Epiphany 4 B “Rebuke the Disease, Not the Diseased”

Years ago we fought off a family disease. Substance abuse was our plague, and we were in a group family therapy program where the leader had each set of parents draw a picture of the disease, place it on a folding chair, and then give vent to their emotions by beating the picture with a plastic baseball bat.

The point: It is right to rage against the disease, but not the diseased. When a member of your family is abusing drugs or alcohol, the whole family system, and not just the addict, is sick. It is of the utmost importance to hate and strike out at the disease, but it is self-destructive of the entire family when one person is made the scapegoat for a shared malady.

Reading the New York Times this morning my own emotions almost boiled over. I said to my wife, “We don’t stand a chance!” Almost all of the stories were of seemingly insurmountable problems facing our nation and world: the coronavirus is mutating while vaccination efforts stall. The climate is warming while attempts mitigate its ravages seem doomed because of congressional resistance. Trump loyalists dig in as Biden’s team seeks to dig them out. Conspiracy enthusiasts have taken over the Republican party, protest being censured, yet have a industry of conservative media and Internet trolls, not to mention well-armed militias, backing them up.

Our Gospel reading for this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany is Mark 1:21-28. Jesus has received God’s affirmation at his Baptism, and has begun his ministry of the Good News that God’s rule has begun. And now, in this passage, he demonstrates that rule of God by performing his first exorcism of an unclean spirit—which he does by rebuke: “Be silent! Come out of him!”

Mark’s Gospel will unfold and make it plain how much we need God’s rule to break in. Things are a mess the way they are, and human life has always seemed full of insurmountable threats. Here it is demon possession. There it will be leprosy, a storm at sea, hungry multitudes, oppressive, fearful and power-anxious religious and political leaders.

Pen-ultimately it will look like total negation of God’s rule, because God’s son, the Messiah, is hung on a cross; and when he dies, he too makes a loud cry, just like the unclean spirit here in the first chapter.

But that is not the end. The ultimate comes when Jesus’ tomb is empty and the young man in white announces the next great phase of the coming of God’s rule: “He’s not here. He’s been raised. Go back to Galilee—the place of gospel mission and ministry. Christ is going ahead of you.”

But here, in our lesson, we learn that the rule of God entails strong rebuke. But it is rebuke of the disease—the true enemy—and not the ones with the disease.

It is time for us and all the church to rebuke. Those who take up arms, and shout, and obstruct, and tell outrageous lies, and believe those same lies, are not the real enemy. The fear and the lies that possess them are what we must hate and rebuke. We should be bold and loud and clear about these diseases, and about the need for faith and the love that casts out fear and falsehood.

Related to this is the Apostle Paul’s wise instruction in our Second Lesson for this day in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Contained here is one of the most profound bits of practical philosophy that Paul has to offer us: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” Paul insists.

At issue is whether Christians should buy and consume meat at the market that had been part of pagan sacrifice. Paul concedes that knowledge of the Bible and theology may tell us that, since idols are not real gods, the act of sacrifice itself is of no consequence. Armed alone with this knowledge one could conclude the meat may be eaten. However, Paul goes on to observe that those beginning their Christian journey may not understand these fine theological distinctions, and may therefore be confused and disturbed by such behavior.

Paul concludes that mere knowledge is only the start; it is not the “necessary knowledge.” That essential knowledge is wrapped up with love: the conviction that God knows us completely (including how stupid the smartest of us is) yet still loves us, and the power to love others and accommodate them that arises out of that conviction.

Shallow knowledge leads to shallow liberty. But necessary knowledge frees us more profoundly—to make ourselves servants of others.

In the midst of a pandemic of Covid and of lies, we are smothered every day with bad news. It is the right time for all of us who believe in the God who went to the cross for us to carry our cross as well. This means we rebuke the disease of fear and lies, but refuse to hate or attack the people who are possessed by this disease. And it means that we not get puffed up by our knowledge of God, of science, or of the Constitution, but make all knowledge serve the cause of love.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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