In the first Star Wars movie (“Episode IV: A New Hope”), there is a well-quoted line, when two droids (the awkward C-3PO and the ever-present R2-D2) are kicked out of a cantina, because – according to the bartender – “We don’t serve their kind here.”1
It is regrettable that this line came from historical references, where various groups of people (for any number of reasons) were excluded from specific establishments. That doesn’t match the radical inclusiveness that Jesus showed to the people around Him, but even He experienced push-back from groups who believed that there was a difference between “good” people and “sinners”. These groups firmly believed that they shouldn’t fraternize with the latter (even if they were the ones who defined the criteria for both groups).
In a sermon, our pastor was reading and teaching about some healing that Jesus performed, when the following verse caught my attention:
Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Mark 1:23-24 NIV
Did you catch that? There was a man in the synagogue (the local place of worship for the Jewish world of the first century) who had an unclean spirit. This man was literally demon-possessed, and he was in a house of worship? More than that, the rest of the narrative doesn’t seem to indicate that anyone was shocked or concerned. (Maybe they were, but Jesus’ actions and teaching were certainly more significant, so I can understand that.) Still, I don’t know if demon-possession was just so well-known in that day (i.e., that this wasn’t front-page news in itself), or if the audience didn’t realize this man’s condition until he spoke up.
Can you imagine what would happen if someone who was openly possessed by an evil spirit (i.e., where the evil spirit really showed off) walked into a Western church today? I expect that there would be a lot of whispering, or people quickly ushering their families out. What if an enemy of the faith showed up during a church service, and began to shout disruptive things? Would the congregation’s security team roughly escort them out, or would other Christians shout back with words that are equally unloving? (I’m a firm believer in honest discussion about difficult topics, but I fear that it may be a lost art, or at least a practice that is rapidly fading.)
Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that there is a time and a place for protecting human life, and for not letting evil have free reign. However, in this case, Jesus doesn’t call the synagogue security squad. He doesn’t accuse the synagogue leader of failing to manage who is allowed to attend. Instead, Jesus exercises His authority, and casts out the demon. He doesn’t expel the man, but He expels the evil that consumed the man.
When we consider how we might handle a situation like this, we may argue that we’re not God (like Jesus is), and we’d be right. However, Jesus promised to remain with His disciples, and God the Father – who worked in Jesus’ (God the Son’s) life – is able to let His love and power to flow through us, if we allow Him to work through us. Still, although I do encourage everyone to be aware of the effect of evil forces in the world (and how their control of certain human beings may explain significantly evil occurrences in this world), I’m not suggesting that an on-the-fly exorcism is always the answer.
Still, I think that there is a lesson for us, here. People who have sin in their lives, or bad habits, or a sketchy reputation, or don’t act like us – all of these people need Jesus. If a house of worship, or any other gathering of believers is where they will find Jesus and the healing that He provides, then let’s welcome them in. The church is no place to say, “We don’t serve their kind, here”2.
In this account from Jesus’ ministry, it was OK for this afflicted man to be in the synagogue with Jesus, but it was not OK for the unclean spirit to continue to harass him. And, perhaps more importantly, the afflicted man in this story – the man that Jesus healed – did not leave in the same condition that he came in:
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
Mark 1:25-26 NIV
So, as we prepare to worship God in a fellowship of like-minded believers, are our doors open wide enough that those who need to find Jesus can enter? Do we spot those who look, act, or talk differently (as compared to our impression of a mature follower of Jesus), and discourage them from being part of the community? Or, do we seek to help them find healing in Jesus’ name, welcoming then into the community of sinners who ourselves have found the joy of salvation in Jesus?
May each and every Christian worship service today be one where people oppressed by evil are welcome, but also gatherings where no one who is tortured by sin leaves with their soul as sick as it was when they came in.
- https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076759/quotes/qt2086030 ↩
- There is a possible exception for those who are deliberately distorting the word of God. False teachers who corrupt Jesus’ message should be unwelcome in positions of authority within the church. There is also a place for excluding those who claim to follow Jesus, but whose lives are actively resisting correction. Sometimes, discipline is necessary. However, I don’t see a place to exclude those who are painfully aware of their condition (of sin), and need to be rescued. ↩