While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, there was a man with an unclean spirit who recognized him as the Holy One of God and cried out to him saying: “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Rather than call the ushers to throw the guy out so he could finish his sermon, or suggest that they take this up at coffee hour, Jesus stops and engages the unclean spirit. Jesus acknowledges it and speaks to it saying, “Be silent, come out of him.” And it does.
This is the first miracle that Jesus performs in Mark’s gospel, and in this little story we get the big story of who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Jesus is in the Holy Spirit received at his baptism, and he has come to liberate human beings from the unclean spirits that take up residence in our minds, bodies, and spirits. I appreciate that in this first miracle story, Mark does not talk about a man who is possessed by a demon. The story is about a man with an unclean spirit. Demon possession is the stuff of movies for most of us. I believe there are demons, evil forces in the world that seek to destroy. But I think “unclean spirit” gives us a more accessible category out of which to think about our own lives.
This guy is not raving out of control. He is not stopped at the synagogue door as unfit to join the community. By all appearances, he is a perfectly normal guy, suitably dressed and suitably behaved. Nobody knows at the outset what is going on inside of him. But there is something in him that is not all-right. Something has attached itself to him and hast in some ways trapped him in a cage that he cannot get out of. He is not identical with the unclean spirit that is hidden in him. He is more than that. But the unclean spirit is in some ways also him, and it has damaged his psyche, his body, his relationships, his ability to be more productive, more loving, more at peace.
So what is this thing that Mark calls unclean spirit and what does it have to do with us? The contrast in this gospel story is between Jesus who is possessed by Holy Spirit and this spirit that has attached itself to this man. We know what “unclean spirit” means as it sits here in contrast to Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit is Spirit that is always and only life-giving and life-affirming. Holy Spirit is always blessing, always multiplying goodness, love, peace, joy, kindness, generosity. These are the fruit of the Spirit which means that the Spirit is both the source and giver of all these good gifts. Holy Spirit is always laboring to cause all that God creates to become what God intends.
By contrast then, “unclean spirit” is spirit that is not life-giving, not life-affirming, not multiplying goodness, but instead, polluting with not-life and not-goodness. Trapping and caging us in ways that prevent us from becoming who God created us to be. We all got into this sanctuary this morning with no problem. No one else can immediately see what is going on inside of us, but none of us is free of unclean spirit. And we don’t get unclean spirit all of a sudden. It grows in us over years. It grows in us out of our life circumstances.
Maybe you grew up with a parent who was critical and withholding, maybe even verbally or physically abusive. Maybe alcoholic, given to rage or depressed and emotionally shutdown. Maybe you are gay, lesbian, or trans, and had to hide who you were, or didn’t hide but were told by the Church that you who you are is sinful and you had to change, or you were bullied or excluded. Or maybe you were born a girl and sexually abused, or harassed, or told there were things you couldn’t do, or maybe your sense of yourself as “less than” and limited was communicated much more subtly. Or maybe you are black, Hispanic, a person of color who grew up and still lives in a racist society and you inherited the deep wounds of your people and you have believed the untruths that white society has said about you.
I don’t know what your story is. But I do know that in response to all of the negative messages and experiences of our lives we find ways to survive and protect ourselves, ways to prove and defend our own self-worth, we live afraid, we live on guard, we get stuck in the limits we’ve learned, we anesthetize ourselves, we get angry or depressed, we judge, we withhold, we try to control. This isn’t by any stretch all of who any of us is. There is much goodness in us. But these are the unclean spirits that attach to us. And they do damage to our psyches and our relationships. They rob us of peace, joy, love, fruitfulness.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus comes, in the Holy Spirit, to liberate human beings from the unclean spirits that take up residence in our minds, bodies, and spirits. It was a grace that the unclean spirit cried out and revealed itself. And it was a grace that Jesus acknowledged and engaged that spirit. And it was a grace that Holy Spirit in Jesus gave him power to send that unclean spirit packing and free this man from his cage.
I wish it always happened like this for us. I wish the life-giving, life-affirming freedom Holy Spirit gives came fully, instantaneously, and permanently. It is rather more like a long slow miracle for most of us. It is a long wrestling that goes on inside of us between Holy and unclean spirit as we learn to trust that we are God’s beloved. You are God’s beloved, and nothing else that you have come to believe about yourself is more defining of your identity and your destiny than this. As Paul says in Corinthians, all things were created by God. You were created by God, you exist for God’s glory and delight, and through the life and love of Jesus, in the power of Holy Spirit, you are receiving your truest, your best, your most glorious self. This is the ground of your being. This is your release from unclean spirit. This is your freedom.
And our freedom is for love. Our freedom is nourished and lived out in community. And both our freedom and our love are tested in community. This is the point of Paul’s long discourse about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Clearly, this is not a burning issue for us. The point is that as a community together, we will not always agree about everything. In the disagreement about eating idol meat, Paul agrees with those who think it is okay. Their theological arguments are right. God really doesn’t give a hoot one way or the other.
But God does give a hoot about love. God does give a hoot about how we tend to the concerns and consciences of the other. And it means that about some things, even though you are right, you won’t insist on having your way. It is unclean spirit that must always get its way, even though it injures the other. Sometimes, we must restrain our Holy Spirit freedom for the sake of love and unity. But there are other times we must claim this freedom, even though it offends others and threatens to divide.
Elder Rob and I spent yesterday in a meeting of Classis talking about the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. There are some in our denomination who believe that LGBTQ persons are caged by unclean spirit. And they are certain that their interpretation of Scripture is right. They are prepared to cast out brothers and sisters in Christ. But as a congregation we are saying, they are wrong. Holy Spirit is telling us every person is God’s beloved. And we are together to say to each other what the Spirit is saying, “You are God’s beloved. You are God’s delight and joy and glory. Trust the truth of God’s love. Receive your freedom. In the power of Holy Spirit, become who God created you to be, and live in love.”