Looking East from Hilltop Farm towards Gladstone South Australia

Who will form you?

In Bible Study on Wednesday I asked people what they think is going on when it says someone is "with an unclean spirit," or "has an an unclean spirit"  as it does in this week's gospel reading.    Irena said something like this:

It's as though someone has been dipped in something which then controls or affects everything that they do.

So the way Irena imagined it, they've been stained or coloured by this thing that changes everything about them. I found this really insightful because,

firstly, in the Greek it literally says the man was in an unclean spirit. It was not in him.
but secondly, Irena used the language of baptism; she said it's as though someone has been dipped.

Do you remember that only a few verses ago in Mark, John the Baptist says, I have baptized you in water; but he— and we find the he is Jesus— will baptize you in  holy spirit.’

John baptises in water, Jesus baptises in holy spirit and, if we use Irena's image, the man is baptised, dipped, in an unclean spirit.

[Geeky Greeky Stuff:
Mark 1:8    ἐν  ὕδατι is what John does (ἐν is missing in some manuscripts)
Mark 1: 8    ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ is what Jesus does
Mark 1:23   ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ]

I find it really interesting that the apostle Paul says in Romans 7

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…  21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7)

I wonder if this is his experience of the same thing we all know: We know what is good, we want good, but something seems to have stained us; it controls us; it drives us in another direction.

So we might understand that when it says Jesus will baptise us in holy spirit, in a different, godly spirit, that this might be the same thing as Jesus setting us free. It might be the same thing as Jesus "rescuing us from this body of death," as Paul puts it.

Would it not be a life changing relief to be free of all that stuff which seems to drive us, despite the fact that we know better, want better, and try better… but can never quite pull it off? When, as Paul confesses, we often "do the very thing we hate?"

I remember, after a stirring sermon from some minister when we were still students, my colleague John Peters said to me, "That was a great sermon, but how do we do it?"

How can we be changed? For that matter, what forms us as people, anyway? How can Jesus set us free, here… and now?

Here is a picture of formation.

One of the old ways of making a candle [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca9q4XmxcYU] was to have a bowl of hot wax. You would tie a weight to the bottom of some wick and dip it in the wax and then let it set a little bit, or maybe even dip it in water to cool it. When you keep dipping in the wax, you slowly build up layers of wax and a candle is formed around the wick.

So the wick is encased inside layers of wax which have shaped and formed in into a candle. The candle is formed by the stuff it has been dipped into.

And this is how we are formed, as people. We are formed by the company we keep. We even say this: The company you keep will rub off on you; don't keep bad company. Or,  if you wear your good clothes in the garden, you'll get dirt on them.

So, if we grow up in Australia, we sound like Australians; our voice is formed by the Australian accents and cadences and slang which is all around us.

And, if we grow up in an abusive environment, we get surrounded and shaped by layers of abuse.

Like the dipping candle, we are shaped and encased by the environment we are formed and baptised in…

and, very simply…

Jesus heals us by placing us, dipping us, in an environment which is different— holy. He dips us in holy spirit, not unclean spirit.

Note this: In Jesus' time, unclean was not about hygiene. People who everyone thought were clean¸ may have seemed quite unhygienic to us, and people who seem to us very clean because they have washed properly and put on deodorant, would have been seen as quite unclean by Jesus' people.

In Jesus' time, unclean meant: not right with God, separated from God, not worthy to be in God's presence.

So when we are formed and shaped by an environment which has ignored God, then we are not shaped by in the ways God offers us. Jesus offers us an environment where we can be dipped in the ways of God, and shaped by the ways of God.

So, as I said, Jesus heals us by placing us, dipping us, in an environment which is different— holy. He dips us in holy spirit, not unclean spirit.  The healing of Andrew and Simon, and James and John, begins when they leave their nets and follow Jesus. He immerses them in a different environment; they begin to be formed and shaped by a different wax, if you like.

That's why it's so important to follow him. If we don't follow him, if we don’t copy him, then we can't be reformed by him. We might say all the right words in church, but until we actually copy him, we don't get dipped in a new way of living. We just stay immersed in our old ways of being.

But, you might say, Jesus heals the man with a word! It's immediate! It's not just about copying; there is something else going on here.

Well, we still see that healing with a word. The preacher, or someone else, says something, and it's like a key is turned in a lock. We get a whole new insight into life— "Wow!" we say. It's as though we have a new freedom, a new way to see the world. But, in my experience, anyway, ONLY IF WE ACT UPON IT!

How often do we think, "How wonderful…" and then forget the whole thing? Do you remember the parable Jesus told about a person's life being cleaned out?

Matthew 12:43 ‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. 44Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.

We are formed by what we follow, and if we will not follow him, we will not be freed, no matter what words of power he has said to us!

Now I want to conclude with two pastoral comments.

One thing we do sometimes, is blame other people: they have a problem we say, and I am alright. In the story from Mark there is something very clear. Yes, the man is in the unclean spirit. But the unclean spirit is in the synagogue. In other words, the environment of that place that should have been a holy place, a place of worship, was removed from God. In Jesus' story, the thing that made the man cry out that Jesus was the holy one of God— that thing recognised who Jesus was. But the people who thought he was unclean, the people who thought they were clean, did not recognise Jesus!!! "What is this," they said? Surely they should have been the ones crying out something like, "At last! The Holy One of God!"

Can you see that they did not know holy when they saw it? The story asks a very difficult question. The man was in the synagogue and in an unclean spirit. He was sick. But was he being formed, at least in part, by the synagogue itself? Are we an environment that is holy, or do we contribute to people's sickness? That's a question for all congregations, and all Christians, to ask.

And the second thing is this:

Sometimes we hear stories about how people are healed and everything is fine and wonderful. And we wonder how come it has not happened to us. Well, very gently, I want to say that while it's great that people have felt a new freedom in their lives, I sometimes observe that in all the stuff they are saying there is something which is, well…

a little bit more aspirational than actual. Preachers, especially, kind of gild the lily when they talk about these things. (And even those of us who have had high experiences find they fade a little as we move on and seek to grow more.)

Let's look at ourselves. We have spent 30, 50, 70 years being dipped and shaped in an environment that is often not at all concerned with God. We all have to live in it.  Jesus has a lot of stuff to strip off us as we are reformed. I want to say what I have said here before: I am amazed and blessed by how much of Jesus' way of living I see has rubbed off on the people in this place. There is not one person here who is not being reformed. We are like dipping candles: it's a slow patient process. But we are being reformed. We are being created into people of God. It's slow, but it's certain. God is blessing us. Keep on following the Christ. Be dipped in holy spirit. Amen.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Bill Schlesinger 28-01-2018
Really good stuff. I'm dealing with a weird situation - we applied for a grant to do 'coordinated assessment' for homelessness in El Paso. Ended up being the only applicant. Now a homeless provider is doing everything it can to challenge the awarding of the grant to us, because we 'aren't a real homeless provider.' He has a long history of bullying others, while providing a real service to homeless persons. Figuring out how to thread the needle in this one is hard - the time it takes to go and visit the local politicians, figuring out the underlying issues beneath the changing rationales for opposing the award, and trying to stay focused on what is needed is rough. All the traps are there.
Bill Schlesinger 28-01-2018
'akatharto' - not cleansed - no catharsis. We worked in 'catharsis' in drama studies - the turning point when things became clear and changed. A spirit - or a context - that has not gone through a catharsis may be stuck in a reduced view of 'me, myself and my canary,' or 'I'm entitled!' or... Sometimes it's the discovery that we've been living in an illusion about ourselves and our world that brings us into life. I'm reminded of kids who've done the mission trip thing and come back changed - they'd been living as thought the whole world was like their community, and not understanding why others didn't seem to do what they would have done; 'why don't they just.... (eat cake)?' And then they saw. The ongoing dipping thing is real - and so is an awakening moment when we see/hear/acknowledge a reality beyond our given context?

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