4th Sunday after Epiphany

February 2, 2003
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Reading 2: 
Psalm 111
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Reading 4: 
Mark 1:21-28
By Rick Marshall

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
There seem to be two issues raised by the text: one theological and one practical. The theological issue is that there is only one true God and that eating meat offered to other gods means little, because other gods have no reality. One who is loyal to the true God risks nothing by eating meat offered to other gods. The other issue, the more practical one of taking into account the conscience of a "weaker" member of the congregation, has more to do with Jesus' second commandment, to love neighbor as self. Paul grants the truth of the theological point, but makes that secondary to the larger point of guarding, or being sensitive to, the conscience of the other.

The principle of loving the neighbor as the self has little to do with the way we might feel about the other. The issue is simple but demanding: place the welfare of the other person equal to the welfare of one's self. Loving the other means to treat them the same way you would want to be treated. Therefore, abstractions and theological "truths", though important, are secondary to the second commandment. Community is supported by theological truth. The practices of the community should support its members.

Paul makes relationships in community paramount. Love is not an abstraction, but is adjudicated in the give and take of relationships in community. Even though the issue of eating meat offered to idols is not relevant to us today, the deeper call to love one's neighbor as one's self is just as important today as it was to the church at Corinth and is the building dynamic of community.

The Gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of the good news (the content of which is yet to be spelled out). Yet the story begins not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. After Jesus calls some of his disciples, his first act is casting out an unclean spirit.

The theatrics of the story are meant to be a setting for what is spoken. This is often true with other biblical stories that are highly dramatic. The unusual events are meant to call attention to the words or speeches. In this case, the stage setting is conventional. They are in a synagogue, on the Sabbath at an act of worship. Jesus is teaching and there is astonishment at his teachings. We are given no content as to what Jesus taught. To make the point of highlighting his authority, a man with an unclean spirit comes on stage. Of course, the words of the possessed man identify the truth about Jesus. Jesus casts the unclean spirit out of the man, and once again, everyone is astonished. All of this draws attention to the point: Jesus' authority. Both Jesus' words and his actions constitute the content of his authority. The reader is left with the same question as those witnessing the events: "What is this? Something new?" The question invites the reader into the story of Jesus as the Messiah.

The point from the beginning is that the power of Jesus is evident in his words and deeds. Jesus displays a certain kind of power. He is bringing to bear the intentions of God. It is a healing power, a power that arises in the context of worship, from the community, which is called to follow Jesus into the gospel story. If followed, this power of the gospel will transform.

A preaching possibility might be to focus on the act of worship, in community, as the context with gives rise to the power of God. That is, intentionally opening one's self to the power of transformation, naming it and worshipping it, exposes the worshipper to the creative, transforming power of God. Jesus' words and acts create the new community, and the health of the community is paramount in embodying the creating, transforming power of God as articulated in the two great commandments.

Another preaching possibility might be to focus on the metaphorical meaning of being possessed by an unclean spirit. What would an unclean spirit be for us? How might we be possessed by it? What does that possession do to us? What does it mean to have it case out of us? Given Jesus' teaching, the unclean spirit might be a life centered on the self, and a religion that supports such a self centered life, and what that does to us and to community. If attachment to self is a central problem for Jesus, then the unclean spirit's fear, "Have you come to destroy us?" is valid, because Jesus has come to call for the death of attachment to self. The gospel story is foreshadowed in this passage.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.