Summary: Christ came to heal and to save people, and he was able to do so because of the power of God in him, which he used with unquestionable authority. Christ gives the same power to his disciples, how can we work in the world with authority to heal and to save?
Several years ago, there was a terrible ferry accident in the Mediterranean Sea. You may have heard about it. This boat, loaded with cars and vacationers, failed to shut its doors properly, and before too long, the water was pouring in. Needless to say, the boat began to sink and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere turned in minutes to something worse than a horror movie.
In the midst of the chaos, one man (who was not a member of the crew) suddenly took charge. In a clear voice, he gave orders, telling people what to do. Now the panicked people began to feel some relief as they realized that at least there was someone in charge, and many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed in the dark chaos. Meanwhile, the man made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge: holding on with one hand to a ladder, and with the other reaching out to the part of the ship that was now almost completely submerged. As he reached out he was able, one by one, to help even more cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed—the authority by which many had been saved.
Needless to say, the power of true authority can be a really amazing thing, which is exactly what we see in our scripture reading for this morning. Where we pick up in Mark’s gospel today, Jesus has moved inland from the Sea of Galilee approximately one hundred yards to a small village by the name of Capernaum. Though this is not a large city, it is still a community of Jews, so there is in this village a synagogue. And what better place for Jesus to go to share his message of God’s new work in the world than to the synagogue?
In the life of the Jewish people, the Temple was the place of worship and sacrifice, while the synagogue served more as the center of teaching and instruction. A synagogue service in Jesus’ time would have been quite different from Christian worship as we know it today. When people gathered for worship in the synagogue, it consisted of only three parts: prayer, the reading of God’s word, and the exposition of that word. There was no music, or singing, or sacrifice. Furthermore, when it came time for the exposition of the word, it was open to the leader of the synagogue to call on any competent person to offer the teaching.
So, if a man had a new message to preach, the synagogue was the obvious place to go, and that’s exactly what Jesus did. When the time came, he was called upon to offer a teaching, the exposition of the word. But the thing is, Mark tells us as Jesus began to speak and teach, he did so “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” You see, the usual teachers – the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, the literate ones, the self-appointed guardians of Jewish ancestral traditions—always taught by saying “as Moses said”, or “as Rabbi so-and-so teaches.” But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus would not have been one of the regular or recognized teachers in the synagogue at Capernaum, and yet he begins on his own authority to tell people what God’s will is and how the kingdom is coming. Jesus spoke there among that gathering with a quiet but compelling authority that was all his own.
But here’s the thing about that quiet authority with which Jesus spoke in the synagogue that day in Capernaum. He backed it up with a miracle, a sign of the power of God within him. Indeed, Jesus’ teaching astonished the people gathered in the synagogue, but what was even more amazing was what happened when Jesus was confronted by a man with an “unclean spirit.” Interestingly, this “evil spirit” immediately recognizes Jesus for who he is, “the Holy One of God,” even though the people in the synagogue probably had not made this connection yet. This is a recurring theme in Mark’s gospel where demons are able to recognize Jesus’ Lordship, even as his own disciples and followers struggle to understand. In any case, when the unclean spirit cries out, Jesus silences him, and then orders the evil spirit out of the man. And that’s exactly what happened, “the unclean spirit convulsed the man, gave a great shout, and came out of him.” The people gathered in the synagogue were astonished before, now they are simply amazed! “‘What’s this?’ they started to say to each other. ‘A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!’”