As I’ve been writing out my thoughts for the upcoming solemn communion preparation class that will begin at the end of February, I’ve been rereading a number of books to refresh and tighten up my thinking on the sacraments. One of these, which I purchased in seminary as one of those “other recommended texts” is by the French Roman Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet and is entitled The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body.
Something in Chauvet’s introduction struck me as incredibly important for many of us today:
First, theology is a believer’s task. Faith is not at the end but at the beginning of this task. To make an act of faith does not mean simply either to believe that God exists (“believe that” is in the domain of opinion) or to believe ideas about God, beautiful and generous as these ideas may be (to believe for example in science, the immortality of the soul, or astrology, still pertains to a purely intellectual thought process), but to believe in, which means to have trust in someone, to put one’s faith in that person. This is never the product of a merely intellectual reasoning. Because it necessarily involves us as persons in a vital relationship with another, “to believe in” (a spouse, a friend, and so on), belongs more to the relational than to the rational order… (Page ix, The Sacraments, Chauvet).
The contrast that Chauvet draws attention to, between believing that something is or believing certain ideas are true and believing in, that is, putting one’s faith in something or someone, is central to a problem that besets us as Christians. It is not a new problem. It is a very old problem–as old as Christianity itself, as old as faith itself. It is a problem that James, the brother of our Lord rails against in his epistle, putting the problem in stark terms: “You believe that God is one [or simply, that God is]; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).
In the account from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) of the exorcism of the demoniac at Capernaum we are faced with the reality of the difference between believing that something is the case and putting one’s faith in something. It has been said by cultural commentators that the standard form of American religion, whether liberal or conservative, takes the form of gnosticism. The term gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, and while there are multitudinous forms, in the ancient world and in our own day, one of the basic elements is that it depends upon knowledge. Knowing the right things, or perhaps even being one of a select group that knows the right things is seen as salvific. In other words people focus on getting the intellectual details of their theology right. I often say that some folks go into a church and check to see if the statement of faith matches the one they brought in the door with them, as though they were looking at the platform of a political party. Having checked off the right boxes we can confidently remain exactly as we are. Or at least we think we can. In reality, we deceive ourselves: “Even the demons believe–and shudder.” If we believe that we have the right beliefs, and we check our boxes off and never give such things another thought–and by so doing, never experience a softened heart that can be changed by the prompting of the Holy Spirit–then we are not actually experiencing a spiritual relationship with God.
While the language of relationship may be overused in some quarters, and it can drift off into its own form of shallowness, when properly considered, it does help us identify the way we’re to interact with God. For one thing, a relationship is not static, it is dynamic and changing and–ideally–deepening. In such a context it is impossible for us to ever say that we are “done” because there is always some new challenge, some new learning that we’re called to as we seek to reflect Christ more and more in our lives. The problem with believing the right things as a sort of intellectual exercise and believing that’s enough is that it becomes ever more tempting and easy to justify our own actions even when we know–intellectually–that they aren’t the most honoring to God. In other words, intellectual check-lists when divorced from a living–which means humbling, but also an up-building–relationship with God can leave us in bondage to forces in our lives that are positively demonic in the sense that we have given over control to something outside of ourselves that holds us in bondage.
In the encounter at the Synagogue in Capernaum we learn something about the nature of the forces that seek to oppress us: they know our names. This means much more than we might believe. When Jesus teaches in the Synagogue and is challenged by the unclean spirit, the demoniac cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The fact that the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name and announces his role (indeed, it is thematic in Mark that the demons understand this reality more clearly than the people) is significant. Historians and biblical commentators remind us of the ancient belief that knowing someone’s name gave you a form of control over that person. In this instance, the unclean spirit is defending against the authority and power of Christ by naming him and showing that his identity is known. In contrast to other exorcists of the time, Jesus performs no elaborate rituals, uses no tools etc…, but simply commands the spirit to be silent and come out of the man. There is no engaging in a game, there isn’t even a contest, the spirit is silenced and exorcised immediately on the word of Christ. It is this action, this demonstration of power and authority (the Greek word is the same) that leaves the people wondering. From this exchange, we can see, on the one hand how knowing something like a person’s name–that is having intimate knowledge of them–can be important, and in certain circumstances can even be threatening. This is not so much about knowing someone’s name, I believe, as it is about knowing enough about them to know their weaknesses. To know someone’s name in the ancient sense may perhaps be related to having someone’s “number” in our parlance. The fact of the matter is that the demons all of us face every day have our number–they know our weaknesses. Those demons, those interior voices, contracted, inherited, or formed, possessing or oppressing us, which I believe are so often related to what some authors refer to variously as our impostors, shadow sides or inner critics–they know our weaknesses and they prey upon them to keep us in bondage.
These are the sins, fears, and the pains that know our name and can paralyze us or prevent us from doing what we know we should. These are the things that drag us back down into the mire of self doubt and pity on the one hand, and the false foundation of self aggrandizement on the other. These are the voices that whisper in the dark that we’re not good enough, that we’re not worthy enough, that we can’t do it, while in the next instant pushing us to go it alone, to rely solely on ourselves and to reject the companionship, friendship, and aid that we need in this life. It’s the voice that tells us no matter how much we succeed, it’s never good enough, that no matter how much we need help, we ought to be able to do it on our own or we’re failures. It’s the desire that prompts the addict to find the next fix, the spouse to reject marital counseling, and any of us to give up and not try something we believe we may be called to do.
The question for us today is this: what are the demons that know our names? What are the things in our lives that limit us, that keep us going round in the same old harmful patterns, that keep us from changing when we know we need to change? All of us need to change. That may seem like a bold statement, but we’re not far enough out from those new year’s resolutions to have forgotten the reason why they’re so popular: the recognition that all of us, in ways small or large need and desire change in our lives. The problem is that most often, we don’t know how to change, we don’t even know where to begin.
A few weeks ago, I gave a bit of a devotional at one of our Wednesday Eucharists, and I mentioned a song I’d recently heard by the singer Ben Harper. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Harper is a Christian. His background is interesting, with a Jewish mother from a family of folk singers, and a father who was part African American and Cherokee. Harper is certainly spiritual, and has recorded plenty of songs on spiritual and even Christian themes, on his own and with the gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama. On his latest album, Give Till it’s Gone (a title probably deserving of some reflection in and of itself) he has a song entitled “Don’t give up on me now.” I absolutely love the chorus of this song because I think it epitomizes so well the state in which most of us live most of our lives. It goes like this:
I don’t even know myself // what it would take to know myself // I need to change, I don’t know how // don’t give up on me now.
The gift of the gospel is that it shows us where to start. We don’t have to fear the demons that know our names because the one who is the Lord of all Creation calls us each by name. We are known and loved by God in Christ. The one who had the power and the authority to silence the demons tormenting the man in that Synagogue all those centuries ago in Capernaum can also silence the voices that torment us in our day. For every voice that tempts us to give up, to loathe ourselves, to reject the hope of strengthening or rebuilding relationships with loved ones, or to loose the hope of finally beating some harmful behavior, or even that seemingly insignificant voice that convinces us not to attempt a challenging task–there is a great voice that drowns them out, that calls us by name and silences the cacophony. The first step of change, the foundation of hope, of the ultimate hope presented in the gospel, is that God has not given up on us. On any of us. No matter what we’ve done, no matter what we think of ourselves or what others believe or think about us. We know our worth in the eyes of God, a worth measured in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one with the authority to silence our demons, and to bring us home to God.
When we face a particularly difficult or trying time, when it seems like we’re fully in the grip of something that knows or name, that capitalizes on our weaknesses, let us remember that we are called by a greater name, the name of Christ, and marked and sealed as his own, forever. In the name of Christ, called by the name of Christ as Christians, we have been and can be freed from bondage. Amen.
An acoustic version of the Ben Harper song I referenced: