Other Homilies

Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

Home Mission Statement Homilies Liturgies In Memoriam Reports Resources Contacts Links


Epiphany 5, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 5, 2012

1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

I feel possessed’

Today’s homily is an attempt to understand what Mark means by demon possession.

Mark says that demons are bad for the people, and that they are very common. As common as sickness. They are oppressive spirits that, like sickness, make the people’s lives miserable. Mark talks about demon possession and sickness as if they were almost the same thing. They are not the same thing, not exactly, which is why Mark distinguishes them by name. (Demon possession is not reducible to sickness, to psychological or neurological conditions.) And yet he mentions one in a pair with the other on most occasions; and on some occasions – as with today’s reading, where Jesus’ ministry is summarised as the twofold activity of preaching and exorcism – demon possession seems to represent sickness as well. Why is that? Because demon possession is like being sick. It can happen to anyone. It’s not something you necessarily choose for yourself. But the effects are awful, painful, miserable.

The second thing Mark says about demons is that they are often multi-voiced or multi-personalitied. Take, for example, the story of Jesus’ first miracle, an exorcism in the synagogue. Here the possessed man calls out to Jesus in a multiple voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24). Compare that to the story of the demoniac among the tombs of the Gerasenes. When Jesus asks the demon’s name, it replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” This last story is particularly revealing. For it tells us that demons have something to do with a people colonised by foreign powers, foreign armies …

Jesus’ ministry took place in a police state, much like the police state of Chile under Pinochet, or Russia under Stalin. No citizen could walk more than a couple of blocks without running into a Roman soldier, a legionnaire, who belonged to a massive force of men who had occupied the countryside. The people suffered terribly under this yoke. They suffered like Russian citizens suffered under Stalin. A woman or boy could be raped or otherwise molested by a soldier, and have no recourse against him. A Jewish man could be commanded to carry a soldier’s pack for him, or to murder someone for him, or to do almost anything that soldier wanted, and that man could do nothing about it. Jewish people were paid to inform on each other, to betray each other in order to save themselves from trumped-up charges. In an environment like that, people could not avoid the constant feeling that they were not the masters of their own bodies. Their lands, their homes, even their bodies and minds, had been colonised and possessed by the Roman hordes.

So, what does Mark mean when he talks about demons? He is most likely writing his Gospel during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70CE. For Mark, the demons symbolise the devastating effects of the Roman colonisation of Jewry. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Mental illness. Despair. Distrust. Lies. Envy. Greed. Murder. War. The kinds of demons one can see today in parts of Africa, in South America and South Asia, and even here in Australia, among seekers of asylum, and among Aboriginal people.

There is a connection to be made here to recent events pertaining to our national holiday (Australia Day? Survival Day? Invasion Day? A day of celebration and confrontation?), to colonial suppression (subtle and not so subtle) of Aboriginal resistance and the right of Indigenous peoples to determine if and when a strategy of protest is “relevant” – to depoliticisation of Land Rights, Justice, Sovereignty, Self-Determination, and so on …

The demons symbolise the devastating effects of colonisation … With respect to Christian scriptures and tradition, it is not only Mark who takes this view. It is also the view of the Christian communities that survived the destruction of Jerusalem, but continued to live under the yoke of Rome. In the second, third and fourth centuries, as the Church developed its baptismal rituals, an important part of the preparations was a liturgy of exorcism. Here the baptismal candidates, or catechumens as they were called, were questioned by the bishop with regard to the way they lived their lives. The key question was: “Are you living your life under the fear of Rome, or are you turning towards the joy of Jesus?” At each questioning, as the many layers of Roman influence were uncovered, there would be an exorcism, a liturgy in which the colonising demons would be symbolically cast out, and the catechumen’s ears and eyes sealed with a cross, against the reinvasion of the hordes.

As we approach Lent and our own rituals of exorcism, we might ponder: In what ways have the demonic forces of our dominant culture and time colonised our own lives? In what ways have they made us afraid – afraid for our financial futures, or anxious about social and vocational “success”? How have we taken on board the values of these demons, acceding to their demands because we feel there is no other way – no other way than to live in big lonely houses, in debt to the big banks, at the mercy of big telcos and big food corporations; no other way but to work longer hours and build bigger prisons, and protect ourselves against the practice of hospitality and compassion?

Mark’s message to us, then, is this: There is another way, another possibility. For Mark also says about the demons that they know Jesus, fear and obey him. Jesus has the authority to drive the demons away. In the end, the demons are a chimera. Shadows that recede when the light of Christ’s truth is brought to bear. The Lenten season, which approaches fast, is an invitation and an opportunity – for in Lent we hear the call of God to take our baptismal vows seriously – to turn from evil, to cast aside the colonising influences of our culture and time, and turn instead to Christ – his will and his way. The promise of Easter lies before us: that if we die with Christ, we shall also live with him; that if we lose ourselves, our colonised selves, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, then we shall find ourselves anew, in a new form of human life and community we could not have imagined before.

The promise of Easter is lives filled with the Holy Spirit – demons cast out – lives filled with the Holy Spirit, and freedom.

In the silence I invite you to reflect on two questions, and then, if you like, to respond:

How do we name the demonic forces of our culture and time – the demons that colonise our lives? The demons that make us afraid?

How might we approach losing our colonised selves for the sake of Christ and the Gospel – that we might find ourselves anew, in a new form of human life and community?Amen.

[Based on homily by Rev. Dr Garry Deverell.]