Love, knowledge, authority, and unclean spirits

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 2021. The readings include Moses’ job description for a prophet, Paul’s admonition that “knowledge puffs up; love builds up,” and Jesus casting out demons with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, as well as Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding.”

The unclean spirits knew who Jesus was. The devil can quote from the Bible. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

The scribes, who elsewhere get a bad rap, were perhaps wise. They taught, not as ones with the authority of Jesus, the Word of God himself, but with humility. They heeded the warnings of Moses, that the one who claims to speak for God had better be careful to check with God first.

Information is not the same as motivation. The unclean spirits knew who Jesus was. But they were on a whole other mission.

In her opening remarks to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church last week, House of Deputies President the Revd Gay Jennings called out the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, which was on full display during recent disturbing and violent events at the US Capitol. She said,

This violent and exclusionary movement is on the rise in the United States, and those of us who believe that God is calling us toward a very different vision, toward the Beloved Community, have a special responsibility to stand against it. If we will not tell the world that it is not Christianity, then who will?

The unclean spirits knew the name of Jesus. It rolled off their lips with ease. That did not make them Christians.

But this is where we need to be even more careful. Jesus was able to separate the unclean spirits from the man driven by them. He, because of who he was and the authority he wielded, was able to bring healing to the situation, reconciliation to the community. Because he loved the man yelling at him in the synagogue, Jesus would not leave him to the mercy of unclean spirits.

President Jennings went on in her address to raise up a white paper from the Office of Government Relations, detailing ways in which our church can be an instrument of healing and of reconciliation in these precarious days. They wrote,

The Episcopal Church has the opportunity to respond to this threat by offering an “off-ramp” for those who have joined extremism groups, expanding the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness. The Church can prevent those who are on the brink of joining radical extremist groups from doing so, inoculating young people from succumbing to these ideologies.

If we think that this work does not apply to us, then I would remind us that at least seven full buses left Cleveland on the morning of January 6th to travel to DC. And while I know of no one from this church attending, I know from colleagues that there were Episcopalians among those joining the caravan. We are closer than we think to the opportunity to help someone shake the unclean spirit of radical racism and Christian extremism.

It is not enough for us to know that there are unclean spirits out there. As long as one of our cousins in Christ is tempted by their false naming of him, our conscience is not clean.

But it is not enough, either, for us to know that there are unclean spirits out there. They know us, too. They speak our names, and puff us up with pride or tear us down with fear. But Jesus speaks our names with love. Our unclean spirits may talk up a storm, puffing us up with pride that we are not like those other, weaker Christians, but Jesus knows us, and all the ways in which we have been led astray, and all the false words we have devoured and spat out. He knows our unclean spirits. And still, Jesus loves us.

Jesus spoke with authority, and not as the scribes. God knows, I am merely a scribe, a person of unclean lips. But God has commissioned me to love God and to love my neighbour, and my enemy alike, the very best that I can. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Paul does not consider knowledge of the gospel nor learning, of which he has plenty, to be a bad thing. But he knows that it can lead to some self-satisfaction, some self-righteousness, some self-sufficiency, some superiority which is at odds with the Beloved Community of Christ, the church that Paul is planting. Love: love is the thing that will save us.

The unclean spirits knew Jesus, and they named him. Jesus knew the man, and he loved him.

May Christ have mercy on each of us, and fill us with the knowledge of God’s love for all whom God has made.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, KJV)


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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