The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
January 31, 2021
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Wouldn’t it have been amazing to be in worship on that day? That Sabbath day that Jesus and his disciples walked into the synagogue and Jesus began acting with exousia? The Greek word which Mark uses means ‘authority’ or ‘power.’ It characterizes Jesus in this entire first chapter. Indeed, it characterizes him throughout the entire Gospel of Mark.
When Jesus sits down to teach, he teaches with exousia. This means that he does not cite any other authorities. The people were used to being taught in another way. Their teachers would cite differing authorities when interpreting a passage of the Scripture. ‘One person says…another person says…yet another says…’ But Jesus does not do that. He interprets the Word himself. This is because he himself is the Word. The incarnate Word of God interprets the written Word of God. Though the people in the synagogue had no idea of the incarnation, they knew that something different was happening, and their response was ‘amazement.’
Just then Jesus is confronted by ‘a man with an unclean spirit.’ This unclean spirit goes right for Jesus. He names Jesus and tries to expose him – to draw Jesus into his orbit. When we say someone’s name, it often elicits a response. It commands the person’s attention so that they are forced to react to their naming. But with exousia, with power, Jesus ‘exorcises’ the evil spirit. He does not react, but he acts. He silences the unclean spirit and commands it to go out of the man. This act of exousia amazes the people even more than his teaching. And yet the act of exorcism confirms the teaching which he had given.
Wouldn’t it have been amazing to be in worship on that day? To see Jesus acting with exousia? But what is the point of this power and authority? Does Jesus wish to replace the unclean spirit and take possession of what it had formerly owned? No, it was not to take possession, but it was to set free.
Jesus means freedom. His power and authority set us free from everything that would hold us in bondage. He gives us both freedom from evil, sin, and death and freedom for God.
When we think of freedom, we most often think of freedom ‘to.’ Freedom to think how we want, say what we want, be who we want, and do what we want. We Americans interpret this as freedom of religion, speech, assembly, property, to defend ourselves and be secure in our persons. There is nothing wrong with these freedoms. But they are not the freedoms which Christ gives. Indeed, sometimes these freedoms can get in the way of the freedom Christ comes to give.
But let’s let that for later. For now, let’s talk about what Christ gives us freedom from. Here the man is freed from evil. We pray ‘Deliver us from evil’ in the Lord’s Prayer. When we do so, we should not think that we could pray ‘Deliver us from evil’ and God might think, ‘Nah, not this time.’ We believe that in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches how to pray for what God delights to give. So when we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil,’ we can be sure that he will. This does not mean that evil is not in the world, nor that evil will not happen to us. It means that no evil can separate us from him. It means that, like he did with the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus will show his power and free us completely from evil. Even when we are afflicted by evil we can remember that Jesus is stronger than the evil which afflicts us and will in time free us from all evil.
We are freed from ignorance about God and his purposes. Many claim that they believe there is a god but they don’t know anything about his intentions. Jesus’ authoritative teaching liberates us from this lack of understanding. He teaches us both what God commands and what God promises.
Jesus frees us from sin. We say in the confession, ‘We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.’ However, the pastor says, ‘As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’ We are set free by Christ’s exousia, his authority.
Finally, we are free from the fear of death. So many people are possessed by fear that they will die, not that we don’t take precautions for our health, but real fear of death. Jesus frees us from fear of death because he promises to free us from death. We can therefore live in confidence, knowing that whatever happens to us, death has lost its sting.
Jesus frees us from evil, ignorance, sin and death to freely live for God and others. He does not control us but invites us to free worship. Sometimes this leads us to give up those things which we are free ‘to’ do.
The reading we had from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is somewhat confusing. Some among the Corinthian Christians believed that there was nothing wrong in attending their pagan friends’ banquets at which meat that had been devoted to their gods was served. They knew that there were no other gods but God, so what was the harm in eating the meat? It was just ordinary food. Paul reminded them that their freedom to eat was conditioned by their freedom for God and others. He reasoned that some might be confused by their behavior, and conclude that Christians also believed in pagan gods and that it was okay to offer sacrifices to them. And so the Corinthian Christians were told to lay aside their knowledge, for the sake of love. They were to forego their freedom ‘to’ for the sake of their freedom ‘for.’
So it is that we can lay aside our freedoms for the sake of others. Indeed, perhaps we can look at our behavior during COVID-19 this way. We laid aside our freedom of worship in the beginning of the pandemic for the sake of others, that we might be sure we were doing our part in slowing the spread of COVID. Even though masks are mandatory in many places, even if they were not we might choose to wear them out of love, laying aside our freedoms for a time so that others might be protected. Freedom ‘to’ do something or be someone is always conditioned by our freedom for God and others.
Wouldn’t it have been amazing to be in worship that day when Jesus entered the synagogue and acted with exousia? But Jesus has entered our lives today by the Holy Scripture, which teaches us that Jesus means freedom; freedom from all that would hold is in bondage, freedom to live in God’s light and to seek and do his will. This can, should, and does fill us with amazement, and his fame should be spread abroad, for he has died and was raised and therefore still has power and authority throughout the world. Thanks be to God!