My favorite roller coaster when I was growing up was an old wooden coaster called The Beast at Kings Island in Cincinnati. Like most coasters, it would click its way up to the top of the first hill, and then drop straight down as everyone screamed. But The Beast was even more terrifying in that the first drop didn’t stop when it came to the ground, but plunged down into a tunnel, going down even further and disappearing into the darkness.
It is a wonderful picture of the ninth chapter of Luke. It begins slowly, building up momentum as it creeps upward in intensity. The passage begins with the sending out of the disciples, with Jesus giving them power and authority to drive out demons and heal the sick. They return with stories of success, as they have used that power to do amazing things. Then we see Jesus feeding the 5,000, an event of miraculous power. Then Peter proclaims Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah. And then Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the top of the mountain, where he is transfigured and shines dazzling white as God proclaims his authority.
But then, the bottom falls out. After the Transfiguration, the four return down the mountain, literally and figuratively. Luke tells four vignettes that each demonstrate the utter failure of the disciples to do what Jesus has called them to do. They fail to drive out a demon. They don’t understand why Jesus says he has to die. They fight over who is going to be the greatest in the kingdom. And John tells someone to stop driving out demons in Jesus’ name.
Take these four stories together and it makes it clear that Luke is showing that the disciples have a lot to learn. At the end of Chapter Nine, it says that “Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.” He has been teaching in Galilee, in the north, but now he begins a journey with the disciples in which he teaches them as they go. They don’t understand, but we know, that this journey to Jerusalem will end in his death. Jerusalem is the end of the lesson, and the beginning of their test of faith. So, these four vignettes serve as a baseline for what they have to learn. It is a pretty low baseline. Like a teacher who offers a pre-test to see where her students are – Jesus has found that that they still are missing a significant part of his message. He has a lot of work to do. Like The Beast, the disciples plunge into darkness, frustrating Jesus and ending up even lower than they began.
The good news is that looking at the disciples, we don’t feel so bad. How often do we feel like we don’t get it, either? The Jesus message. The Jesus lifestyle. It seems hard and possibly even impossible. But, like we talked about last week, there are elements of the Jesus life that are exactly what we are called to live. A life of spirituality, of healing, of teaching, and of prophetic witness. But like the disciples, we have a lot to learn.
This week, we ask “what would it look like if we confronted evil like Jesus did?” Now, when many of us read these passages about demon possession, our minds immediately go to scenes from The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby – horror stories of demonic possession that seem to possess our imagination on the topic. But, believe it or not, these are not actually the most helpful ways to talk about demon possession in the Bible.
Before we get to today’s passage, let me back up and talk about the ancient view of demonic possession. The view that Luke probably would have operated from was one of cosmic evil. Most people in Jesus’ day probably would have believed that demons originated from the offspring of fallen angels and humans. In other words, evil in the world is result of those who rejected God and God’s commandments, choosing instead selfishness and personal power. When a demon inhabited someone, it was an individual manifestation of a cosmic evil.
This view, seen through a modern lens, seems a little laughable. The modern worldview sees evil less as cosmic and more as personal. If someone is sick, it is not because of cosmic demonic possession, but because of a personal medical condition. If someone is physically or mentally ill, we usually believe the cause is somehow connected to them and their bodies or minds. Did they smoke too much and get lung cancer? Did they engage in some illicit activity to contract AIDS? Did they fail to wash their hands and catch a cold? We are less likely to name a comic demonic battle than a personal failure.
Likewise, not only is the cause personal, but so is the cure. We see disease as the victim’s burden to bear. Hopefully they have family or friends to support them, but we know that it is their battle to fight. This is often the case for someone who is fighting against mental illness. We are more likely to tell someone who is clinically depressed to just snap out of it. Someone dealing with an anxiety disorder or panic attacks, we tell them to stop drinking so much coffee, like the problem is theirs to control. In ways that we would never think about blaming the victim of physical illness, we blame the victim of mental illness all the time. We would never say to someone with cancer, “just snap out of it.” But this stems from the fact that most of us are captured by a modern medical mindset believes that the healing, and quite possibly the cause of disease, is personal.
It is interesting to note, however, that some theologians are beginning to speak about disease and sickness in terms that sound more like Luke than Grey’s Anatomy. They are moving to post-modern, or even pre-modern explanations of physical or mental evil and its manifestations in the world. Richard Vinson speaks of a theology that ascribes evil back to more cosmic terms. He points to larger reasons why people get sick. How many people get sick because of businesses or governments who turn a blind eye to the health of their people? You don’t have to look farther than Flint, Michigan to see that this is the case. Companies who pollute our earth and water and air and governments that let them can be considered in the starkest terms – demonic. Or why is it that we fail to find a cure for some of the diseases that plague us, Vinson asks? What if our spending that supports war and violence was instead turned toward healing and finding a cure for disease? What if every dollar given in the presidential campaign was instead spent to cure cancer? What if the money that supports our greed habit was used to support physical and mental health? In these terms, our individual manifestations of evil are quite possibly part of a bigger, even cosmic picture. The ways that we suffer such evil and sin are not equal – those in poverty usually end up much more likely to get or stay sick – but Vinson suggests that we follow Luke’s example and look to larger reasons why such mental and physical ailments possess us. After all, when the crowds came to Jesus and asked “who sinned, this blind man or his parents?” – an example of personal illness – his response was basically, “Neither. And you are asking the wrong question.”
So, perhaps this morning we should look at this story through this post-modern, or pre-modern, lens. When Jesus and the three come off the mountain, they are greeted by a man and his son. He tells Jesus a heartbreaking story about his son and the physical, mental, and spiritual battle that he has to face. It says that he shouts at Jesus, an example of how all decorum has been lost because of his desperation. He needs someone to help his son. He has taken him to the disciples, but they have failed to save him. So he turns directly to the Master and pleads for help.
Watch carefully what he does in response. If Jesus viewed this situation through the modern lens of personal evil, what would he have said? “What have you done to heal the boy? How did he get this way? Has he sinned, or his parents?” This demonic disease would be considered the problem of the boy and his father. But look at what he does instead.
First, he chastises the disciples, not the father or boy. There is no blaming the victim here. Jesus holds the disciples responsible for this boy’s demonic disease.
Ginny Thornburgh says that Jesus was a proponent of what she calls “copious hosting.” Throughout the Gospels, especially Luke, Jesus is engaged in intense hospitality. His hospitality is so radical that any example of evil or brokenness is the responsibility of the whole community. He demands that those who have the power to stop this demonic disease must do it. It is the responsibility of all of God’s followers to confront and obliterate this evil.
Meanwhile, she challenges us to see the Church in such a light. We, too, are to engage in copious hosting. We are to be radical enough in our hospitality that we stop seeing evil in personal terms. We stop looking over our noses at those who suffer from physical or mental illness, wondering what they did wrong, and we start asking how we participate in this evil. We wonder aloud if this is a manifestation of cosmic evil in the world. This is a radical idea:
Confronting evil in the Jesus model means that we stop seeing physical or mental disabilities as problems for those suffering from them, but as problems for all of the community of Christ to deal with.
Confronting evil in the Jesus model means that we stop blaming the victim for illnesses – especially mental illness – and we begin to join in the effort of healing, whatever that might look like.
Confronting evil in the Jesus model means that it is our responsibility – yours and mine – to make sure that all of God’s children are healed, not only those who can afford insurance. If we insist that only those who work hard enough, or inherit enough money, can be insured, then we are blaming the victim and telling the father and the boy that they should have worked harder. Jesus doesn’t do this. He blames the Jesus-followers for not healing this boy. It is our responsibility to make sure that all are healed.
This means we have some work to do.
To be a church engaged in copious hosting is a pretty radical challenge. It means rejecting the idea of personal evil and blame, and engaging in the Jesus model of taking a stand against cosmic evil in all of its manifestations.
But that’s not all. Look what else Jesus did. Not only did he engage in copious hosting, but he also engaged in copious inclusion. He heals the boy and the passage makes a point to say, “and he gave him back to his father.” He was restored to the community. Throughout Luke, healing takes place in ways that restore and rebuild community.
In two of the vignettes at the end of Chapter Nine, the disciples insist on an exclusive mindset. You are in or out. “Who is the greatest?” they ask. Implied is “who is the least?” In response, Jesus pulls over a child and tells them, “this is your role model. The one who is like this child will be the greatest in the Kingdom.” Then, in the last vignette, John tells Jesus proudly that he has stopped someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. After all, he wasn’t “one of us.” But Jesus demands copious inclusion. “Anyone who is not against us is for us.”
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus rejects the idea of theological nepotism. He goes home to Nazareth, and the people expect to ride his coattails, but he rejects them. His mother and brothers show up to talk to him, and he rejects them, “these are my mother and brothers.” The disciples expect to get the box seats in the Kingdom, and Jesus says that his followers go straight to the nosebleed section. Or stand outside the stadium and listen on the radio. Theological nepotism has no place in the Kingdom of Jesus. And so, when Jesus returned the boy to his father, his role was one of building community and restoring health to all.
That’s what it looks like when Jesus confronts evil. And that’s what it looks like when we confront it. We are hosting copiously and building community.
Jason and Kendra looked at each other as the tears welled up in their eyes. They were sitting together with their son, Mike, a young boy on the autism spectrum, and the pastors of First Church, in little tiny chairs in the second grade classroom. They weren’t sure what to expect when the pastors called for the meeting, but they feared the worst. Mike’s challenges were difficult at school and at home, but even more so at church, with volunteer teachers who weren’t sure what to do. They had tried so many churches, and after a few Sundays, the pastor or the Sunday school teacher called them in for “the meeting.” This meeting usually included something like, “We think that Mike is a special boy, and we want him to love coming to church. But we just don’t know that this is the right church for him. Mike’s needs seem to overwhelm our teachers and we think that it might be best if he goes to a church that is more equipped to handle him.”
But First Church was different. Jason and Kendra had just spent the last hour talking about Mike with the pastors of their church – both the children’s pastor and the senior pastor had called the meeting to ask how they can be Church to their family. What accommodations could they make? How could they make things easier for Mike? Tell us about his challenges and how you have learned to work through them. Mike’s Sunday school teacher was furiously taking notes in a chair of her own. Together, they had built a plan for how to support Mike and show him God’s love in intentional and thoughtful ways. Jason was shocked, but thankful: “To hear you talk about Mike in the way that you have – that he is one of ‘your children’ – well, we just weren’t ready for this. No one else has ever told us that they were excited to learn from Mike. No one else has asked us questions instead of telling us what to do. Thank you. Thank you for not judging us, for not fixing us, but for simply loving us.