“With Authority” Colchester Federated Church, January 28, 2018, (Mark 1:21-28) Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

A few years ago Reza Aslan wrote an interesting book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Aslan is a writer and scholar of World Religions.  The bestselling book caused quite a stir and there was so much interest in my former congregation that we encouraged everyone to read the book and come have a conversation.  Our book study on Zealot ended up being one of the best-attended adult education events during my ministry in Lexington.  Because as Christians we know the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the Great Jewish Teacher, the Challenging Prophet, and the Bringer of Peace and Justice.  But Jesus the Zealot Rebel?  This is Aslan’s central thesis as he presents Jesus as a passionate Jew in the “age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews.”[1]

Though we didn’t all agree with his analysis on everything (including that Jesus was a Zealot rebel!), Reza Aslan wrote a compelling explanation of Jesus’ healing ministry, among other aspects of his life.  In our day, the stories of Jesus’ healings, exorcisms, and miraculous activities are often one of the dividing lines between historians and skeptics versus Christians or even seekers.  What’s fascinating is that while the earliest followers of Jesus argued about how to understand him, they didn’t really fight about Jesus’ role as an exorcist, healer, and miracle worker.  Was he just a good rabbi?  The Messiah?  God incarnate?  Those topics were definitely up for debate and still are in some respects.  But most folks understood Jesus as a healer.

All of the Gospels cover Jesus’ miraculous deeds.  Almost a third of the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of our four Gospels in the Bible and the Gospel often viewed as the most historically accurate) contains stories of healings and exorcisms.  Jesus is many things to many people, always has been and always will be.  And Jesus is a healer.

As Aslan states, “The early church not only maintained a vivid memory of Jesus’ miracles, it built its very foundation upon them . . . Well into the second and third centuries, Jewish intellectuals and pagan philosophers who wrote treatises denouncing Christianity took Jesus’ status as an exorcist and miracle worker for granted.”[2]  The Greek philosophers didn’t like his teachings.  And the Jewish intellectuals didn’t like some of his teachings or the fact that his followers proclaimed Jesus Messiah.  But what’s fascinating is that neither group had issues with Jesus being a healer.

Even though we have all these stories about Jesus’ healings, it can bring up various emotions.  Many of us may have experiences where we think that Jesus healed all these people, why can’t we be healed?  Why can’t those we love be healed?  Some Christians take the healings of Jesus in a direction where they won’t take go see doctors, take prescribed medications, or have important surgeries because they’re focused on prayer alone healing them.  My philosophy tends to be pray, have a loving support system which can include the Church, and get treated by modern medicine.  God gave us brains for a reason.

Though perhaps what we can take from Jesus’ healings is that our minds, bodies, and spirits are deeply connected.  People who have faith, who pray, who receive prayers from others tend to heal better.  The connection between faith and our bodies is so fascinating that neuroscientists have even studied Buddhist monks deep in meditation and scanned their brains to see what’s happening.  It all began with the neuroscientist Richard Davidson receiving a challenge from the Dalai Lama himself.  Davidson had focused his research on resiliency.  Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy?  And is resilience something people can gain through practice?  He met the Dalai Lama in India who said to him—you study depression, anxiety, and fear.  Could you use your tools to study kindness and compassion?  The challenge stayed with Davidson and he brought Buddhist monks into his lab, strapped electrodes to their heads, and put some in MRI machines while they meditated to study what happened.

You ready to hear?  The scientists saw high-amplitude gamma-oscillations in their brains.  That means that the brains of the monks are more capable of change, of becoming resilient.  The scientists also found that a region of the brain called the anterior insula was activated when these Buddhist monks were meditating.  This is where a lot of brain-body coordination occurs and it’s Davidson’s favorite part of the brain.  In his own words: “The systems in the brain that support our well-being are intimately connected to different organ systems in our body, and also connected to the immune and endocrine systems in ways that matter for our health . . . compassion is a kind of state that involves the body in a major way.”[3]  Maybe you’ve heard about Buddhist Monks and brain scans before.  These results probably don’t shock us as people of faith.  It confirms a deep truth about the goodness of religion, compassion, and spiritual practices like meditation.  It confirms that having a spiritual life and being connected to a Force of Love beyond ourselves, being connected to God is actually good for us.  Faith, healing, and wholeness are connected.

Let’s not forget that Jesus was notable in his historical context because he healed, and he healed for free.  His ministry showed that the transformative love of God was available to all people.  A good example is when the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years literally reached out to Jesus for help.  Mark relates, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”  People who claimed to be able to heal this woman of her physical ailment charged for their services.  Some may have been genuine and the treatment just didn’t work.  Others were likely con-artists.  The woman was so desperate and suffering for so long that she would try anything to help because her physical condition also made her unclean and therefore ostracized.  So by the time this woman encountered Jesus, she was physically and spiritually worse.  And this woman was broke.  When she and Jesus finally speak, he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well: go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”[4]  She didn’t pay a single cent in order to be healed by Jesus—she reached out her hands and touched Jesus’ cloak and she is made well.

Magdala
The woman who touched Jesus, Magdala (July 2016)

As far as Jesus’ healings go, Reza Aslan reminds us that “with every leper cleansed, every paralytic healed, every demon cast out, Jesus was not only challenging that priestly code, he was invalidating the very purpose of the priesthood.”[5]  With his free healings, Jesus was going against the religious system of the priests having the power and authority to heal people and cleanse them of their sins.  Simultaneously he was upsetting other supposed miracle workers who charged a whole lot of money to cure people who then got cleansed of their sins by priests.  It was a two for one deal Jesus was performing for anyone who wanted to be made well.  Moreover, not only did Jesus heal them, but then he would declare them cleansed, new creations, and beloved children of God—restoring them to the community.  No wonder Jesus got into trouble all the time as he challenged the status quo and the authority of those who were in power!

We can see how this all played out in Chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel this morning.  The scene is set for us in Capernaum as Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches on the Sabbath.  We know that Jesus was a healer and a teacher.  The people gathered are amazed that he taught with such authority.  And then into the synagogue wanders in a man with an unclean spirit.  Does that refer to someone with a debilitating mental illness or a physical condition like epilepsy?  It’s hard to say—but people in Jesus’ day believed that people could be possessed by demons and this man was possessed in their eyes.  We can imagine that heads turned to observe this disturbed man.  People probably whispered or clutched their children a little closer.  This guy was trouble.

The man cries 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.”  Jesus rebukes the spirit and commands it to come out of the man.  The unclean spirit convulses the man and yet cries out with a loud voice as it departs from him.  Everyone in that synagogue in Capernaum is amazed.  Yes by the exorcism, and by the authority Jesus shows when he heals that man.  They’re amazed that the spirit obeyed Jesus and that’s when his fame begins to spread all around the region of Galilee.[6]

Keep in mind that this healing was public.  It took place in the synagogue for people in Capernaum (Jesus’s home base) to see.  It was free.  Jesus didn’t charge for his services as a healer—he healed a man who was clearly in need.  And the healing resulted in the man’s restoration to the community.  The healing was for a purpose.  New life was offered to a person in pain.  Jesus does all of this through his profound connection with God.

When we have God at the center of our lives, other aspects of our lives can fall more easily into place.  Relationships may become smoother.  Stress and demands feel more manageable.  Illness can be faced with strength and courage.  Because we can come at whatever life throws our way from a place of being grounded in God.  For God is the very ground of our being.  That’s perhaps why the people were so astonished by seeing Jesus heal in person.  And they turn to each other in that synagogue in Capernaum and say, “What is this?  A new teaching—with authority!”[7]  Because when someone is that grounded and confident in God, we can’t help but notice.  When we are grounded in God other aspects of our lives will be better.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be any suffering or pain, it means we can courageously persevere.  It ends up that faith is good for us and that God wants us healed and whole.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, front cover.
[2] Reza Aslan, Zealot, 105.
[3] Kathy Gilsinan, “The Buddhist and the Neuroscientist: what compassion does to the brain,” The Atlantic, July 4 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/07/dalai-lama-neuroscience-compassion/397706/
[4] Mark 5:26 and 34, NRSV.
[5] Reza Aslan, Zealot, 112.
[6] Mark 1:21-28.
[7] Mark 1:27.