everyone else in the synagogue) regularly caused a disturbance at Shabbos services, making it difficult and uncomfortable for everyone, but of course for no one more so than the man himself, though it was hard for the other congregants to appreciate that no one suffered more than he did…
… but Jesus sees all this. He sees the upset and discomfort of the congregation. And he sees the torment and suffering of the man who is possessed by an unclean spirit. Here it is the Sabbath day, and Jesus is doing what he is supposed to be doing: he is teaching and preaching…
… and on Day One of his ministry he finds himself with a congregation beset by a lunatic…
… and I don’t think that Jesus’ first thought was that, ‘Great, this is a perfect opportunity to show off!’ I don’t think Jesus had a premonition that he could really wow his audience and begin to get his name out there. I don’t think the Spirit spoke to Jesus and told him that, ‘This is your moment!’
No, I think, Jesus looked around and the awkwardness, discomfort, pain and torment all on display just in this little synagogue community, and I think he was moved to do something by love. I think Jesus looked at the man with the unclean spirit and loved him (to borrow a phrase that St. Mark will employ later on in his Gospel account). I think Jesus looked at those who had gathered to hear him teach, and he loved them, too. I think when Jesus got to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house and heard that she was sick, his whole being was still tingling with love, and all he had to do was take her by the hand and her fever broke. I think the look in his eyes was love; the breath from his nostrils was love, the sweat from his pores was love, and the touch of his hand was love. I think Jesus began his new ministry as Messiah and Savior doing what he would continue to do till they hung him on a Cross, laid him in a tomb, and came to find him in an empty grave: he loved, and he is loving still. I think Jesus’ miracles are not acts of showmanship, necessarily designed to establish his identity and authority – although they may indeed have that effect – I think they are the intended fruits of his love.
C.S. Lewis famously speculated that there is nothing supernatural about miracles at all, but rather, miracles are just a speeding up, or a short-cut, of natural processes. If that’s right, then Jesus begins his ministry with a speedy impatience born of love: he has come to bring healing, and wholeness, and forgiveness, and spiritual health, and happiness by the power of his love. And on his first day at work in this ministry it is as though he cannot contain the power of that love. This is love bursting at the seams. Love cannot help but cast out the demon. Love cannot help but break the fever. Love cannot help but cure others, and free still others from whatever spiritual, emotional, and psychological bondage they suffered. So, on Day One, the power of love that Jesus has come to teach and to preach and to practice is speeding things up everywhere! It is as though he cannot contain or control his love! And why should he?!?
It is hard for people these days to believe in the wonder-working stories about Jesus. It is hard to put much stock in ancient miracles when such wonders are not often experienced in our own day and age, despite the prayers of so many of us. But if the details of the miracles of Jesus strike us as implausible, perhaps the possibility of a love so strong that it is impatient for the promises of God is a bit easier to allow for. For the power of love is known to me in my own life and in the lives of so many others. I find it entirely plausible that God loves each and every one of us enough to want to heal us, forgive us, strengthen us, and feed us, right now.
And I know enough about history and the human condition to know that most of us have built up effective shields to God’s love – we started with fig leaves and got better at it quickly. The story of humanity is the story of distancing ourselves from God’s love, choosing to wander away from it, to prefer our own judgment to God’s, our own vision to his, to prefer our own desires to his, our own rules to God’s rules. It’s a story of preferring rivalry and murder over brotherly love, and it unspools from there, as we developed calluses, and evolved to be all but immune to the call of God’s love.
How can any believing Christian not also believe in evolution when you consider how fully we have evolved to be unsusceptible and unavailable to the love of our creator?
But also unsuspecting. We do not expect to find God’s love so immediately present in Jesus. We hardly know what to do with stories of love so untamed that it casts out demons. So we try to explain them away.
Who knows what Jesus made of it? But the Gospel is clear that the love of Jesus was tangible, powerful, a soothing and a healing balm that was spread indiscriminately as he took up his ministry. And I daresay that it wasn’t necessarily the wondrous works themselves that revealed to people who Jesus was – it was the power of his love made manifest in those works! And does that power live today?
The answer to that question is precisely the reason we come to church day by day, week by week: to seek out and to test the power of God’s love, to tap into the impatient immediacy of it, to remember that it was when Jesus gathered with those he called, just to teach them, that the impatient love of which he is made began to overtake whatever lesson it was he was teaching.
We gather to help one another see the way that love is still impatient to heal and to soothe, to set right and to forgive, to bless and to save.
We gather to tell the stories of love that begin with Jesus and go on from there, that reach into our own day and age, and even into our own lives.
We gather to feel the tingle of a love so unregulated that it will cast out demons one minute and quell a fever the next.
We gather not to recall wistfully that once there was an age of miracles, but now they are no more. Rather, we remember the love with which Jesus began his ministry and we locate it in our own lives – moving slower perhaps these days, since we have developed such good defenses, but nonetheless real, immediate, powerful, and true!
We gather because Love calls us. Love is not done with us, nor has Love become more patient in its desire for healing, forgiveness, blessing, and new life.
Love seeks to work wonders in our lives by making us the people God intended us to be, and casting out whatever it is that prevents us from becoming so.
And we gather in Love’s Presence, as whenever we gather here with Jesus, not only so we can catch a glimpse of him, but so that Jesus can see us, too, and looking on us, he may love us.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 February 2015
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia