1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
Rev. Doug Van Doren
You see someone walking down the street, you notice them, because they look different....a total non-conformist. Are they "free," a "free spirit," or are they hounded by a particular demon - the need to be noticed, to prove that they are their own person?
She is someone who always puts the other person's needs and desires above her own. Is she thoughtful, freely selfless, or is she constrained to see others as more important than she is. In her mind, is she not worthy or allowed to have needs, ideas, opinions, and to meet them?
What does it mean to be free in a Christian sense?
By the title of this sermon you might think I am referring to 60's style liberation, but I am not ... quite. The title of this sermon, "Liberated Love," is, I believe, descriptive of Christian freedom. What is Liberation in a Christian sense, more particularly, in Christian Community? That is what both these texts deal with. Both texts make it pretty clear that Jesus is the source of our liberation. I think it is also clear that he is our model for the person who is truly free.
Let's start by unpacking these texts.
Mark 1:21-28 begins with Jesus teaching "as one with authority," unlike the Scribes. "Authority," doesn't just mean that it "sounds" right. The Scribes were keepers of the law. They only quoted others such as Rabbinical teachings or Midrash which are stories interpreting the law. Jesus interpreted the texts and laws himself. He spoke his own understanding and interpretation. Notice that the people are amazed, NOT only after his exorcism of the demon, but at his preaching, his authority, and the New Word that he brings. That is what amazed them.
What about this exorcism? Jesus casts out a demon. We would make a mistake if we do what moderns often do with texts like this, and that is to try to analyze them from a 21st century perspective. That is, did it really happen, was it a seizure disorder, a mental illness, etc? In first century Palestine it was taken as a matter of fact that there were non-material existences of a personal sort. They were rebellious to God, hostile to human well-being, and, occasionally, they inhabited people. It was also a matter of course in that time that there were people who exhibited extraordinary power and magic. Is Jesus merely one of those? It's clear from the text that he is not. His power is in his word. It is connected to authority and not, like magicians, to his hocus pocus, magic incantation, machinations, and the like. It is connected to his spiritual authority.
What is important for us to be aware of here is the result of the demon possession. People were helpless in the grasp of them. They could not free themselves. It was not a matter of will, or of having done bad things from which simple repentance was needed. No; one needed a liberator. Jesus has the power to free one from this state of enslavement.
Though we don't see the world that way today, and don't talk of demon possession as a routine matter, we can relate to the sense of powerlessness. We know what it is like to be in the grip of things over which we seem quite helpless and that seem to have a life of their own. Tom Troeger seeks to name some of those things in the hymn we just sang. The claim of Jesus as the liberator still rings true, even though the nature of what holds us captive is understood differently. But we would be making a big mistake if we saw this text and possession of demons in Mark as referring to something strictly personal. Following the analysis by Chad Meyer, I am quite convinced that Mark's community sees Jesus as the Liberator not only from personal demons over which they felt helpless, but also from the political forces which occupied them. That is, the established religion of law (represented by the Scribes) and Rome. The conflict with the Scribes in the synagogue at the beginning of this text sets up this whole scene. The reference by the demon as "us" no doubt refers to the Scribes and to the whole oppressive religious establishment.
This is Jesus' first exorcism; after he has demonstrated his power over the oppressive and possessive religious forces. Next, he demonstrates his power over physical forces like leprosy, paralysis, and a withered limb (all of which separated one from the religious community and therefore from God.) He then demonstrates his power over Roman possession. Remember the Gerasene Demoniac, who lived among the tombs and could not be restrained because he was so powerful? He refers to himself as "Legion." Anyone in Mark's day would have heard that as a reference to a Roman Legion. Jesus casts the demons out of him and into the swine (clearly something very non-Jewish and a common reference for Roman soldiers) and the number of swine represents the number of a Roman Legion. The community that brought us the Gospel of Mark is being clear that Jesus is the Liberator. He makes us whole, not just spiritually, but in our entire being. His revolution, his new world, is a liberated world in which only liberated people can fully live. Jesus calls us to freedom in our personal lives, in our social lives, and in our lives as citizens of a secular realm.
Paul's community in Corinth has caught this reality of freedom in Christ and through Christ's word. Though many are Jews, they know that the law does not apply. Nowhere was the law more clear and restrictive than in relation to food. In Corinth, any food bought at the market likely had been sacrificed to idols. To eat it would be a clear and flagrant violation of Jewish food laws. No doubt, the more "liberated" among them, or in reality, the more militant, were flaunting their newfound freedom. They were eating meat with wonton abandon. This was their equivalent of burning bras and draft cards in the 60's. Paul says that they are perfectly right. In Christ, they are free. They are free to eat meat or not, to follow the laws or not. They know there are no other gods, at least none that they follow, and no other lord's including the secular authorities. Jesus is Lord, the only One to whom allegiance is pledged. There is, however, something that overrides their freedom-that is love of neighbor, concern for how your behavior affects another. It doesn't matter that it is technically OK for any follower of Jesus to eat meat. If one, in his or her conscience, feels it is religiously wrong, then it is wrong for him or her. Likely they will come to the place of full liberation, but until they do, eating meat in front of them is wrong, as it may lead them astray in their own conscience.
It is clear and simple: There is a higher ethic than personal freedom. That is love.
Let me hasten to be clear that this understanding of suppressing one's own needs for another has been used and abused by dominant people to further oppress those already on the bottom. It has been used against women. It was long used by the dominant church in South and Central America to justify the oppression of Campesinos. There are countless other examples. Notice that Jesus is speaking his liberation to the oppressed. And Paul is speaking his limit on freedom to the dominant group. That is, to those who were lording and flaunting their freedom over others. There is no justification here to be a doormat or to refrain from working on behalf of one's own liberation and that of others. In fact, that is what it is all about.
The liberation Jesus brings is global. It is global in that it entails all of me - heart, soul, body, and living situation. It is global in that it includes the world, "for the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it." Jesus is the clearest example of "liberated love." As God, Jesus is free not to be human, but takes on human form. He was free not to go to the cross but, in love, chooses to. He was free of mind and spirit, to not fall prisoner to the law or to the captivity of mind and hope under Roman occupation. He was free to associate with those whom society said were unclean - to love the outcast and see the worth of those society labeled as worth less.
We have many examples. A friend of mine named Dumasani was freed from a South African jail under apartheid and allowed to come to the U. S. where he could have lived comfortably as a university professor. Instead of staying in the U.S., out of love for others, he went back to work for liberation. I think of John McCain who refused release from the concentration camp as a privilege of rank before others were released. I think of every parent who gives up any number of things for their children and every truly loving spouse as well.
To be liberated allows us to love ourselves as well and thus to be more loveable, for we are not defined by those things over which we seem to have so little control. To be liberated means to see and admit our own flaws, mistakes, and sins - to work on those things we can, and to accept those things we cannot as part of us not the whole of us. Are you free; free to love?
What are your demons, those things from which Jesus calls you to be liberated? What are those things that keep you from engaging life with joy and keep you from caring as much for others and helping them engage life with joy? What is it that makes you less loveable than God made you to be? Is your demon addiction to drugs, food, alcohol, pornography, or money? Is it your self-perception, your body image, your rigidity of mind or spirit? Is it the holding of grudges, the inability to forgive or, at least, let go? Is it your unwillingness to try to see the world through someone else's eyes? Is it an over- developed need for approval or attention? Is it that gut belief that "I am only worth what I do, that nobody will really be there for me, or that if they really knew me, they would not like me?" Is it a difficult family situation, feeling trapped with no good option? Perhaps it is your physical condition, a chronic illness, debilitating, or life-threatening disease. Our demons are legion, but we are not alone in contending with them.
I invite you now, if you are willing, to take the hand of a person next to you. If you only have a person on one side, that is fine. If you are not comfortable taking another's hand, be aware of who is seated next to you, and let's spend some time in prayer together.
"Gracious God, we come to you aware of the places where we are not free and cannot respond to the love that requires freedom to exercise. We pray not only to be free in mind and body, but free in the places where we live and work and in our home, city, and nation.
We pray for those in this world who are captive to tyranny and oppression. We pray for people, especially children in Gaza, and for older, middle-aged persons there who have only known occupation. We pray for refugees from Iraq who will never have a home to go back to. We pray for women whose bodies are not their own, forced into marriage, imprisoned at home by tradition, law, religious practice, abusive husbands, or societal bias.
God, free us. Free our tongues, our hands, our hearts that are captive to our own fears, self-consciousness, and self-centeredness. Free us from words of anger and belittlement, from opinions that leave no room for others. Free our words held captive for too long - words of encouragement to others, praise for our children, affection for our life-mates.
God, hear our prayers now for the people whose hands we hold, those seated beside us. We do not know their demons, though of some of them we have a sense. But you do, and they do all too well.
Ease them from the haunt of anything but your grace. Let your liberating love flow into all their stuck places, into all their angry corners, their helpless struggles and hopeless rages. Allow them to breathe deep your liberating love. Free them from condemning words of mothers, fathers, scripture, and society. Open the door of imprisoned hearts and over-shadowed hopes. Free them from images of themselves as anything but your beloved child. Spirit of Christ, free them, if not from their malady, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, free them from its power. Free them from its power to govern how they feel about themselves, the future, and how they act this day.