Text: Mark 1:21-28
At times like this I wish I had Nancy’s voice – but I don’t, so I’ll spare you. Hear these words and provide the tune in your head if you know it:
“There is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.
There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb.”
Smile if you grew up with that hymn as I did. Its theology may not make you smile but it is a part of the heritage of many Baptists and others who grew up in evangelical churches. The text was written by Lewis E. Jones who also wrote the text to 217 other hymns. He was a classmate of evangelist Billy Sunday and worked for the YMCA for 36 years. He died in 1936.
If you’re wondering what this old hymn has to do with our lectionary text for today, there is a connection. The gospel of Mark opens with multiple demonstrations of Jesus’ power. First, he is baptized by John who has been proclaiming to everyone who would listen that someone greater than he is coming. At the baptism, the heavens open, a dove descends and a voice is heard to name Jesus as “my beloved son.” Next in the temptation story that unfolds in the wilderness, Jesus demonstrates his authority by not being drawn into deals with the devil. Then he walks along the Sea of Galilee asking people to follow him. According to Mark, they drop everything and do just that. Finally, in our text for today, Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum and astonishes the crowd with the authority of his teaching. Then he performs an exorcism where demons obey his command to leave a man’s body.
The exorcism narrative is the first public miracle in the ministry of Jesus, according to Mark. The unclean spirit is the first voice in Mark’s gospel to name Jesus. Here there’s a cosmic conflict between good and evil and good, that is, Jesus, wins. As always, his exercise of authority brings him into conflict with the scribes. And as always, our 21st century understanding of mental illness makes us pretty uncomfortable when we read about people’s erratic behavior being blamed on Satan. But however we want to analyze the exorcisms included in this gospel, Mark wants us to be clear about the divine authority of Jesus.
Reading this story got me to thinking about power – who has it and who doesn’t; how you acquire it and keep it; and where it fits in the work of extending God’s love and justice in our world. I am quite certain that Jesus had power. He may not have exercised it in precisely the ways the gospels tell us. After all, the gospel writers were evangelists seeking to persuade an audience. But we don’t need for the details to be factually accurate to garner wisdom from them. I really don’t care if Jesus performed exactly four exorcisms as Mark reports, or fewer or none. What I do believe is that Jesus went out of his way at great risk to himself to remove from people all kinds of obstacles to their well-being – things like physical and mental illness and devastating isolation. We have to remember that the community that heard Mark’s gospel was powerless and poor in a country occupied by a powerful empire. So the image of the victory of God’s power over illness, disability, and danger was for them lifesaving good news. For them, the power of Jesus – his wonder-working power – was not in his blood as we have been taught to believe, but in his healing love.
Much has been written about the nature of power. Power analysis is a critical part of social movements and you can learn how to do this in all kinds of settings. Who has power and how do they use it? Who lacks power and how do they get it? Most power analysis distinguishes between “power over” that involves domination and coercion and “power with” that is relational and collective. Some models teach us about “power to” referring to the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world. There’s also “power within” that affirms a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge. This week we saw a vivid demonstration of a power struggle in the votes to shut down our government and open it back up again. And as always when it comes to the exercise of power, some were pleased with the outcome; some tolerated it; some were disheartened; and some were very angry. Some benefitted and some were hurt. Political power calculations about how the majority or a vital minority will respond today; what they will remember nine months from now; and all of the various attempts to gain more power or even control in the next election are in play in front of us every day.
It is truly unfortunate that what we see displayed on our various screens on an hourly basis doesn’t teach us much about how people who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus should claim, use, acquire, or share power. All of us here have it. As mostly white, mostly middle class (at least) First World citizens, we have a lot of power. More than we are often willing to admit. None of us as individuals had the power to “fix” the crisis of the shutdown last weekend any more than one individual can alter the imbalance of power we experience in our state government. But we do have power and a responsibility to claim it and use it. We do have power within the sphere of our lives to offer alternatives to the most visible ways power is wielded in our nation and world today. So let me suggest a few of them.
In the midst of the nastiness that has become our daily diet, we can all claim the power that comes with treating all people with kindness even if we disagree with them. That may seem like wimping out to some who believe we need to fight “fire with fire.” I’m sure they would call me naïve. But it is a powerful act to simply declare to oneself and to the world, “I will not learn the lesson you are trying to teach me. I will not accept meanness as standard operating procedure. I will not give up my power to live as an honorable, caring human being who recognizes others – all others – as human beings made in the image of God. Your way may get you attention and it may even impress some. But I will not degrade myself and the rest of humanity by adopting language and behavior that demeans others.” Friends, it takes a lot of personal power and self-control to do this and not descend to the depths to which our public discourse has sunk in recent days.
Our Pullen watchword in Micah 6:8 says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness…” Someone has joked that the Ten Commandments are not called “The Ten Suggestions.” Likewise, the Hebrew prophet Micah doesn’t tell us how God suggests that we behave. Loving kindness is a requirement for people who are trying to follow the prophet Jesus. Calling people derogatory names; being rude or crude; personal insults directed to people with whom we disagree may make us feel better. But it doesn’t add love to the toxic atmosphere in which we live in these days.
We can also exhibit a “John-The-Baptist” kind of power by pointing away from ourselves toward the work that God is doing in the world. John’s role in life as he understood it was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus rather than to promote himself, and he had to constantly remind his followers of this truth. It wasn’t about him. It was about what God was going to do through Jesus and John humbly accepted this. There was a day when blatant narcissism was evident in some quarters, but mostly uncommon. No more. It’s on display everywhere in our country – and not just at the top. I don’t know about you, but the number of people who are promoting themselves seems a bit overwhelming. I blame social media for some of this. It’s just too easy to over-share, over-promote, or to tell everyone what I think as if I have THE truth for every situation. The internet has given us many life-sustaining gifts since its invention. But it has also allowed us to put our very worst instincts on display for all the world and all of posterity to see. Now I’m not criticizing sharing your personal news on Facebook or Instagram, so don’t get me wrong here. But can we assert our power by rejecting the notion that every thought that comes into our heads needs to be shared with the world? These posts may be intended as information or dialogue, but they are almost invariably self-promotion as well. It reminds of Olivia Newton-John’s song released in 1975, “Have You Never Been Mellow?” In it there’s a memorable line that says, “There was a time when I just had to tell my point of view.” Folks, we’re drowning in people who just have to tell the world their point of view on every subject.
In today’s world, it is a powerful act to actually be quiet; to listen deeply rather than talk; and, like John the Baptist, to point to the good work of others. I’ve shared in the past that one of my beloved seminary professors used to tell us, “Church people often act as if God can only work through our programs. Our calling is to look out on the landscape to see where God is at work and go there.” I am not promoting an unhealthy self-denial in suggesting that more attention to the ways God’s spirit is working in the world and less attention to ourselves may be in order in these days. Pointing away from oneself and one’s well-intended but limited viewpoint can be a powerful act.
Someone has said the only way to gain power is to take it. I really don’t believe that’s true. People who don’t have power can acquire it when people like us share our power with them. We can be quiet and let people in marginalized communities speak their truth and tell their stories. We can decline to accept leadership positions so those with less culturally-granted power can lead. We can examine our own biases about what power looks like. Forcing people who don’t have power to wrestle it from our tight grip seldom contributes to the welfare of any of us.
There are many other ways that we can exercise our power in our confused culture. There is power in joining with others by being part of community. That’s what we’re doing by being here together this morning and it’s happening in other groups you’re part of I’m sure. We can also do the obvious things: vote; support our favorite candidates and leaders; run for office; give our time and money to things we care about; advocate in person or in other ways for the people and causes we believe in – not as angry, strident voices that sound shrill even to our allies, but as confident, strong speakers for justice who model a loving, just way of being in the world.
At the same time, I want to remind us all that we are not always our best selves. We do “lose it” sometimes and we aren’t as kind or loving or calm or thoughtful as we’d like to be. On our best days, we have enough self-awareness and humility to apologize to people we hurt when that happens. But, friends, we live in an era when apologizing is viewed as a sign of weakness or somehow a lack of commitment to our causes. So let me add one more thing to the ways we can wield our power: through authentic apology when we have erred, especially when our error is hurtful to others or to the unity of the community as a whole. In my book, one of the most powerful statements in the world is, “I screwed up and I’m really sorry.” It can work wonders. And the power to forgive is miraculous as well.
As demonstrated by Power in the Blood, hymn writer Lewis E. Jones crafted interesting titles for his hymns: I’ve Been to Jesus for the Power; From Wandering Long in Ways of Sin AND Wanderer in Ways of Sin (two different hymns); My Sins Are Like a Mountain; At the Door of Your Heart That Is Closed; and my favorite, When the Saved Shall Meet on the Golden Street. I’ve not read the words of these hymns but given the sin-fixated titles and the theology expressed in Power in the Blood, I can’t say I’m drawn to them. But I do think Mr. Jones was on to something when he wrote and sang about “wonder-working power.” Like Mark’s powerless community of the first century, I am drawn to the wonder-working power demonstrated by Jesus. When he cleansed the man of the unclean spirit, he showed us what the commonwealth of God looks like. Power is shared. Marginalized voices are heard. Kindness is nonnegotiable. Barriers to wholeness are removed. Exclusion is transformed into inclusion. Care for the community transcends the self.
With apologies to Mr. Jones, I believe the power of Jesus was not in his blood, but in his love. That love worked wonders in his day and it still works wonders in ours.