Today’s Gospel reading from Mark comes at an early stage in Jesus’ ministry, coming in the first chapter, after Jesus has been baptised and tempted by the devil, and he has called his first disciples. So it comes at a point when Jesus was not yet well known by the general public in Judah and Galilee at the time. I think it raises three interesting points for us:
- Who Jesus is;
- The issue of exorcism;
- The issue of mental illness.
We are still in Epiphany – only just – as Candlemas falls on Friday, and Epiphany is when we are looking about the revelation of Jesus, the stories that show us who Jesus is and what he is about. And in this story, Jesus goes to the synagogue and takes part in the service, talking about the readings from scripture and what the congregation might learn from that: he’s effectively giving the sermon. And you may well have had the experience when you have a visiting preacher or a new vicar and what they have to say and how they say it really has an impact on you. They know what they are talking about, and they say it with confidence, and it’s like they’re on God’s wavelength, and they come across with spiritual conviction. It’s one of those lightbulb moments – it all starts to make sense. So the congregation in the synagogue that day heard Jesus talking, and it made a real impression on them – they remark on how he talks with authority.
This story tells us something about who Jesus is. It gives us a picture of Jesus through the eyes of the congregation that day who were hearing him teach for the first time. It shows that Jesus was the genuine article, that he knew God, that he came from God, that his teaching made spiritual sense.
Jesus’ preaching that day raises a reaction from a member of the congregation who starts heckling Jesus and shouting out at him. The reading describes the man as “having un unclean spirit.” Jesus rebukes the spirit and drives it out, and so heals the man. This leads us to the second issue raised by the story raises – about exorcism and demon possession. This is not something that our culture is very comfortable with, because it starts from a world view that there are unfriendly negative supernatural forces out there that influence people directly.
But people with knowledge and experience warn us against dismissing these things too quickly. John Woolmer was a priest and missionary with a lot of experience who encountered the real presence of evil in people and places, and learnt how to minister to these situations. His book came out last year, so he is talking about very contemporary occurrences. CS Lewis also taught that if we disbelieve in the devil, it gives him more space to act in our lives.
In the Church of England, every Diocese has a deliverance team, who support the parish clergy in matters to do with deliverance, but the clergy are the first port of call. I do get phone calls every now and then from people who think their house might be haunted or that there are strange things going on which they think might have a supernatural cause. I go to the house, talk to the family about their experiences and say some prayers. I might bless the house and sprinkle it with holy water. I might have a service of Holy Communion in the house. What’s really going on? I don’t always know. People get fearful for all sorts of reasons. One women I went to see about three times. She liked to watch psychic programmes on the television, so it was almost as if she was looking for spirits in her home. She lived in an older property with a blocked up fireplace, and there were all sorts of noises in the house. I really didn’t think it was haunted. But I have been to houses where there did seem to be something strange happening.
Exorcism of property is one thing; exorcism of people is another thing entirely. Church of England clergy are not allowed to undertake exorcism of people without the knowledge and involvement of the deliverance team, the bishop, and a qualified psychiatrist. This is because there have been situations in the past when there have been terrible and tragic results. It takes a lot of prayer, wisdom and discernment to decide that somebody is under demonic influence.
Within the baptism service there is a prayer asking God to deliver the candidate from the powers of darkness – this is a gentle prayer of exorcism. I will be saying that prayer later on for baby Alice when we baptise her.
When we read stories of exorcism in the Gospels, we tend to reinterpret them as stories about Jesus healing people with mental illness. And that leads us to the third issue I want to think about today. It is an area of illness and therapeutic care that we do not, as a society, understand very well. It covers such a lot of different conditions which can cause great distress to people and their families. It can make people behave in strange ways. Because these things are not understood, it generates a lot of fear. Society doesn’t know how to handle it. There is a lot of stigma.
For us here, we need to make the church to be a safe and welcoming place for all people, where people are accepted whatever their diagnosis or condition, and we need to take opportunities to challenge the stigma. Jesus healed people, and part of that was about engaging with them and being there for them.
Today’s Gospel reading is a challenge to us, a challenge to deepen our knowledge of who Jesus is and the authority with which he addresses us, a challenge to our attitudes to the supernatural, and a challenge to our attitudes to people with mental illness. We are called to be more like Jesus in the quality of our welcome and acceptance of others.