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Mission of Transformation

We are going to try a little congregational participation in the sermon today. I’m going to ask some questions, and I want to you to answer, OK?

  • Do you remembers the first concert they ever went to?

  • What about, the first election you ever voted in?

  • Your first kiss?

  • Your first communion?

Final question: what do all of the last four questions have in common?

That was an easy one, right? They are all about “firsts.” And, generally, even though some of these things happened many decades ago for most of us, we still remember them. Because firsts are significant. They start us on a path, and even if that path develops in new directtions from there, firsts are the start of the journey.

I have drawn our attention to firsts because our gospel story today is the story of a “first.” This narrative of Jesus preaching in the synagogue and freeing the demon-possessed man is his first PUBLIC DEED in the gospel of Mark. And that “first-ness” is important because Mark is lifting up this specific story as a key for understanding Jesus’s ministry and mission.

This is a pattern that biblical scholars recognize in all four gospels. Mark and the others all give their readers clues as to the themes they want us to see as defining qualities of Jesus’s mission.

In Matthew, Jesus’s first public deed described in detail is the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount , setting up Matthew’s distinctive focus on the Righteousness of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. (Matt. 5-7)

In Luke, Jesus’s first public sermon focuses on a reading from the prophet Isaiah, by which Jesus declares himself to be the one whom God has sent to preach good news to the poor, introducing Luke’s particular focus on Jesus’s outreach to those on the margins. (Luke 4:14-21)

In John, Jesus performs a miraculous sign – turning water into wine at a weeding feast – highlighting the signs of power that organize John’s Gospel and elevating a sense of celebration about Jesus’ coming into the world. (John 2:1-12)

So, what does Mark’s story of Jesus’s first public act tell us about the mission and ministry of Jesus? How can this story of paired preaching and miracle shape our understanding of what Jesus was all about? I see three important elements to this story that make a profound statement about the transformational nature of Jesus’s mission and ministry in the world.

The first is the transformational nature of his teaching.

The piece of this story that we read this morning does not tell us the precise content of his teaching, but just a few verse earlier in the same block of narrative, Mark gave us a preview: “Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!’” (Mark 1:14b-15, Common English Bible)

This announcement of change – here and now – because of what God is doing in the world explains why the people in the synagogue were so astounded by the authority of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was making the unambiguous claim that the good news of God is supposed to radically change our lives, and by implication change the world. Jesus’s message was about transformation. About a shift that went beyond religion-as-we-know-it, especially if that religion is comfortable with a world that looks different than God’s kingdom.

Jesus’s authoritative teaching is much more than an individual call to moral reform – this repentance is not about just “being a better person.” It is about trusting that God is answering our pray for “thy kingdom come” and then living like that is the kingdom to which we actually belong, and thus the one that guides our commitments and our responses to others.

Dr. Brian Blount explains that “Jesus’s expectation focuses the turn (of repentance) … toward a future that is committed to God in a new way, a way exemplified by the narrative call of the disciples…. One responds appropriately to God by leaving the old life behind and following Jesus into a new life for God. It will be a new life dedicated toward the goal of transforming others.” (emphasis added)[1]

Which brings us to the second characteristic of Jesus’ transformational mission: the focus on boundary-breaking healing.

Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ teaching has immediate consequences for action because he pairs it with Jesus’s first public healing – the healing of a man possessed by an unclean spirit.

I think this healing has deep meaning for a middle-class, suburban US church in our time, but I can recognize that it might be uncomfortable for many of us to talk about "unclean spirits." So, if the exorcism aspect of the story makes you squirm a bit, I think there is room for different interpretations of exactly what this means:

You can hear this as a literal, personal spirit,

Or as a physical illness like epilepsy,

Or the visible consequences of personal or social trauma,

Or mental illness,

Or addiction,

Or inherited prejudice,

Or many, many other ways of describing the experience of a person who is trapped by a power that takes away their agency and dignity and separates them from other members of the human family.

The specifics aren’t what matters in this story. What matters in Mark’s telling is that the spirit is “unclean.”

The “uncleanness” has clear consequences in 1st Century Judaism. “Uncleanness” is this context is not about dirt. It’s about a quality of spiritual pollution. Just by being in that synagogue, the man was violating that sacred space and everyone in it.

Think of his crime as orders of magnitude worse than coming to church with a high fever in the middle of the flu epidemic and coughing directly into the communion chalice. That action would just get everyone’s bodies sick. This man was threatening their souls.

As the teacher on that day, Jesus’s responsibility in response to this community infection would be to shame and exclude the man – to cast HIM out of the community.

But instead, Jesus healed him. He saw the man as separate from his affliction, and he commanded the spirit to come out of him. In so doing, he not only freed the man, he also made it clear that the man was separate from his unclean spirit.

And here, again we see the transformational nature of Jesus’s ministry. He doesn’t just heal the man. He heals and restores the whole community. He reshapes religious expectations by showing that the man still belongs in the community, in the synagogue; by showing that God’s kingdom includes EVERYONE – even those we might think are unworthy or dangerous.

And in doing this, Jesus shows the third transformational quality of his ministry: his very nature of holiness.

When the unclean spirit recognizes Jesus it cries out: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” This title is intentional because Holy is the exact opposite of unclean. Holy means set-apart, kept pure and undefiled, a sacred space, or ritual, or person who must not be polluted because of their special connection to God.

By naming Jesus in this way the spirit is challenging Jesus’s capacity to do anything about that spirit. Jesus is holy – so he better not stain his holiness by messing with something that is unclean.

But Jesus’s is there to transform the world, not to stay set-apart. This torturing spirit was trying to keep Jesus in his place and away from a man who was so clearly unclean, so obviously damaged. But Jesus was there to declare that God’s Kingdom had come NEAR. That God wasn’t going to stay set-apart from human pain and suffering and pollution.

The Holy One was going to become uncleanness itself – by being hung on a cross to die a criminal’s death – in order to show damaged, polluted, trapped humanity that our uncleanness cannot keep God away.

That is the heart of Mark’s gospel – and of the mission of Jesus.

This narrative-framing story of Jesus’ transformational ministry is a wonderful text for us to consider on the day of our annual congregational meeting, because the point of our meeting is to reflect on and plan together our congregation’s participation in the ministry and mission of Jesus.

This year we will be using a new format for our meeting, structured around our church mission statement. We will look at the ways that our ministries, activities, and budget all connect to the mission we are called into as a congregation.

In this reflection, we will be looking at the specific goals highlighted in our congregational mission statement:

Making Christ known,

Welcoming all people,

Creating a supportive and accepting place,

Growing in faith and community, and

Serving Christ and our neighbors.

These goals give practical application to the transformational mission of Jesus, but in our reflection let us not forget what lies at the center of Jesus mission in the world:

To proclaim the transformational message that God’s kingdom HAS come near and that it radically challenges and changes how we live;

To work for boundary-breaking healing that values every human being and seeks to free each person and community from spirits that trap and separate them; and

To practice Christ-like holiness that refuses to hold ourselves back from need, and instead reaches our sacrificially, just as Christ did.

Today’s meeting will not be our congregation’s first public act, but we can still be guided by Mark’s story of Jesus’s first public act, and the transformative lessons it teaches us about his mission and ours.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Louisville: Westminster Knox Press, 2002, p. 23.

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