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the church of the exorcism

February 22nd, 2012 by isaac · No Comments

Tile: The Church of the Exorcism.
Text: Mark 1:21-28, 1 Cor 8:1-13
Date: Jan 29, 2012
Author: Isaac S. Villegas

It is the Sabbath and Jesus is worshiping in the local synagogue. He preaches the good news and the people are impressed. All of a sudden an unclean spirit reveals itself, having taken possession of a fellow worshiper. The spirit speaks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (Mk 1:24) Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man alone. So the spirit departs, but as it leaves, the spirit convulses the man, shaking him.

This is what happens with Jesus shows up. There’s confrontation. The presence of Jesus is a provocation. His message lures the enemy out from its hiding place. When Jesus comes among us, the demonic is exposed — the powers that hold us captive are unmasked, the spirits that consume us are put on display.

When Jesus shows up, the spirits of this world, the spirits of this world that is passing away — they can’t help but cry out with shouts of protest as everything shudders.

This man in the synagogue — his story is our story, what happens to his body is what is happening to our extended body, as we come together as the church, being drawn further and further into the reality of Jesus’ way of life, of liberation from all the forces of this world that work against life, that destroy life, that corrupt what God has made good. As Jesus says elsewhere, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Jesus is a force of life; the unclean spirit in the story knows this and lashes out. Jesus is a presence of life that threatens the dominion of the forces of dehumanization, of subjugation.

This is the gospel that Paul knows — this gospel of freedom in Christ, of freedom from sin. The church is like that body in the synagogue, set free from the dominion of foreign powers. As Paul put it in our passage from last week, from 1 Corinthians 7: the present form of the world is passing away; the claims the world makes upon us are being undone, the spirits of this age are being exorcized, the shackles are falling away. No need to live according to the spirits of classism, or race, or of economic accumulation, or sexism and gender rules. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul says in Galatians (3:28). Those structures, those social codes, those institutions — all of them are slipping out of existence. This present world is passing away, Paul says.

This is what happens when Jesus shows up. This is what’s supposed to happen when we come together as the church. But nobody said it would be easy. They killed Jesus when he went around calling society into question. He was stirring up too much trouble, making it hard to govern people, to keep them in order; he was messing with economics and commerce, turning over tables, scattering money. The people invested in maintaining the present world quickly realized that this guy had to go.

If the man in the synagogue is any sort of model for us, of what it’s like to be set free from all the spirits that order our lives, that teach us what to do with our lives in terms of work and desires, in terms of our love, in terms of our money and time — if the man in the synagogue shows us what it’s like to be set free, then we are in for some trouble. There will be convulsing and protest.

The spirits of this world have become so internal to us; they have woven themselves into our lives so intimately that we can’t imagine life without them. What do you mean that gender no longer matters for how we organize our lives, our families, for how we talk about love and power? What do you mean that social class or political parties or work are no longer how we figure out our allegiances, our cliques?

We can see the church body in Corinth convulse and protest as they wrestle with the gospel, as the life of Jesus invites them into a new world, a new reality where all of the usual ways of ordering their lives are passing away. The issue up for discussion, in the passage we heard, is about meat scarified to idols. This is more than just about food, and it’s more than about idols — it’s about how life is organized, it’s about how people order their lives as the world is passing away.

In Corinth, in the city, animals are butchered as part of religious services; almost all of the meat in the market is sacrificed to some deity. That’s just how the food system is set up. To eat meat is to already be involved in the life of temple cults and Greco-roman gods.

There’s another thing about eating animals in Corinth. It’s impossible to separate food from social status, to separate someone’s diet from their class. Only higher-class people could afford to buy meat. And if you were among the higher-classes, dinner parties were a normal part of your life — which would definitely include lots of meat, sacrificed to the gods, of course. Meals not only defined your status, they also were the setting for business transactions. To abstain from meat would involve sacrificing your hard-earned place in society.[1]

The conflict in Paul’s church involves animals sacrificed to pagan gods, but this issue has everything to do with status, with power in the church and in the wider world. Some can afford to eat meat, and they need to do so in order to maintain their place in the world — Paul calls this group “the strong”; and others can’t afford to buy meat and they aren’t invited to dinner at houses where people eat meat — Paul calls this group “the weak.”

The people in the first group, the strong, are enlightened, they are in the know; they have knowledge about the true nature of idols and the world. Paul gives voice to this group when he says in verse 4: “as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor 8:4). It’s no big deal to eat the meat; sure, it was sacrificed to idols at some point, but that doesn’t matter because the gods don’t exist. For this group, for the strong, it works out very well for their beliefs about God to line up with their way of life; their convictions about God conveniently justify their class status.[2]

The people in the other group, the weak, are not enlightened; they don’t have the new knowledge; they think there’s something deeply wrong with any association with the temple cults, with worship services for pagan gods. And they have good reason. The holy scriptures are full of warnings against offering sacrificing to idols; they are full of stories of God’s punishment upon people who worship false gods, the gods of the nations. For this group, for the weak, they are troubled by their friends who disregard scriptural knowledge and go ahead and eat the meat, meat that the weak cannot afford.

The weak are the “others” of the text — the people who are talked about, not talked to. Paul locates himself with the strong, the upper class Christians; Paul says “we” when he talks about their position, and his teaching here seems to be addressed to their group, the strong. The weak, on the other hand, are the “others,” they are referred to in the third person, those other people. Listen for these distinctions in the following passage:

We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (v. 8)… [But] if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? (v. 10)

After Paul locates himself with the strong, as part of their group, he turns the tables on them. We could call it class betrayal. He tells them to stop eating meat. It’s not worth it, he says, because it’s tearing apart the community, and injuring the faith of the weak. “So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed” (v. 11). “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (v. 13). This is no light matter. As we know, food is more than just food; meat has everything to do social success, with business and culture, with commerce and friendships, with nothing less than all of life.

It doesn’t matter what you think you know, Paul says to the strong. It’s too easy for you to use your knowledge as a means of power, as a way to justify you’re vision for a good life. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (v. 1). Knowledge won’t set you free; enlightenment won’t save you. It’s just a useful tool to justify your position in the world, your calling. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge” (v. 2). Instead, Paul says, “anyone who loves God is known by God” (v. 4). And to love God is to love the people at church, to refrain from whatever injures them; because when you sin against them, Paul says, “you sin against Christ” (v. 12).

Where does this leave us? It leaves us there in the synagogue, with Jesus, as the man struggling with the unclean spirit, being set free from the scripts that we are forced to perform, the social codes that rule over our lives; freedom from the spirits of this age that hold onto us, that infect our thinking, that corrupt our humanity, that colonize our minds.

Jesus has come to set us free, but the freedom of Christ is a freedom to love, not freedom to live for ourselves, to live how we want, without anyone telling us what to do. No. The freedom of Christ is a freedom to love beyond ourselves, to love like Jesus loved.

The freedom of Christ doesn’t depend on knowledge, Paul says, but on the love of God — a love that confronts us, causes us to tremble and protest, because it feels like we are losing our identities, but it really means that we are only beginning to find out who we are, the beloved of God, free, finally free to be loved and to love, beyond what we’ve been in the past, beyond what others have said we are, beyond the lives that we’ve created for ourselves; because you are known by God, truly known by the One who loves you.


[1] Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 75. “The Strong were those higher-status Christians who could afford to buy meat in the market, almost all of which would have been sacrificed to some deity or another before sale. They would have found total avoidance of meat difficult, since they would have wanted—indeed, needed—to give and receive dinner invitations from other members of higher society at Corinth.”

[2] Martin, 70: “The Strong appear to have emphasized radical freedom, at least for those wise enough to know how to use it. They claim ‘gnosis,’ or knowledge, for themselves. That knowledge teaches them not to fear gods or daimons, and this lack of fear of the gods seems to be linked to a radical monotheism. They show no concern for purity regarding food, and this seems tied to a depreciation of the body.”

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