Tag Archives: exorcism

Mary Magdalene

[Mary Magdalene is traditionally remembered on 22 July, so many churches will replace the routine readings this Sunday to turn to her story]

The “Saints” in New Testament language are defined as all faithful Christians.  Still, we often use the term for those best known, perhaps for their place in the New Testament. These have a place in our education, as examples of the grace and work of Christ in believers, and of the diversity of vocation. They also challenge our limited horizons:
to those inclined to say “This is me, this is all I am ever going to be, and all I want from religion is a bit of comfort” they offer a resounding “NO” This may be where you now start, but by God’s grace you will grow into His purposes, as they did.

Mary Magdalene was “rubbish”: a woman, and one possessed by demons until Jesus freed her (Luke 8:2)! Yet she is remarkably honoured:

  •  she is mentioned as one of the group of women who followed Jesus. Indeed, it may be significant that she is usually mentioned first.
  • she is granted the first appearance of the Resurrected Jesus (John 20), and is the “apostle to the apostles”{a medieval term from several theologians}, sent to tell them the good news
  • she has a clear place in the gospel story – not bad for a nobody (and good reason for us to revise our ideas of who “matters”!)

But be careful not to get her story wrong. Dan Brown in the da Vinci Code took ideas from the Gnostics, (and their late and untrustworthy writings, the “Gospels” of Thomas and of Mary) that she was Jesus’ lover or wife, mother of his child/children, teacher of the apostles. Wishful thinking? Inability to believe that a close relationship could not be pure? Ben Witherington notes there is NO early historical evidence that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than disciple to Master/teacher.

But let’s go back to what we know with confidence, and ask “Why, or in what way, is her life an example for us?”

  • Firstly, she accepts what God does for her. Healing, change, becoming part of a new group (and no doubt adapting to it).
  • Secondly, she re-makes her life around God’s purposes. We can only speculate about her life before: did she have family (or had they given up?) Certainly she recognises the source of her healing, and she follows. A very important part of Christian life is finding where God wants to put us, and being content to work at fitting there.
  • Thirdly and very importantly, she invites us to look again at the way Jesus relates to people. He has funny ideas about who is important. He avoids making people dependant, yet is of first importance – to beggar, scholar, and fisherman.

Saints are useful to make us think of what God does, and wants to do, with his people. We need to be careful not to read into their stories what we want to find, but there is plenty here to instruct and challenge us.

Authority – and conflict

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do, and when Jesus goes to Capernaum synagogue, it causes quite a stir. (Mark 1:21-28)
First, there’s his style. He doesn’t talk like the rabbis of the time, quoting other scholars’ comments in a learned way, claiming the authority of their study and their official position. He talks about God as if he knows directly, and tells stories of ordinary life to explain God’s love – as a shepherd searching for lost sheep, or a father finding a lost son.

The official reaction might have been to dismiss an ignorant con-man, if it had not been for the second thing. Jesus demonstrates his authority, even over unclean spirits. You can’t ignore someone who successfully heals someone who was probably known in the community. You can see the beginnings of a conflict – Jesus threatens the status quo.

[Incidentally, we sometimes wonder about “evil spirits” and mental illness. The advance of psychiatry is a great blessing, and many of those obsessed with spirits and possession need a good doctor. There is a difference in this story, in that the spirit recognises Jesus, and has knowledge beyond that of the man possessed. Despite the “Hollywood effect”, (sensationalising and sometimes trivialising,) there is a difference, but spotting it needs care and experience, and discernment by someone who is not the patient.]

The healing of the possessed man also points to a more serious conflict – Jesus is taking on, not just the vested interests of the human religious establishment, but also the evil powers enslaving humanity.

Back to talking about God. Moses had spoken to the people about God (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), and they found him less frightening than the fire on the holy mountain. Deuteronomy speaks of another prophet, to speak for God. It is a dangerous position. The words of the prophet must be listened to; but to speak as if God had given the message when he had not is to be liable to death.
Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. !

But of course, there is a good deal about danger in these readings. As we come to the end of Epiphany season, we realise not only that Jesus was shown to the world, and became known, in a number of ways:

  • Baptism,
  • calling disciples,
  • miracles,
  • teaching,
  • authority . .

but also that these things brought him into conflict. Part of the conflict was with people who wanted things to stay as they were – because they did well out of the status quo, or were afraid of what might happen, or couldn’t be bothered. Another, and perhaps better way of understanding that conflict was to see Jesus challenging evil – the darkness of fallen minds and bad customs, the evil of oppressive relationships, cruel poverty – in short, challenging the devil for supremacy on earth.

The violent metaphors for Christian life – battle, struggle, temptation, victory or defeat – are not the most popular now. As we look forward to Lent, we will find that Christian life cannot do without them, though they are not the whole story.

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. Even apart from the need to get it right, it brings us into the most fundamental conflict of all!

Gerasene demoniac dialogue (Pentecost 5c)

Some years ago I developed the idea of scripted dialogue in place of a monologue sermon.  It has some advantages – a conversational style, encouraging the idea of talking about scripture and its application, emphasising the relevance of text to contemporary Christian life etc.  This is a dialogue, for two readers in place of a sermon, which I “translated” from a sermon written previously, on the gospel passage Luke 8:26-39.  Comments welcome:

A It’s been quite a week: an MP has been killed, apparently while doing her job and doing it well; at the same time we are looking forward to an important referendum next Thursday

B and there’s a football competition, too!

A Indeed. You might wonder if that reading about the man Jesus healed in the cemetery has any relevance.

B It seems to me typical of Jesus that he is concerned about somebody that everybody else has given up on. There is no suggestion that anyone is looking after this man, keeping an eye out for him, leaving him food or clothing, but Jesus doesn’t bypass him and go to the “important” people.

A Yes, and that links with the MP’s murder. Jesus is reminding us that everybody matters to God, and should to us. All the groups Jo Cox was involved with, including minorities and refugees, but also Thomas Mair, however sad or mad he may be. We have to think about caring for all, not just the ones like us, or the easy ones. Jesus wasn’t afraid of dealing with someone demon possessed.

B Now that’s a question! Was he mentally ill, or did he really have spirits in him?

A Christians would have different answers to that. There’s no doubt that mental illness is real, and thankfully we are learning how to treat it successfully. If you know people affected, encourage them to consult their doctor, take their advice – and then make sure you don’t avoid them. Mental illness will affect a fair proportion of this congregation at one time or another. For me, after some years leading a Diocesan Healing and Deliverance Team, I am also confident that demon possession is real – but it has been uncommon in this part of the world. The team that clergy can consult is there to help, and some will need that help.

B So you are saying that mental illness is real, and demon possession can be, too?

A Yes. But let’s go on. Jesus’ concern for this man is not the only point here. What about the reaction of the local people to the event?

B They don’t seem very happy to have a local “problem” solved. I suppose the drowning of the pigs has something to do with it, which doesn’t say much about their values. I wonder if they also found the whole thing – well, frightening. Too challenging to their assumptions, and the accepted order of things.

A I think you’re right, though it is sad. They actually ask Jesus to go away because they are afraid – afraid of someone who has just restored a man they had given up on! I don’t know if there is something there about the Referendum – and no, I am not going to tell you how to vote. But fear is a bad motivation (and seems to have been used on both sides). It is also bad to think that, as Christians, we are allowed to cut ourselves off from other people. How best to move forward, for the good of all, that is the question.

B and we can’t make up your minds how that works out. Think, pray, and vote carefully. So, we’ve talked about Jesus attitude to this man, and then about the community’s attitude to Jesus. What about the ending; doesn’t Jesus usually tell people not to talk about their healing?

A Yes. When he is among Jewish people, he worries that he will be seen as a revolutionary leader – a “Messiah” in political and military terms, leading an army against the Romans – but here he is among Gentiles. He wants this man to be a reminder of the power and love of God, a testimony if you like. He is to live in the community that told Jesus to leave, a reminder of what happened, and how life might be different.

B So he is to do the things we are being encouraged to do now – live as a follower of Jesus, imitating his attitudes and actions out of gratitude, and ready to explain when people asked things like “What happened?” and “Why have you changed?”. I suppose that would have been quite challenging for him, as it is for us, but it certainly gave him something to do!

A – and it gave the people of that community a second chance. With the man living there, and staying in his right mind, they were going to have time to think again

B about the relative value of people and pigs?

A and about what Jesus could do, or what God’s plan for them was. I’m sure they didn’t think they were bad people, but they missed out in a big way that day, and Jesus finds a way to leave them a signpost, if they wanted to look for a better road. It would be sad to think nobody did.

B even sadder than losing the football?

A much more. Some of us believe in life after football, after all!
B Well, that’s our dialogue sketch on this gospel. It’s a bit of an experiment, and its not going to replace sermons, but let us know after the service if you found it helpful as a different way to reflect from time to time – and perhaps even as something to start you talking about scripture and how to apply it.