15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”
1 Corinthians 8:1–13
8 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, 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.” 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For 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? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 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.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
What is a cult?
There is no easy answer to that question? In fact, when I ask it, your mind might already start spinning and thinking about some very groups that had very negative press like the Branch Davidians in Waco, or Jonestown, or the People’s Temple.
Or maybe you think that if the group is not orthodox Christian then by definition it is a cult. That is the way many Christians thought of Mormons or Christian Science or Jehovah’s Witness.
Historically and sociologically the word cult referred to set of religious and devotionally practices related to a particular figure. It was an objective term referring to worship and practice which venerated a particular person, deity or deities. One could speak of the Cult of Baal, or the cult of Dionysius, or the cult of Isis, or maybe even the cult of Jesus.
The term wasn’t meant to be pejorative, but descriptive, and in many ways Christianity by this definition was initially a breakaway Jewish cult based on the person of Jesus.
Around the 1940’s the word cult was used by Christians in North America to speak of basically any Christian group that didn’t belief the trinity as defined by the council of Nicea, or deviated from an understanding of Christianity as outlined in the apostle’s creed.
Therefore, The church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, or Christian Science, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses were considered cults.
Later on, in the 1960’s as a lot of young people dropped out of society and there were communes and hippies and free love etc. some of these young people ended up in religious organizations that encouraged people to break ties with family, and maybe used questionable tactics of indoctrination, membership and manipulation, such that some thought these people were being brainwashed.
Criticism of groups like “the Moonies” or “Hare Krishna” was that these groups were dangerous cults who brainwashed people. And there were many, many other groups that some people identified as dangerous cults.
A lot of research has shown that while some of these groups were dangerous the vast majority of people associated with these groups did not suffer undue harm and after a brief spell integrated back into so-called normal society.
But not all cults were religious. You may have heard of the Manson family and the Manson murders, which was a dangerous cult built around a personality but not a religious cult.
Some argue that terrorist groups are dangerous cults.
And I raise this whole question of cults, not because I have the perfect definition of a cult and who or what is a cult, but because today’s gospel lesson is a story of Jesus taking on evil, performing an exorcism in a holy place…
… and I think it raises the question of what is dangerous or evil in religion.
Quite a few years ago, along with a friend the Rev. Bill Lamont, I was involved with doing a workshop on cults for young people at a Youth Triennium. In those days the Presbyterian Church in Canada participated in a huge youth event for Presbyterians in North America where something like 6 thousand young people would show up every three years.
And Bill and I led a workshop on cults. We acknowledged the difficulty of the term and how it has been used pejoratively to refer mostly to dangerous cults.
And so, we focused on what was healthy or unhealthy in religious practice and said that all religious organizations and groups struggled with health and some were certainly more dangerous than others.
Some questions we suggested should be asked of any group, and we were dealing with religious groups.
To what extent does the group allow free expression and differences of opinion?
To what extent is the group controlled by one person or a couple of people who make all the rules and they are not to be questioned?
To what extent are people encouraged to be isolated and separate from their families or so-called unbelievers?
To what extent are people isolated, shunned, or excluded, or punished for breaking the rules, even minor ones?
To what extent is the leader charismatic and loyalty to the leader is paramount?
Are some of the members exploited sexually or economically or in other ways, such as not given proper medical care, because prayer will work?
Does the group have clear and transparent financial disclosure about all its economic dealings?
Does the group have a way to change the rules?
Does the group have a lot of propaganda about its beliefs and ideas; and does it have unreasonable fear about the outside world; and does it spread unvalidated conspiracy theories about the government and other parts of regular society?
To what extent do the leaders espouse violent solutions and to what extent are they emotional and/or physically abusive of those who don’t agree with them?
I suppose we could go on with that at some length with unhealthy characteristics of religious groups. And no religious group, denomination or congregation is immune. I have found as a minister that sometimes even church congregations and individuals within churches have unhealthy religious attitudes.
Manipulation of others, hiding finances, gossip, shunning, emotional abuse, not allowing freedom of expression, or expecting everyone to think the same theologically, are things that happen in all religious organizations, groups, or congregations from time to time….
Maybe earlier in my career I thought it was part of the job of a minister to correct people, to change people who were wrong in their theology. As I got older and little bit wiser I realized it was more me who was uncomfortable with theological differences, and I wasn’t really correcting people as much as trying to make them believe the same as I do.
My understanding today is that it is more important to love people and help them think through their ideas. Therefore, I find it is better to be non-judgemental in approach. The reality seems to be that the harder you argue against someone, the more that someone resists change.
Instead, people change as they learn to love and trust those who have differences, and they start to question their own beliefs and start to incorporate and synthesize those differences.
And that is why we should take note when one of the first things that Jesus does as Jesus starts his ministry, is come face to face with an evil spirit in Mark’s gospel. It raises the whole question of health and disease in religion.
First of all, I will note the use of the word “immediately.” If the gospel of Mark was a movie it would be an action movie, because Mark portrays Jesus as a man of action. And about fourty times, Mark uses the word “Immediately,” even though there are times you think that there must have been a bit of time between these events.
It is a literary device for Mark. Jesus is a man of action who is not just talking about a culture of love, Jesus is doing a culture of love. Jesus will heal. Jesus will fight evil. Jesus will teach. Jesus will do signs. Jesus will forgive. Jesus will go to the cross.
And the implication is that if follow Jesus we too will be people of action. We won’t just talk about a culture of love, we will do it.
And Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath. “Synagogue” and “Sabbath” are two important terms. They are symbols of the Jewish system or the Jewish religion. There were rules of the Jewish sabbath and rules around the synagogue. There was a tradition and an understanding of who God was and what God wanted and who was allowed in and who was “other” and not welcome.
We Presbyterians have our own rules, our own tradition, our own understanding of God and what God wants and who is “in” and who is “other” or “out.”
And Jesus has entered the synagogue to teach us something today, maybe even to challenge our tradition.
In fact, the gospel makes this very clear that Jesus has a new teaching, and it is a different teaching than that of the religious leaders of his day.
Jesus taught with authority. What does that mean? I think it means this.
There are two kinds of authority in this world. I call them internal and external. External is the authority one has, or a group has by virtue of the position that one holds.
Judges have authority. Police officers have authority. Parents have authority. Bosses have authority. Ministers have authority, and in the Presbyterian Church it is Session, Presbyteries, Synods and General Assembly with increasing authority.
And to a certain extent those with external authority make decisions that affect others, and sometimes those others do not have a say.
And while most of the time those with external authority make good decisions, sometimes those with external authority do not make good decisions, or the occasional person with external authority is a real jerk and abuses that authority.
We have witnessed the abuse of authority especially in dealing with racism about blacks or aboriginal people. We have seen bad policies at times from those in authority.
Internal authority is the ability to say something or be something which rings true and is genuine and honest and believable, whether the person has a position of authority or not.
And it is wonderful when you know that the person who has external authority has integrity. That person is demonstrating internal authority and you know they are being honest and just and fair and reasonable.
I think when it says Jesus taught with authority, that his compassion, his love, his truth, his words were so genuine and honest, so loving and compassionate that he wasn’t exercising external authority: “Do it or else” but really caring for people and telling them the truth.
And three times right in a row it talks about Jesus teaching. “Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
But what was the teaching? What was the doctrine? What was the saying or the lesson?
And it is not found in Jesus words, but in his dealing with the man with an evil spirit.
I say “Man with an evil spirit” but the actually Greek text would be literally translated this way: “ a man in an unclean spirit.”
The word “unclean” is also a code word. Remember in the Jewish tradition those who were considered unclean were not allowed to worship, and there was a whole set of rules about who was clean and unclean. Foreigners were unclean. People who were disfigured or sick were unclean. People who worked with animals or had to touch a dead body were unclean etc.
And the man in the unclean spirit cries out: What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us?
And while Jesus doesn’t really give a full answer to this question with words, Jesus just basically heals him.
Here I think is the answer and the new teaching, an authoritative teaching.
“No, I am not here to destroy you, or punish you, or hurt you, or get rid of you, or exclude you, or send you to hell; I am here to heal you, love you, free you, help you and save you.”
And this is indeed a profound teaching. The prevailing thought is that God would reward and save those who kept the commandments. And if you didn’t you were punished. End of story.
But Jesus comes not only for the good, butfor the lost, the different, the forgotten, the sick, the powerless, the prisoner and for sinners…sinners like you and me.
That is the new teaching. Jesus is here to heal you. That may mean healing from sin, healing from emotional trauma, healing of relationships, physical healing, because with Jesus all of those things are not separate, they are all tied together. If you need emotional healing of healing from sin and guilt, it will bring health to your body.
And Jesus will make this teaching more explicit with words in chapter 2 of mark’s gospel, when Jesus is criticized for eating with traitors and sinners. Jesus says: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.
That is indeed a new teadhing. Healing for those who are inside evil spirits, trapped and bound by emotional disease or addiction or unhealthy religion, or family life, that has scarred them.
And it isn’t just this person that Jesus is freeing.
Think of all those things we talked about earlier. Characteristics of unhealthy religion, often associated with what we call destructive cults.
Jesus has come to free religion and free people from unhealthy systems that privilege some and disenfranchise others.
For with Jesus there are no “others” no forgotten people, no people on the outs.
Jesus has come to free people from manipulation and dishonesty and violence and abuse especially from the systems of this world and in particular from the religious systems of this world.
As we talked about last week: “Let’s enter a culture of love.”
And then the evil spirit comes out and the word in Greek is that it throws him. One translation is that it convulses him and the man shouts as it comes out.
It is a kind of violent act.
May I remind you that when you take on evil, it is not easy. When you want to change your ways. When you want to repent. When you want to actually be a person of action who acts to love, instead of acting for self…
…it is going to wrench you a bit. I am reminded of good old Jacob who wrestled with God and won, but was lamed by the experience.
And when we deal with evil in the church and in a congregation and in an organization, it isn’t just a matter of saying; there, there, everything is all right. It takes a lot of hard work to get rid of patterns and practices of hurt and blame and prejudice.
Just look how hard it is to get racism out of the police system, or how long the Canadian military and the Canadian RCMP have struggled with abuse against women.
And believe it or not sometimes we don’t even want to be healed.
Sometimes it is seems safer and easier, just to go along with the system that is, than to fight against the evil in the system and enter a culture of love.
What would our culture today do with the man in the evil spirit?
Our culture might have gotten rid of the man in the evil spirit. Our culture might have excommunicated him, or might have sent him to jail, or might have let him walk the street homeless, and maybe roughed him up a bit, or put a knee on his neck.
Jesus healed him. Jesus makes a difference between the person and the spirit that was controlling him. Jesus can see the real child of God inside every person.
Hard to do.
Most of you know that I like movies and stories. I read and listen to books and watch all kinds of movies.
And I confess some of the stuff I watch and read and listen to have protagonists who are the supposed good guys but are often violent. One set of books I like, the protagonist is a guy by Jack Reacher. Ex-military cop he is always coming to the aid of someone who is being oppressed. But Reacher is violent. He beats up six guys at a time, and while it makes for exciting reading, this is not the sort of person to emulate. Besides I am 5 foot 5, not six foot five like Jack Reacher.
So, the question I want to ask is this: What might it mean to be a healer, instead of a fighter?
What might it mean for our congregation to be healers and a healing place?
Some of the shows I watch on television are doctor shows. I like a show called “the Good Doctor” where an autistic savant is a doctor.
Sometime when you are watching a tv medical drama there will be a situation where a criminal who has shot someone is brought into the ER. The Police Officer who is shot is also brought in. The criminal is worse than the Police officer and yet someone says: hold on, take the police officer first.
But the doctor says something like: Here we make no judgements. Our job is to heal and we deal with the sickest first.
Of course, this is television, and it is a kind of artificial situation on tv for dramatic effect.
But the principles I want us to take away as healers are these:
The doctor’s primary job is to heal. There are no judgements about character or personality.
The doctor’s job is also to stay calm, and reassure the patient. It is not to get angry at the patient, or offer no hope, or to break down and cry, or to scold.
No, it is to stay calm and give the best healing help possible and reassure the patient that everything is being done in the patient’s best interest.
You and I may not be doctors. But we can treat everyone as if we were doctors of the soul. We do no harm. We don’t judge people, but stay calm and give the best healing care we can:
Love, forgiveness, acceptance and the good news that God loves them, to everyone. Even those caught up in an sin or an evil spirit.