“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24)
Today’s Gospel reading begs the question, “Who is Jesus?” and beyond that “Who is Jesus, to me?”
When I read current articles about or by the Church, I find all sorts of information about what we are doing or what needs to be done in the areas of disaster management, social justice, reconciliation, environmental education, and alleviation of poverty. These are all good things, but I do not hear much about the thing that separates us from all the secular non-profit groups who are doing the same things, some of them much better than we are. The one thing that supposedly makes us different is that we do these things as a natural extension of our belief that Jesus of Nazareth is our Lord, and we believe him to be God incarnate and the Savior of the world.
I have been re-reading some of C S Lewis’s books and listening to some of his talks on Audible for the last couple of weeks in preparation for our upcoming Wednesday night study of him and his writings. Two of his better-known quotes are – “Christianity, if false, is of no importance and, if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (God in the Dock) and “Either this man [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse…. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (Mere Christianity)
I must agree with C. S. Lewis. If we look at the lives of the early Christians, their primary focus was on telling others the story about who they believed Jesus to be and what they believed he had done for them and everyone else.
This is exactly what Mark is doing in his Gospel. There is an urgency in Mark’s gospel that we do not always catch reading it in bits and pieces in English. It is an urgency he places in the life of Jesus and I think an urgency that he fells to get his message out. Mark’s stories read almost like newspaper headlines, so details he includes he includes with a purpose.
Mark indicates that shortly after Jesus’ baptism John the Baptist is put in prison and at that time Jesus leaves the area, probably near Jericho where John had been baptizing, and travels to Galilee. Mark does not give us any detail about what prompted Jesus to pick Capernaum, however, the gospel of John suggests that Andrew, Peter’s brother had been a disciple of John the Baptist and first met Jesus in that context. Andrew and Peter both lived in Capernaum.
Jesus is at the waterfront in Capernaum and calls out to Peter, Andrew, James, and John while they are in the middle of taking care of the family business. He does not suggest that they get together after work and discuss a business proposition. He says, “Follow me,” and they drop what they are doing and follow him. Mark emphasizes the immediate response of all four fisherman. After calling the four, Jesus’ first stop is at a synagogue on the Sabbath. He arrives at the synagogue and begins teaching.
I have often wondered if George Lucas had some of these images of Jesus in his mind when he wrote the scene in Star Wars where Obi Wan Kenobi speaks to the guards and seems to be doing a bit of mind control on them. I do not believe Jesus does mind control on people, it would be contrary to the nature of God, but he obviously had an incredible charism exemplified in the way some people did what he asked, as odd as it may seem, without question. We are also told that when he taught, it was “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) I cannot help but feel a little empathy for the scribes. They probably did a very good job of teaching what they were taught and attributing statements to the earlier rabbis whose authority had been established. It is what most of us who teach do. But we are told Jesus spoke with an authority all his own and one that was obvious to those who heard him.
While he is teaching, a man appears who has an “unclean spirit.” Something about the man, be it a mental health issue, a moral issue, or actual demon possession sets him outside the parameters of what was allowed in the community. When he hears Jesus speaking, he shouts 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.” (Mark 1:24)
It is unfortunate that the word believe holds such a broad spectrum of meaning, especially when it concerns Jesus. One can chose to believe or disbelieve that Jesus ever existed or if he did exist, that he said and did those things that are written about him. There are a great many learned people who have written books claiming to believe in the historical Jesus but trying to explain away the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Jesus’s various miracles. I do not think you can do both, unless you believe the apostles and early church fathers and mothers were all delusional or liars.
In our gospel passage today the man with the unclean spirit, not only believes Jesus to be a historical figure, but he confesses that Jesus is “the Holy One of God.” He does not make this statement in great joy as Simeon did when he held the infant Jesus and proclaimed, “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” This man’s cry is a cry of fear in recognizing the one whose power for good was greater than his power for evil. “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.” Acknowledgement of who Jesus is without submission to Jesus’ will is not what God wants. Jesus commands the spirit to “Be silent, and come out of him!” We get a picture of this unclean spirit fighting to hold on to the man, but it is no match for the command of Jesus, the spirit releases the man and he is healed. There are multiple references in the New Testament to Satan or demons giving intellectual assent to Jesus as the Son of God, but this is not what we mean when we say believe.
To believe as a Christian is to be like Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They did not fully understand who Jesus was, certainly not until Peter makes his confession at Caesarea Philippi. I doubt they fully understood who he was until after the Resurrection and possibly his Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, but they followed. They made Jesus their number one priority, they sat at his feet and listened to his teachings, they went out when he said go and shared the Good News. They were human. They blundered and faltered, they doubted and denied him, but they always came back and every time their faith was stronger, their perseverance more focused.
I am not going to pretend being a Christian is easy. If it were, we would come up with something besides the ultimate instrument of torture to be our logo. To throw out a couple more C S Lewis quotes, he states, ““I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (God in the Dock) But he also says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (Is Theology Poetry)
We each need to ask those two questions – first, “Who is Jesus?” Do I believe he is who the New Testament says he claimed to be, who the apostles believed him to be or do I believe something else?
“Who is Jesus to me?” If I believe as stated in the in our Baptismal Covenant that he is “the Son of God” who “was crucified, died and was buried”, “rose again”, “ascended into heaven” and “will come again to judge the quick and the dead” (Book of Common Prayer) how will we respond? If this knowledge is the most important thing we know, who will we tell?