“Have you come to destroy us?” Fear in the church – then and now.

Capernaum – an ordinary sabbath, with Jesus in the centre of a teaching event at the synagogue. He is turning heads, for they have never heard anyone teach like he does – authority, they say – that’s the secret ingredient. He knows his business – everyone says so – so an interruption is not welcome. Mark’s gospel says the man had an unclean spirit. We assume he is mentally unbalanced; an unfortunate soul with no self control. But I don’t think that is the problem.
He was part of this learning and worshipping community. Synagogue is the word we use to describe the meeting place for Jewish worship (today). It comes from a greek word that means ‘a coming together’ or ‘a gathering’. Here all were ready to listen, and most were allowed to speak. And in the middle of Jesus’ exposition of the text for the day, a man shouts out; “What have you to do with US, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
His spirit is akatharthos ; that is the Greek for the word usually translated ‘unclean’, or sometimes ‘impure’. It’s root word is familiar to us – catharsis; used to describe an event that cleanses the soul, or rejuvenates us in some way.  This is not a cathartic moment for him, but the opposite – a-cathartic.
The anonymous man is really upset; He speaks of collective destruction, but claims personal insight into the person (and mission) of Jesus “I Know Who You Are…” Perhaps he thinks that he should speak aloud the fears of the congregation? Is he the voice of reason – does he have the word of God on this day – or does he imagine himself the conscience of the congregation? Is it his duty to call their attention to the way things are, and always have been? It is worth thinking about, for it offers us a modern parallel.
It seems that Jesus explanations (of the things of God) – while they carry the weight of authority, and set some minds at ease – have also unsettled others; and that is a difficult thing. The question of the faithful in every time and place is constant; “How do we know this is from God?” But the response of the man in Mark’s gospel presents us with a more useful question, in my opinion: “What do we do when it IS from God?”
We are not always ready (or willing) to ask the “what next” questions in the church. As we seek to discern the word and will of God – something that we acknowledge as very difficult, and fraught with questions of understanding and interpretation – we forget that there will eventually be a second step; how do we carry out that will or act according to God’s word? It is easier to argue about who is right than it is to decide how to act, or how to live – and while the Spirit of God continues to work, and the redemption of all creation continues according to God’s schedule, the people of God, and the Church of Christ, appear paralyzed. We fearfully protect what we think know and what we imagine is ours. Jesus stands with us in the present and calls us into the future, but we are not sure we can follow. The fear that we may be wrong in our interpretation of God’s word and will makes study and argument preferable to action. Let me offer a current example.
Once more the Presbyterian Church in Canada is bracing for a conversation on the place of homosexual people in the church – overtures urging the church to remove the barriers that exclude homosexual people from fuller activity within the PCC have been referred to various committees in anticipation of this summer’s General Assembly. Currently, ordination of homosexual persons is permitted, so long as they remain single and celibate. It goes without saying that there have also been overtures appealing for the status quo. The church has gone back and forth over this question since the early nineties, and the conversation has been stunted and stifled because, at nearly every opportunity, people have been frightened by the “what’s next” question. Lately, an increasing number of Presbyteries, Congregations, Ministers and members have come to believe that God is calling the church to move forward in love and acceptance, and when we think about what that looks like, tempers get short.
So Jesus comes to synagogue to propose something new, and one voice dares to speak for them all; “What have you do do with us… Have you come to destroy us…?” It may be that what Jesus says will undo all that his community held dear. Will the ‘authoritative’ teaching of Jesus be the end of human held power and authority in this place? Promises of a new covenant, a covenant of grace and love, will be the death of any kingdom held together by fear – and that idea – that fear – is what unsettles both this man’s spirit and the modern church. But the good news is that fear is the kind of demon that Jesus can cast aside with ease.
Be quiet – come out of him – leave him alone. In the presence of Jesus, fear is revealed as not only powerless but troublesome and divisive – and at a word from Jesus, the man is returned to his own mind with a great cry and convulsions – the division is healed and the congregation is left to marvel at Jesus’ wisdom and authority.
Jesus – who faced death without fear; who forgave his captors and agonized for his executioners – Jesus has every right to rearrange the attitudes of those who claim his saving grace.
Jesus, who would silence voices of suspicion and doubt – not because doubt is bad, but because too much doubt fosters a fear that is not consistent with the gospel – Jesus rightly challenges those who would preserve structures that do not reflect God’s kingdom virtues of grace and forgiveness.
Jesus – who is for us the Word made flesh; God with us – represents wholeness and contentment in the kingdom, and so would banish the unsettled (unclean/ἀκάθαρτος) spirits from our midst, and free us to act. It was good news that day in Capernaum, and it is good news for us today.


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