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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Christ’s Authority Over Demons

Mark 1:21-28

Many of you may have heard that psychedelic-assisted therapy is a promising new mental health treatment that is nearing FDA approval.  Studies have shown promising results for depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, end-of-life distress, and a number of other mental health issues.  It’s something I researched for my PhD in Pastoral Counseling.  My dissertation researched the spiritual experiences described by mental health clinicians during the occasion of psychedelics. 


When reading today’s Gospel story about demon possession, I couldn’t help but think of something my dissertation adviser Dr. Bill Richards wrote in his book Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences.  Dr. Richards is a therapist who has guided many psychedelic-assisted therapy sessions during the Johns Hopkins research trials.  In his book, one of the things he shares are stories of people who have had visions of demons.  One such case was a man who was laying down on the therapy couch and suddenly got up and sprinted toward the door.  Bill had to grab hold of him to make sure he didn’t leave.  When he asked the man what was wrong, he said there was a snake-like demon on the chair next to him.  Bill encouraged him to look it in the eye.  At that moment the snake-like demon transformed into the man’s mother—with whom he had a difficult relationship.  The man then burst into tears and felt a flood of emotions cascade over him, suppressed emotions which he was now able to process and integrate.    


Bill Richards summarizes, “With practice, one can even arrive at a point of welcoming the appearance of a dragon [or demon]…and like a skilled athlete, enjoy the challenge of looking him directly in the eye and the adventure of tumbling through whatever emotions and insights may occur during the subsequent confrontation.”[1]


The passage we just read contains Jesus’ first healing in the Gospel of Mark.  In this season after Epiphany we read about all the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry.  Last week we heard about the calling of the first disciples.  The week before that, his baptism.  And this week we hear the story of Jesus’ first healing in the Gospel of Mark.  In a way, what we read here sets the tone for the ministry of Jesus.  This healing shows Jesus’ disciples and anyone reading this Gospel what the ministry of Jesus is about.  Jesus’ first act after calling disciples is to heal someone.  And not just any healing, but to heal a man from being possessed by a demon.  To bring healing and freedom and liberation.  And as the Gospel story unfolds, we see that this freedom and new life is not just for this man, but for all of us.  That’s why it’s so significant that this is Jesus’ first act: because it reveals that this freedom, healing, and liberation is what the rest of the story has in store.


Yesterday some of us gathered to read through the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting.  It was an insightful experience and I think all of us came away with something we hadn’t considered before.  One of the things I shared with the group after we finished is that I was struck by how often Mark tells stories of Jesus casting out demons.  It may be the most common miracle in Mark.  Clearly the issue of demon possession was considered an important problem that needed to be addressed in the world Jesus lived in.  And so freedom from demons was a central element of Jesus’ ministry.   


Demon possession is a hard subject for modern Christians to think about.  It’s easier to understand Jesus healing someone is who has a physical disease like leprosy or someone who’s deaf or blind or paralyzed.  People still have those problems.  We understand why it’s important to cure them and we can imagine what that might look like.  But when it comes to demon possession, we don’t even know where to begin.  Most of us haven’t experienced this problem.  Yet, this problem of demon possession was apparently rather common in the ancient world.  Maybe demon possession is how ancient peoples understood mental illness.  Maybe demon possession is a kind of spiritual illness that’s more likely to manifest in cultures that acknowledge its existence, while it manifests differently in cultures like ours.  Maybe it’s some combination of mental, emotional, and spiritual unwellness.


Previously I shared in a sermon the story of Dr. Malidoma Somé, a healer from the African nation of Burkina Faso.  He was trained in traditional shamanic healing before moving to Europe and then the United States where he earned 3 master’s degrees and 2 doctorates.  His mission in life was to integrate traditional African medicine with the best of Western medicine.  To legitimize traditional healing in the eyes of Western medicine, and to legitimize Western medicine in the eyes of traditional shamanic healers.  Such an integration would undoubtedly promote greater healing and wholeness around the world.


In his culture people who demonstrate what we might call psychotic symptoms are seen as spiritually sensitive people with the potential to become healers and spiritual leaders.  Dr. Somé recalled the first time he entered a psych ward in a Western hospital.  He was shocked at how Western society treated those that his culture might deem their most spiritually gifted individuals.  He said he sensed spirits hovering around the people, but without the tutelage of a shaman to guide them, these people were frightened and confused and driven mad by such spiritual bombardment.  It's possible that Dr. Somé was on to something.  And I hope future researchers will take up the task of exploring his hypothesis. 


Now when reflecting on the scripture passage we read this morning from Mark’s first chapter, maybe we understand demon possession as a real phenomenon.  Maybe we understand demon possession as a description of various mental illnesses.  Maybe we understand demon possession as manifestations of suppressed material like what happens to those who have visions during psychedelic-assisted therapy.  Whatever the case, scripture is clear that Jesus Christ has authority over unclean spirits, authority to heal, authority to free this man from whatever tormented him.  And as we read on in Mark and the rest of the Bible, we see that Jesus Christ has authority over all things in heaven and on earth. 


This is a mysterious universe we live in and there’s a lot of strange things we don’t understand.  It can be frightening and confusing at times.  But we can rest assured that we are safe, we are protected, we are loved.  We are children of the Most High God- who has claimed us in Baptism as children of the Light “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  We are loved and saved and redeemed by the One who has authority over everything we might fear.  The One who breaks the darkness (in the words of the hymn we’re about to sing) with a liberating light.


And so whether it is symbolic demons in your subconscious, or demons from a spiritual dimension, or the very real forces of evil at work in the world—we know that Jesus Christ has authority over them all.  We know that Jesus Christ protects us from what would harm us.  We know that in Him we are healed, we are set free, we are liberated from possession of anything which has us bound.  Thanks be to God for the gift of healing, freedom, and liberation that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.  


Pastor Brian | January 28, 2024.


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[1] Richards, W. A. (2016). Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences. Columbia University Press. Page 187.

 

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