Power, Authority, and the Way of Jesus

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage:    Mark 1:21-28, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5

 Summary:  Jesus’ way of servanthood, nonviolence and forgiving love modeled power and authority in a way that was more powerful than the world’s understanding of power and authority.  Through the Holy Spirit, we can embody Jesus’ power and authority and be ministers of God’s healing and justice to those around us.  

The other day I went out for lunch with a friend at a little hot chicken restaurant on Fairfax Blvd. called Hangry Joe’s.  If you want a good chicken sandwich, you can’t get any better than Hangry Joe’s.

While we were sitting at our table,  3 Fairfax County officers from the Sheriff’s department came in, and they sat at the table next to us.  Their table was pretty cramped, especially since they were pretty big guys and their uniforms with their guns strapped on took up even more space.

After a few minutes, they saw a bigger table free up and they got up and started walking over to it.  But as they did, a young man who was by himself had just sat down at that table.

The officers stopped in their tracks, there was a brief awkward silence, and then one of them said to the young man “Is it OK if we take that table?”

The guy looked up at those three big officers with their uniforms, badges, and weapons, and said “why sure, be my guest.”  So he got up and moved.  I mean, what else can you do when you’re face to face with people who have so much power and authority?

Our scripture story today is about power and authority, but it’s about a different kind of power and authority than what people in Jesus’ day had ever seen.

It takes place in a synagogue, a place where Jewish people gathered to worship and learn from their teachers, which could include rabbis and scribes.

According to Mark’s gospel, this scene takes place early on in Jesus’ ministry, not long after he was baptized by John the Baptist, and soon after he called his first followers to leave their fishing nets and join him on a journey of discipleship.

Jesus starts to teach in the synagogue, and it says that “people were astounded at his teaching”, they were amazed at how different and profound it was compared to what they were used to hearing from their religious leaders.

And then this guy with an unclean spirit—or we could say a demon–shows up, and then all of a sudden the demon goes head to head with Jesus.  And when the dust settles, the unclean spirit is cast out and exorcized from the man.

And then once again, the people in the room are amazed at Jesus’ authority.  “What is this?”, they wonder, “a new teaching—with authority!  The kind of authority that has power even over evil spirits.”

This story is the first recorded miracle in the Gospel of Mark.  It shows the power of the Holy Spirit of God to overcome the evil supernatural forces at work in the world.  This power of Jesus is a sign that his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, has come into the world.

The word Mark uses for “authority” here implies supernatural authority—and it’s a spiritual battle taking place between God’s and what we would call Satan or the devil.

Now I’ll admit that I sometimes have a hard time grasping this idea of Satan, or the devil, or demons.  In secular, science-based, Western societies like ours, we have trouble making sense of all things supernatural.

But in ancient times, and in many non-Western cultures today, people are more attuned to the spirit world and battles between good and evil spiritual forces.

Someone who has been helpful to me in making sense of this is the author Walter Wink. 

In Wink’s book Unmasking the Powers, he says that Satan, angels and demons are about power and how it is used.  Wink says that an angel is

“a spiritual power at work to facilitate the well-being of people., while demons, on the other hand, are spiritual powers that are “bent on overpowering people.”

Wink also talks about demons and angels as spiritual realities that can take up residence in individuals as well as institutions.

When I think of spiritual, evil forces whose goal is to overpower others and destroy life, I think of things like Hitler’s Third Reich, or the Ku Klux Klan.

And I wonder about an organization like the NRA, which has become so powerful that it has helped shape a society where guns have become idolized and mass shootings with semi-automatic weapons have become commonplace.

On the other hand, when I think of good spiritual power, power that facilitates well-being and flourishing, I think of the Holy Spirit.  We know that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove when he was baptized, and Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to his disciples, then and even now.

I think of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that the apostle Paul talks about, which are given to individuals in the Church to build up and contribute to the well-being of the church community.

I also think of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which are life-giving things:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

When we display these fruits in our lives, it is evidence that God’s spirit is working to shape us into the character of Jesus, and in turn, make a positive impact in the world around us.

We know from Jesus’ teachings and from the apostle Paul that love is the greatest fruit, that all the commandments have love at their root.  And one of the manifestations and expressions of love is justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King draws this connection well when he said “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.  Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

And in the civil rights movement that King led for racial justice in our country, I believe that we see at its root a spiritual, supernatural battle between what we could call Satanic forces bent on overpowering and oppressing African-Americans vs. God’s desire for justice where the well-being and dignity of all people matters.

And we also see in King’s insistence on nonviolent means the unique authority and the power that stands out when witness is rooted in the way of Jesus, a way which embodies servant love, sacrificial love, and even enemy love.

Friends, when I read about and watch scenes of peaceful protestors being kicked, and spat on and beaten, and yet showing courageous love instead of violent retaliation, it’s a sign to me of a power and authority that’s not of this world.

I come from a large Catholic family of eight children, with 7 boys and 1 girl.  I think that all of us boys have either a first or middle name associated with a saint in the Catholic church.

With so many boys, my parents started running out of names of saints to be named after!  So they started doubling up– my middle name Paul is the first name of my younger brother Paul.

I was named after St. Stephen, the church’s first martyr, who was stoned to death after he preached a message calling religious people out for their sin and hypocrisy.

The text in Acts says that Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit”, and then while he was being stoned he prayed to God saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!

When I think of Stephen praying for the well-being of his persecutors, I am amazed at think “this kind of love has to come from a God whose unconditional love is out of this world.”

When I think of stories of radical, sacrificial love of our Anabaptist forbearers, like Dirk Willems saving the life of his enemy by pulling him out of a frozen lake, only to be recaptured and killed for his faith,

I am astounded and think to myself, “this kind of love has to be from a supernatural source that can only be the Spirit of God.”

When I think of the incredible story of the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, when, after a troubled man entered an Amish school and took the lives of several young girls,

And the Amish community reached out to the mother of the man who also died, and comforted her and forgave her and her son, and over the course of the next several years developed a deep friendship with her,

the only way I can make sense of this kind of love is to say that it can only come from a God whose love and grace are so far beyond our human understanding and wisdom.

I think of all of these examples and so many more, and I am amazed like the people were when Jesus cast the demon out of the man in the synagogue, and it convinces me that the way of Jesus when lived out embodies an authority and a power that overshadows any authority and power that this world has to offer.

It reminds me what the Apostle Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians which we heard earlier:    My speech and my proclamation were made not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.  (1 Cor. 2:4-5)

How might our faith be like Jesus’ and Paul’s, and rest not on human wisdom but on the power and authority of God?

How might our witness in the world be more focused as Walter Wink says, on the well-being of others, more life-affirming, and work to free people from forces that seek to overpower them, diminish them, enslave them, or rob them of life?

One thing I think of is the protest for a ceasefire in Gaza that took place in DC on January 16.  Thousands have died in the war between Israel and Hamas, and some  Christians who believe in Christ’s way of peace and nonviolence wanted to make their voices heard.

So a group named Mennonite Action organized the gathering, and about 135 people staged a peaceful protest and held a hymn sing in the rotunda of the House of Representatives Cannon office building.

I believe that one of the hymns they sang was one we sang a few minutes ago “My soul cries out”.  The protestors were all arrested, taken in for questioning, fined and released. It was non-violent civil disobedience.

You know, singing hymns and other songs that proclaim hope, love and peace, can be a powerful, prophetic display of the power and authority of Jesus.

I think also of Negro spirituals, and how they helped enslaved peoples endure their suffering, hold on to hope for a future of freedom, and witness to a God of justice and redemption.

As I reflect on our story today of the man with the unclean spirit and also the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, I am amazed at how Jesus’ power and authority was different than that the religious leaders of the day.

Sadly, sometimes the laws and rules of religious institutions have done more to “overpower” or diminish people than they have to contribute to their well-being and free them up to become the person God has meant them to be.

The man with the unclean spirit was considered “unclean” and good religious people would have avoided him, left him to suffer, to keep themselves “holy” and pure. He was an outsider, but Jesus made him an insider in his Kingdom.

We also see this in Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law.  First of all, it took place on the Sabbath, which was considered a no-no.  And as a woman, she was considered a second-class citizen, but Jesus valued her and cared enough to take the time to heal her of her fever.

I’ve been reading this devotional book by Kelly Minter called “The Blessed Life: a 90-day devotional through the teachings and miracles of Jesus”.  I thought it would be a good book to read since the word I received on Epiphany Sunday was “miracle”.

In Minter’s reflection on the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, she says:

“Jesus never let human-made traditions and rules stand in the way of his mission to love people and help make them whole…Jesus loved to upend the parts of the religious system that were unhinged from God’s heart”. P. 164

After the healing of the mother-in-law takes place, it says that she “served them”.  Now our first thought is to interpret this to mean that she felt well enough to get up and serve Jesus and his disciples a meal.  Which she may well have done.

But the word “serve” here is diakoneo which our word for deacon comes from, and it’s the same word that used to describe a disciple, so it could well be that this woman became a faithful servant in the ministry of Jesus.

If so, I hope that Peter and his mother-in-law got along OK in following Jesus together!

Jesus’ power and authority was so empowering for women and others who were on the margins of society, or oppressed, or held down by powers, by demons they could not control.

The word for “demon” means “divide”, while the word for “holy” means whole and healthy.

Friends, we are not totally different from the man with the unclean spirit or Peter’s mother-in-law.  We all have our illnesses, our demons that remind us that we are broken and longing to be holy, whole and healthy.

The good news is that through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we can be find healing and hope, and become all that our Creator has meant for us to be.

The good news is also that through God’s spirit we can embody the power and authority of Jesus as we open ourselves up to be servants of his radical love, healing, and justice to those around us.

Jesus goes before us and with us, showing us the way through his teachings and his life.  May we have the courage and the compassion to follow in his footsteps.  AMEN.