I once went to the perfect church. The people were warm and inviting.It was obvious that the people loved and cared for one another – but they didn’t just love and care for themselves, they cared for everyone who walked in the door. It was beautiful. And the building? It was simple, but attractive. The whole building seemed to express its purpose – paintings depicted the themes of the Bible, Sculptures and furniture stilled the mind, perfectly designed to bring church attenders into a state of calm reflection. When the service started, I noticed that all the musicians were professional-quality. The Scripture reader had a deep, resounding voice like a movie narrator. And the preacher was a master with words. Every person in the room was attentive, with the appearance of proper motivation. The service flowed seamlessly. It was absolutely perfect.
Sometime in the middle of the benediction, I awoke, sweat dripping from my forehead. I had to take a few deep breaths to recover from my nightmare.
They say you can find the perfect church, but that it is ruined the moment you walk in the door. A perfect church allows no room for humans—no room for our doubts, our fears, our distracted minds. It leaves no room for children’s innocent questions…or for their temper tantrums. The perfect church leaves no room for life.
The congregation that Jesus found himself in in Capernaum was not perfect. Capernaum was right on the Sea of Galilee and was a fishing village. This synagogue was likely made up of fishermen who pulled their boats to shore for the Sabbath. They may have been smelly…and a bit, well, rough around the edges.
So Jesus walks into the synagogue with his four newly recruited disciples – Simon, Andrew, James and John… all fishermen. All straight off the boat, the scent of saltwater and fish still on their clothes.
The Sabbath candles are lit, and Jesus begins to teach. Maybe we’ll try that next week – first visitor who walks in the door gets to preach! We’ll either have an empty room, or preaching hopefuls will be running toward the doors hoping to be first! But in a synagogue with lay-leadership and no system for ordaining rabbis, Jesus is able to read and share thoughts on the Scriptures. As we read the Scriptures now, it seems obvious that Jesus would be teaching in the Synagogue – but remember, no one knew him yet. The Book of Luke tells us that Jesus was about 30 when he started his ministry—he was about my age. Many in the room may have considered him just a boy . . . after all, he had no wife, no children—none of the regular signs of manhood.
Can’t you just picture the wives in the congregation elbowing their husbands—“who is this man? Do you know him? Is that Esther’s boy? No, I guess he’s taller.”
And then Jesus begins to speak, and perhaps to the surprise of everyone present, he’s good! He seems to have a good grasp of the Scripture, and he’s bringing new interpretations to the text that they have never heard before. And more people begin to ask “who is this man?”
And right there, in the middle of the Shabbat service, a man possessed with an evil spirit speaks up. Have you ever been to a service like that? No? I find it funny—and somewhat frightening—that the writer of Mark doesn’t seem surprised. He states it just as a matter of fact, a passing comment on the evening news: “just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” If I were the journalist on the story I’d have a lot of questions—where did he come from? Does he show up often? Are their regularly men possessed with unclean spirits present while you pray? How do you know? Do they look different? Do they always run around yelling things?
Mark assumes we know all of this and tells us nothing. We do know that all illness was seen as an “evil spirit.” In a time before medical science, disease was often thought to be punishment for sin. However, illness—even mental illness does not tend to make a person know what this possessed gentlemen knew. He cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
No one knew who Jesus was. No one knew, except this man with the unclean spirit. And Jesus rushes to silence him. He commands that the spirit come out—and it does. The man has some sort of seizure, and the spirit wails as it leaves the man’s body.
And then… the synagogue is quiet again. Except, of course, for the questions. “No, really, who IS this man? Did you see that? Who is he, that he has power over the spirits?”
Not your typical prayer service. People will be talking about this one for years! But what does this story say about Jesus?
The synagogue congregants pointed out his authority—and certainly that is an important piece of the story. This man knows something and has power over spirits. But I think it says more than that. Jesus pays attention to the interruptions.
I’ve heard several stories in recent months that make me cringe. A 12-year-old boy in North Carolina was escorted out of an Easter service. The child, Jackson, has cerebral palsy, and the way he voiced an “amen” after a prayer was apparently considered a distraction. When the mother sent an email offering to help the church start a ministry for special needs children, she received a response stating the church focuses on worship, not ministries. A church spokeswoman said “it is our goal . . . to offer a distraction-free environment for all our guests.”
I’ve seen story after story about children with autism being treated the same way—as distractions who need to be kept out of the sanctuary.
A man possessed with an evil spirit was certainly a distraction—but Jesus didn’t see it that way. He saw a man in need. The healing of this man is the first miracle that the writer of Mark tells us about. We don’t even learn his name. But Jesus takes notice of him and meets his need—right there in the middle of the service.
I preached my second sermon in a small Free Methodist church that has since closed. After the service a young woman named Jamie came over to talk to me. She had a military-cropped hair cut and had tattoos covering her arms. She told me that for years she had loved Jesus, but had no use for the church—until some friends had dragged her to the small congregation. She told me she had shown up that first week just waiting for everyone to mess up—waiting for someone to comment on the way she was dressed or critize her tattoos or her hair. Waiting for someone—anyone to look at her funny or fail to welcome her. And, well, no one reacted negatively at all. So she came back the next week and witnessed a drunk man stumble into the building. “Ah ha!” she thought, “I’ve got them.” But someone went back to the kitchen, made some coffee and found some bread to give to the man. That person then sat beside them and helped navigate him through the service—letting him know when it was appropriate to speak up and when it wasn’t.”
Jamie told me that she had been coming to church ever since—which had been over a year at that point.
That little church got it. The man who came in off the street wasn’t a distraction to ministry or worship—he was the reason the church gathers. As it turns out, the man who was drunk occasionally came back to the small church, too—sometimes sober. He was still battling with his demons, but the people of this church knew that being in a community of folks who were trying to love and worship the Lord was a far better place for him than the streets of St. Louis.
I think about that story often. I wonder what I would do if such a disturbance happened in the middle of worship. What would you do?
I’m pretty convinced what Jesus would do. The members of the Capernaum synagogue were asking “Who is this man?” My guess is that the gentlemen healed of his demons would respond—he’s the one who cared enough to bring me in and help me.”
Do we see people in need of help and care? Or are we so focused on our tasks that we push people out?
The perfect church? Jesus wouldn’t fit in there. Would he fit in here?
Editors note: This sermon was preached on the text, Mark 1:21-28.
Read more from Jennifer at her blog.