As an ordained minister, I often find myself in that thin place between superstition and faith.
If I go to church every Sunday, will God bless me and my family? If we had prayed more fervently, might she have recovered? If I preached better sermons, would more people show up?
Sometimes it’s other people making the questionable connections between their faith and what’s happening in their lives. Other times, I’m the one wondering whether something is coincidence or evidence of spiritual forces at work.
In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28), good and evil confront each other in a way that, to a twenty-first-century ear, might sound a little suspicious. Jesus and his disciples come to Capernaum, where on the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. More than just a good teacher, Jesus delivers a message that leaves the congregation “astounded.” His authoritative proclamation distinguishes him from other teachers of his day. There is a buzz amidst the people about this new, powerful preacher. And that’s exactly when evil shows up.
Immediately after describing the effect that Jesus’ teaching had on the congregation, Mark writes, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit…” It’s hard not to notice that Mark connects the preaching of Jesus with the appearance of a demon-possessed man by using the Greek word εὐθὺς, which means “immediately.” Admittedly, Mark is over-fond of using that word. It appears eleven times in the first chapter alone! Still, I don’t think this transition is an accident. For Mark, the godly message of Jesus and the arrival of an evil, unclean spirit go together sequentially, intentionally, and even causally. We might, at first, balk at such a seemingly superstitious explanation for what might just be coincidence, but I think there is reason to ask whether evil still tends to show up when God is at work.
I think it’s interesting that throughout the gospel the evil spirits that Jesus encounters seem to recognize who he is in a way that even his disciples struggle to see. In this passage, the unclean spirit says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth…I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That kind of recognition is repeated in other examples of exorcism. Why? Sure, there’s power in a name, and this could simply be an ancient form of exorcism according to which knowing the name of one’s spiritual adversary is important, but I also think it’s an indication that these encounters are a direct confrontation between good and evil. The evil within the man seeks out Jesus and identifies him in exalted terms. It’s as if the good that Jesus represents (God at work in the world) provokes the encounter with the evil that the spirit represents (forces that seek to undermine God’s work in the world).
Not long ago, I encountered a little hiccup in the life of our parish. Things seemed to be going very well. Giving was up. Attendance was up. Enthusiasm was up. And then a series of little bumps made me wonder what I had missed. Without warning, a tiny handful of people who had been faithful, eager, vocal supporters of the direction in which our church was headed began to complain about how things were going. And they did so not in a constructive, “let’s-reevaluate-things” kind of way. Their grumbling was subversive, spoken through back-channels, as if an attempt to fracture our congregation. Quickly, it passed—so quickly that hardly anyone in the congregation even noticed something was wrong. I think it disappeared so quickly because our parish is a fairly healthy system that instinctively knows that conflict and discord belong in the open. The disaffected individuals were encouraged to bring their concerns to the leaders of the parish, who listened and responded, and, in short order, everything returned to normal. But, right in the midst of the conflict, someone asked me whether I thought it was a spiritual issue.
“Do you think this is the devil at work?” he asked. The question caught me a little off-guard. I hadn’t really considered whether the issue was in any way spiritual. I had assumed that someone got his or her feelings hurt and was responding out of woundedness. Sometimes people do hurtful things simply because they are feeling hurt. But evil? I certainly wouldn’t describe the people who were upset as evil. But the man who asked me whether the issue was a spiritual one is a person of deep faith, and I trust his insights. “Just when God is really doing something powerful,” he explained, “the devil shows up and tries to ruin it.” I might not use that exact language to describe it, but I tend to agree: when good takes a stand, evil isn’t far behind.
Some of us shy away from using the label “devil” to describe the presence of evil in the world. Such a personification seems antiquated or at least out of touch with a modern perspective. “Who is the devil, really?” we might ask. Such primitive labels feel superstitious. But it’s not a coincidence that God at work in our lives reveals to us the presence and power of ungodliness all around. Perhaps that’s purely psychological. Maybe Jesus’ authoritative preaching simply enabled the congregation to see that the man with the unclean spirit was in their midst. Maybe the Spirit-inspired energy and momentum a congregation experiences highlights the pitfalls and impediments that stand in the way. Or maybe it’s more than that. Maybe we’re just afraid that the world will criticize us for using unsophisticated language to describe a real phenomenon that individuals and congregations and entire societies experience all the time. Whatever we call it and wherever it comes from, those who stand up for good should be prepared for what happens next.