4 Epiphany B
February 1, 2015
I worked for a painting company one summer while I was in graduate school. The Job for the crew I was with was painting college dorm rooms. We started early and put in five hours of hard work in the morning. But then something happened over lunch break that made afternoon work far less productive. Most of the crew went up on the roof for lunch break and then ended lunch passing around several joints of marijuana. It kind of had an effect on productivity, but the crew foreman took part in the extended lunch break and nobody got in trouble. Of course this was the company that had contracted with the university to lay two coats of paint on the walls of those rooms. But our directions were to lay only one solid coat of paint, with only touch-ups where needed. There was a kind of spirit of dishonesty in that company that went from top to bottom, and it was easy to get sucked into acting out that dishonesty. It was way different when I worked for Control Data Corporation as a writer and project manage while attending seminary. The product team I worked with were committed to the value and quality of the product we were creating, and there was a positive team spirit that encouraged our best efforts.
I suspect most of your have experienced the same kind of spirits at your work. Sometimes a workplace instills a negative attitude and sometimes a positive one. It’s like an institution has a kind of character or spirit the penetrates everyone who is a part of that business or organization.
Now I suspect most of us are a bit uncomfortable with the stories, like our gospel today, where Jesus casts out an unclean spirit. When we read these stories, it sound like the unclean spirit might be some kind of mental illness, but today we would not call it an unclean spirit. Yet there are many places in the Bible that talk about spirits, and I think we do need to take them seriously. So I’d like to explore some clues that might help us better understand these stories about spirits.
The first clue is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 6:12,
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Paul is talking about something big here: “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces in the heavenly places.” And we are called to stand against these powerful spiritual forces – to resist them and not let ourselves be controlled by them.
Another clue is in the book of Revelation. John is told to write letters to the angels of seven churches. One of those goes like this:
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
What is interesting about this passage is that it is not the congregation that is rebuked for abandoning love, but the angel of the church of Ephesus. The angel here is not so much a supernatural being, as the spirit or character of the congregation. And there is a relationship between the angel or spirit of the congregation and the people. The attitudes of the people help to shape the spirit, and the spirit guides the attitudes and behavior of the people.
Another clue is the way we use the word spirit today. When we watch or participate in some athletic event – like today’s super bowl – we make notice the team spirit that energizes the play – and there are always mascots that represent in some way the spirit of the team. Or when we describe a person’s character we might she has a generous spirit, or he has a gentle spirit, or he is so mean-spirited. Or sometimes we will talk about the American Spirit and we usually mean the values and ideals of our nation, and it is the spirit that draws us to make those values and ideas a deeper part of our lives.
And one final clue, again from scripture is Paul’s comparison between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. Along with idolatry and sexual sins, the works of the flesh include: “enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy.” In contrast the fruit of the spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When these are present, we know that it is the Holy Spirit that is leading the church, but when the works of the flesh dominate it is a spirit opposed to the Holy Spirit that is guiding our actions.
Jesus encounters the unclean spirit in the synagogue. Places of worship and gatherings of God’s faithful are not immune from the presence of unclean spirit. The angels of the churches are rebuked because their churches fail to produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Signs of unclean spirits for us are quarrels, factions, strife and anger, and also negative thinking, apathy, stinginess, gossip, and critical tongues. It is the unclean spirits that stand in the way of the mission and ministry that Jesus call his church to carry forward. They are what tear apart rather than build up the church as the body of Christ. They work like a virus infecting the cells of a body, and as more and more cells are infected, the whole body becomes sick and cannot function.
But Jesus silences and casts out the unclean spirit, and later in the gospel he gives his disciples authority over unclean spirit. We have the power from Jesus to silence unclean spirits that seek to infect us. It means recognizing the works of the flesh – the gossip, the negative thinking, the critical comments, the apathy and the factions – and not letting ourselves get caught in that kind of thinking and behavior. And it means countering the works of the flesh with the fruit of the spirit, building one another up in love, looking for ways that we can support one another and strengthen the ministry to do tougher. And finally, it means focusing on the mission that Jesus gives his church so that all might know God’s love and live in communion with it. When we nurture immunity to the works of the flesh, and when we encourage the growth of the fruit of the spirit, and when our focus is the mission Jesus calls us to, we will indeed silence and cast out the unclean spirits. That is the promise. So may you speak and act with authority over the unclean spirits that seek to turn aside and hinder the mission of Christ’s church to live and proclaim God’s love for all people everywhere. AMEN.