Here we are, only twenty-one verses into Mark’s gospel, and already we’re moving at breakneck speed. Reading Mark’s gospel, it’s hard not to get whiplash, hard not to get the heart racing, as this story will stop for nothing and no-one until Jesus finally accomplishes his life-saving mission.
While other gospels have more pastoral moments, more moments that position Jesus as the strong silent type, a teacher who loves quiet gardens and abandoned coves to pray, Mark’s version won’t let us look away from the immediacy of everything Jesus is up to. There’s barely a moment to catch our breath.
And while the analogy isn’t perfect, it seems to me Mark’s Jesus is an ancient near-eastern Keanu Reeves. Not Bill & Ted era Keanu - more Speed era Keanu. We’re on the bus, Sandra Bullock at the wheel, and Jesus is making sure the speed doesn’t drop below 50 miles per hour. He’s deep, intense, and always on the move, driven by an internal sense that this thing could go off at any moment.
And so today, when we pick up with Jesus in Capernaum, much has already taken place. In a few short words, Mark has set Jesus up in opposition to the emperor, proclaiming his divinity over and against that of Caesar. There are flashes of a riverside encounter, Jesus emerging from the chaos, a new creation. A voice from the heavens speaks, and next thing you know he’s facing all manner of torment, trial, and temptation in the wilderness. The pace slows down just enough to show Jesus foiling a family fishing trip when Simon, Andrew, James & John abandon the boat, leaving a bedraggled father figure to pull in the catch.
The story isn’t clear on this point, but somehow - whether by trick of cinematography or foreshadowing an ability to walk on water - the four friends are transported from boat to shore in the blink of an eye, joining Jesus on his urgent mission. We don’t yet know what that mission is, but with today’s gospel it’s all going to be made clear.
In the face of a world of sorrows and suffering, a world of fracture, disconnection, and power politics, Jesus brings his newfound friends into a mission of deep urgency, seemingly no time to lose. Which brings us to the skirmish in Capernaum on the windswept northern shore of Galilee.
When the sabbath, the seventh day, the day of God’s rest comes, Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. And as they listen, as words are spoken, as words are heard, as Jesus’ words sink into their aching hearts, as the implication for their lives become clear, they are astounded. Time slows.
Never in their lives, never in living memory, have they heard someone with such gravitas, such conviction, urgency, or authority.
I’ve wondered for some time:
What was it about his sermon? What was it about that voice? What was it about what he said, what he embodied? What was it about that moment when Jesus spoke and the people listened? It wasn’t, I suspect, just what he said but how he said it. Perhaps it was something about how the urgency of his prophetic message came as more than abstract notions, but as something deeply and profoundly connected to their real, everyday lives.
What was it about that moment? What is it about the moment Jesus speaks into our fragile lives, and we listen? What is it about that moment (those moments) when we stare in wonder, heart rate increasing, thoughts beginning to race, hanging by a moment. When Jesus speaks to us, looks at us with eyes of love, and we find ourselves letting go of all we held onto.
A couple of Septembers ago, on my way to facilitating an event in Montreal, I stopped in St. Catharines Ontario to see my parents. It was a good time, some one-on-one time, time to share old stories, to share meals, to catch up. They had visited a few months earlier, but I never felt as though I got the time I had wanted or needed. One on one. And the truth is, I’d been carrying something. It was a question I struggled to put words to. A question I desperately wanted, needed to ask, but wasn’t sure I could.
Until late one afternoon, sitting in the living room, each of us reading our books, I looked up and said – can I ask you guys a question? They put down what they were doing, and as I spoke, I struggled to get the words out. As I spoke, my voice cracked, and eventually, through tears, these five words made their way from my mouth to their ears: Are You Proud of Me? Those words, having crossed some invisible threshold, turned me into a sobbing mess. And, as I sat there in convulsions, wave after wave of grief, wave after wave of uncertainty, wave after wave of worry came over me.
It didn’t take them but a moment to respond. They left their chairs, came to sit next to me, to embrace me, hold my hand, to listen. To listen to the longing of my heart, a longing too deep for words. They listened and they listened. And in their listening they held me. From their listening, they responded, speaking words I longed for, words I needed to desperately needed to hear.
I needed to hear these words I hadn’t internalized. I needed to hear them in a new way. I needed to listen and to hear these words, not in some abstract assurance of love, but a love that got down on arthritic knee, holding on for dear life to make sure I knew that blessed assurance in my joints and bones. They ministered to me in the pain that I’d internalized–a pain that was still consuming me. They listened to my cries deeper than words, and chose in that moment to enter into the pain with me. In that moment, my parents preached the gospel with authority.
Jesus speaks and the people listen, because Jesus enters into the muck and filth of everyday life. He enters vulnerably into their vulnerability. He enters vulnerably into ours.
His cloak is covered in the snot and tears of we who can no longer hold it together, we who admit to our weaknesses, we who put on a brave face, but underneath it all, are falling completely apart. His authority comes not through vague assurances that everything will work out, but by entering into our griefs and sorrows with compassion and care.
Which is another way of saying that his gospel is good news, not for some life in the sweet by-and-by, but one that identifies with you, me, all of us in the sweet here-and-now. Jesus’ gospel walks with us, talks with us, and if that’s what it takes, he bends down on arthritic knee to hold us in arms of love that will not let go. What Jesus says and what he does are neither abstract nor distant. He is present, immanent, intimate. Jesus’ gospel, a good news that resounds to this day, contends that God still acts, God still speaks, and that maybe - just maybe - God is speaking right now, if only we’d listen.
And so they listen as we listen. They listen for a word of love. A word of hope. A word of belonging. A word declaring that they are enough. They listen as we listen for a word that will turn the world on its head, will restore our faith, will bring sense out of disorienting madness, making another world, making new relationship possible.
And yet before we can think too much about such things, a man enters the synagogue, a man Mark describes as having an unclean spirit. With our modern ears, these words are all too easy to dismiss. We’re too smart to believe in spirits, too sophisticated to be frightened by ghosts. And yet, if we pride ourselves too much on our cleverness, we’ll miss it. We’ll miss what the author is doing, invoking the apocalyptic tradition, the kind of revelation we encounter in the book of Daniel and elsewhere in the scriptures. Invoking this biblical tradition, Mark is setting up a high stakes cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, one that will ultimately name the world, its pain, and its promise.
The unnamed man comes in ranting and raving, crying out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
Like the Gerasene demoniac we will encounter in Chapter Five, this Spirit is a plurality, is multiple. The spirit is a sign of division, of competing priorities, identities, and allegiances. This Spirit is one that is torn from its humanity by its focus on power, domination, and control. With this man and the unclean spirit showing up just after the people question the authority of the religious establishment, Mark is drawing a line in the sand. This is a boundary dispute between the life-giving, reconciling way of Jesus and the death-dealing ways of power, domination, and control.
We live in a world where the church still has memory of its centrality and power.
I sometimes think that the numbers in the fabled Sunday Schools of yore, the church and all its bustling activity helped us, at least in some instances, to believe that God was on our side for that reason alone.
Yet what Jesus models in today’s gospel is not about numbers. At least not the exponentially growing kind. And it’s certainly not about fame and fortune, the record deal, the movie contract. Jesus silences the spirit who would spread word of what he’s up to. What Jesus models, what he calls us to model today, is steadfast resistance against domination, power, and control.
The gospel that Jesus embodies and proclaims is not a means of escape but a path towards the heart of the gospel, a good news embodied response to this suffering world. Jesus points us to jump back on that bus and rally the others as we struggle to care for one another in the midst of a world gone mad.
Jesus is a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home. He boards the bus, comes into our lives at the very place that the pain in our hearts and the needs of our community are found. That is, of course, the message of the cross. God will not abandon Jesus, will not abandon us, even in our darkest hour. And in this, Jesus shows us the way forward. The way of Jesus, and the way of the church is the way of compassionate vulnerable love. A love that is willing to put its body on the line, arthritic knees and all, to enter deeply into the wounds of our suffering world.
If the church is to speak with any authority in this world again, it will not be with a voice of power, but the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, the voice of the one we encounter today. If the church is to speak with any authority in this world again, it will be a church that enters vulnerably into the vulnerability of the world - our vulnerability, the vulnerability of our friends, family, neighbours, and all whom we meet.
And so, if the church, Christ’s very body, is to speak once again with authority, it will not be aloof nor will it come through proclamations from on high. Instead, the church’s authority will be found in accepting its share in people’s suffering. It will come from our willingness to identify ourselves with the crucified people of the world, to cast our lot with them.
It will come as we open up space for those without warm places to stay. It will come as we head into the world and embody deep care for those our society has pushed to the margins. It will come in our own relationships as we move beyond surface conversations to vulnerably share in the reality of each others’ lives. It will come as we bear witness to the mystery of the divine, as we celebrate beauty in creativity and art. It will come when we dare to ask bold questions about what is standing in the way of human flourishing and the common good. It will come as we resist ecological devastation and put our bodies on the line for God’s beloved creation. It will come as we stand side by side with queer and trans folks defending their humanity as God’s beloved. It will come as we sit patiently at a dear friend’s bedside, and when we resist the temptation to lie when someone asks how we’re doing and tell them everything’s fine.
Jesus enters vulnerably into our vulnerability and bids us follow him. To the cross. To the table. To our relationships and to the streets. But before we do that, he reminds us, with deep urgency, of this truth: I love you. I’m proud of you. And we’re going to do this side by side.