Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 4:31-44) transports me to the Friday night closing service for a youth group retreat, August 1983. A group of Presbyterian teenagers are circling up for the emotional end of retreat closure and blessing from their group leader. These are not your run of the mill Presbyterians; they are a mountain variety of charismatics who believe in all the gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in unknown tongues. The leader instructs the youth to kneel in prayer, and goes around the circle laying on hands and praying specifically for each one, in the unknown prayer language. The youth were not unfamiliar with this, and could loosely translate the glossolalia by the tones of her ecstatic incantation; it was a form of deep blessing and encouragement. But when the leader laid hands on the last person in the circle, a young woman preparing for her third year of college, the tone changed dramatically, and intensified. The young people were familiar with this tone, too, it was the sound of rebuking an evil spirit. It was an exorcism. When the prayer was over, the young woman and her peers in the youth group were all stunned; they had no idea she had been possessed. It was time for some translation work. The leader explained that she had the authority to discern and interpret the meaning of tongues as well as speak them. The evil spirit, she told them, was the relationship the young woman had with her college boyfriend. The two had been a couple for going on two years, and the relationship had taken a serious turn. But all that was over. The evil had been cast out, the young woman was cleansed, and all she had to do was go back to school and break all ties. Best done with no explanation, no questions asked or answered. Just break it off and have nothing more to do with the young man. He was bad news.
Jesus was leading a retreat of sorts in Capernaum, when he encountered one in the synagogue circle who was possessed by an unclean demon (as if there were clean demons!). It was not a “no questions asked” encounter, as the evil spirit had some questions for Jesus. What have you got to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? They knew him; they called him by name. Leave us alone – what do you think you’re going to do, destroy us? Their sarcastic tone signified that for them, having the Holy One of God in the house didn’t mean they weren’t welcome to hang around, too. Jesus didn’t agree with this arrangement. The spirit of profane hate and sacred love couldn’t co-exist. The essence of greed and grace couldn’t co-mingle. The verve of violence and peace couldn’t abide one another. Something had to give. So he cast the unclean, the evil and destructive and addictive force right out. The onlookers were stunned. They had not been aware that anything was wrong. They were used to the co-habitation of spirits clean and unclean within their faith communities. This was a new authority at work.
After a period (I won’t say how long) of heartbreak and hurt, my unique experience of being identified as evil spirit became one of those campy stories illustrating the trials of teenage angst, a battle scar if not a badge of honor. After all, how many other people can claim to have been exorcised out of their girlfriend? For a long time, that experience also led me to poo poo all sorts of charismatic and emotional forms of religion, and to relegate the concept of evil spirits to the loony bins of manipulative religions found far and wide (did I say that the former girlfriend in question wound up marrying the son of the youth group leader, leading me to suspect scheming all along?). But now, through the help of people like Walter Wink, I have come to give due credence to the presence of evil spirits, to unclean and destructive powers at work in our world. They are not of the college romance gone wrong variety, though. Teenage angst just happens. No, the truly plaguing evil spirits are the forces that invade the body of Christ, the church, and seek co-existence with the sacred. Like that evil spirit in Capernaum, our modern day unclean powers also know Jesus of Nazareth. They are not only able to call on his name; they have managed to incorporate his image, to co-opt his teaching and his mission. How else can you explain people claiming Jesus as Savior and Lord wildly advocating for violence, for the right to live by the sword? How else can you explain people wearing a cross around their necks arguing vehemently for the death penalty and the government’s right to cast the first stone? How else can you explain disciples of the one who emptied himself of all privilege and became a humble servant spending so much energy trying to give rich folks more of a tax break so they can expand their extravagance? How else can you explain those professing faith in the one who said when you welcome a stranger you welcome me wanting to break up families and deport the least of these Latinos who came here looking for a better life for their children? These voices speak with incredulity whenever confronted by the clear voice of Jesus’ teaching: What do you think you’re going to do, Jesus, destroy us? I think we’re living right now in an in-between time – between the moment the spirits ask this sarcastic question of Jesus and the moment he lowers the boom on them. I don’t know how long this in-between season will last, but I hope to live to see the day that Jesus circles up the church, those kneeling in prayer, lays hands on the believers, and starts speaking in tongues. I’m waiting for that authoritative voice of rebuke to speak to all spirits of violence, of greed, of hateful discrimination, and cast them out. No explanation needed. No questions asked.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.