The fearfulness of conversion


Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18.15-20

Psalm 111

1 Corinthians 8.1-13

Mark 1.21-28

Sunday 27th January 2024

  ©Suzanne Grimmett

“He commands even the evil spirits and they obey him!”

What has changed in the two thousand years since such encounters with ‘Holy One of God’…this man Jesus who came teaching with authority and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is within and amongst us? In this uncontrolling Divine project of incarnation, followers of the risen Christ have been called ever since to bring the healing, liberating Word to birth through their lives, by the Spirit. If you are thinking that this all seems a bit of a risk on the part of God, you would not be the first!

Looking at the suffering in the world, it would be easy to feel despair. Yet to despair is to neglect the power of the spiritual dimension of this world that is so often not seen or acknowledged in our culture.

Our Gospel reading takes us immediately into the realm of the spiritual, and indeed into the territory of the demonic as Jesus heals a man, calling from him what the text describes as “an unclean spirit”. It might cause us to pause and wonder what it is that we are talking about here- is it meant to be understood literally as a demonic being or is it metaphorical or figurative in the way we might talk about our demons in psychoanalysis? I guess one thing that is clear is that this is something that has some power for ill and is certainly not of God. In Mark’s Gospel evil brings destruction, crippling humanity and making the earth a place of danger and death even as it exists amongst a creation of goodness and life.

To resist evil is foundational in our understanding of what it means to set our course on this Christian journey- we promise at our baptism ‘to renounce Satan and all evil’. When we say this on behalf of a child, I know I think of all those things that I would like to not have power over that child as they grow and encounter the world. We would want that child not to grow up believing the lies the world may teach them- that they are not enough, not worthy, wrong, or don’t belong. We want them to be liberated from anything that would bind or imprison them, preventing them from becoming the most free and loving version of themselves.

Spirituality is about how we all embody our relationships and enact belonging. Indeed, the reading from Corinthians today speaks to the need to bear, in all our decisions, a sense of the responsibility we have to one another. Spirituality is the language of our interconnectedness, and we know that this foundational truth of our relationships and interdependence can be disfigured by our own blindness and prejudice. Christianity has taken on a social imagination across two thousand years of history that has tried to contain the power of the Word of God inside cultural and political understandings that are beneficial for some, but not liberating for all.  We have not always recognised the truth that our freedom and our flourishing is intertwined. Evil can be the lie we believe that our own lives of freedom and goodness can be created apart from the well-being of our neighbour.

This Gospel story sets a scene of a division between clean and unclean in a religious context. It portrays a man who is seen as an outcast, impure, unholy. There is a suggestion that there is that in him which is too powerful to be overcome. It is into this scene that Jesus, this man possessed by the Spirit of God, enters with such authority. The reaction of the spirit seems to be fear;

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

So often powers that are threatened react violently, from a place of fear. Jesus  comes that the powers of the world will be transformed by the power of love- but this does mean that which rules by fear and oppression will have to be disempowered. This overturning of oppressive rule caused evil to cry out then…and it continues to cry out in protest today wherever the Spirit’s prophetic speech is heard. Few, whether individuals or groups, who enjoy power over others will lay it down willingly. The prophetic imagination speaks powerfully, too, wherever separation prohibits communion and human characteristics are the cause of exclusion. No longer can some be declared clean and others unclean. Jesus comes that all barriers used to exclude and control can be broken down, and creation be restored in beloved community.

When we seek to find signs of God’s kingdom coming on earth, what we are seeking is less about progress than it is about conversion. After all, Jesus first words in Mark were that “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news!” Sometimes, having the eyes to see and ears to hear the presence of the kingdom is not easy when we have been enculturated to certain ways of seeing and hearing. Sometimes, we need a conversion in our seeing and our hearing…and a releasing of damaging ways of being together.

Dr Miriam Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, who was the 2021 Senior Australian of the year, is an Aboriginal elder who speaks of “DADIRRI” (Da-did-ee) which means a way of deep listening and quiet, still attention. Garry Deverell, in his book, “Contemplating Country” notes that Miriam-Rose’s invitation to come listen to country is deeply radical but frequently misunderstood. Where a summons has the potential to be transformative, changing our hearts, lives and ways of being together, it is often easier to shape it into something far less disruptive.  As Garry says, Miriam-Rose is not inviting settlers into a lovely, wafty spiritual experience with “nature” for example, which can easily be accommodated into our western middle-class life, but into questioning and a new way of seeing. What she means by “dadirri” is ‘a deep and sustained process of conversion, of learning and unlearning: a learning about indigenous practices of ethical relationality’…and an unlearning of practices that ignore and even abuse the earth, country and waterways, animals and plants and other people.[1] Sometimes the summons to healing can feel like a threat when it requires us to be led to a whole new way of seeing…a whole new way of being.

To face ourselves and question what we have thought we have known can be a fearful thing. The evil that Jesus would call us to confront is that which would maintain separation between and amongst ourselves and creation.  When we think of this kingdom Jesus inaugurates and the evil he drives out we might hear in the background the words of the prophet Isaiah (58:6), “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”

Where do you sense the yoke of injustice? You may consider the groanings of the planet or be aware of discrimination that divides us, negating our shared humanity. Or maybe you also sense oppression in your own spirit, having allowed lies of others to become defining narratives of your sense of worth and dignity- robbing you of life and keeping you from freedom. When we speak about evil, we are often in the territory of lies-  those we have believed that maintain our shame and make us fearful of vulnerability and exposure before God and others. The evil spirit in the Gospel story cries out “you have come to destroy us” but it tells a lie.  The upheaval that comes with conversion may feel like it must end in the destruction of all our known ways of being and perhaps of our very selves, but it is not so. While there was great protest and violent resistance when Jesus calls the spirit out, the man is not destroyed but restored.  Vulnerability before God is the beginning of freedom.

Faith is needed to face our fear and allow the gentle but insistent voice of the Spirit of Christ to lead us towards conversion and healing…of ourselves and our world.  Change can be fearful, and sometimes the yoke of our oppression comfortingly familiar. Yet only a very little amount of faith is needed to step out of our known ways of being and trust in the Holy One of God who leads us to freedom and life. The Spirit seems to be able to begin its liberating  work with even the smallest offering of courage. Let us find that courage to change, to learn and unlearn and to heal, restoring relationships to one another and the earth.                                                                    +Amen

[1] Garry Worete Deverell, Contemplating Country: More Gondwana Theology, Wipf & Stock: 2023, 47.