Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 | Mark 1:21–28
“Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” (Deuteronomy 18:19).
Actions speak louder than words.
And actions reveal what’s at work behind our words.
We are now four weeks into the season after Epiphany, a time set aside for Christians to contemplate the Good News that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world. It’s a time when we seek to better understand the huge implications of this Good News in our own lives, and for us to respond to what the story of Jesus reveals to us about the Living God’s plans for His broken but beloved creation… including overthrowing the forces of darkness, and bringing His light and New Life at last.
Our Gospel reading this morning gives us a good glimpse… a good revelation of these words in action, as Jesus Christ confronts evil in a tangible way: casting out an unclean spirit, a demon, from a man in the congregation of God’s people at Capernaum.
So far in St. Mark’s Gospel, here in Chapter 1, Jesus has not done much of what we might call the “miraculous”. Aside from the dramatic display during His baptism by John in the Jordan River, Jesus has been fairly low key: He was led by God’s Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan… but unlike the other Gospels, St. Mark doesn’t say much about that encounter. He then begins preaching about the Kingdom of God, and calling God’s people to turn around and repent… to believe in the Good News… as well as calling some fishermen to come and follow Him.
But in today’s reading, St. Mark introduces the first real conflict in Christ’s mission… and St. Mark shows us that, from the start, there is absolutely no question about who will come out victorious in the end.
Our reading takes place in Capernaum, a small fishing town in Galilee, with Jesus gathering for worship along with his fellow Jews in the synagogue one Sabbath. While there, Jesus began to teach, which is a common practice when God’s people gathered together. But St. Mark tells us that something stood out about the way that Jesus went about it: the people “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22).
They had heard plenty of teachers and speakers before, but not like this Jesus of Nazareth. And while his words and teachings alone might have been enough to impress… they were about to see that Christ’s words are backed up by a power well beyond what they could have imagined. As it turns out, the actions of Christ speak even louder than His words… and show them to be the truth.
Mark 1:23-24, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he 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.’”
Imagine the scene: a gathering of God’s people, come to worship and to hear the word of the Lord together… not all that unlike what we do here at St. Luke’s each week… then one of their members… someone from their small community, disrupts the scene at the impulse of a demon… a spirit at odds with the will of the Living God.
But this encounter in Capernaum is clearly no contest.
This unclean spirit clearly sees exactly who Jesus really is… and even acknowledges His unique and divine identity: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And yet these true words are coming from a rebel… a spiritual being who has turned away from God’s holy purposes… and is at work undermining the New Life that Christ is bringing about.
And so Jesus, the Holy One of God, sees through the cowering cries of the unclean spirit and confronts it. He orders the demon to be silent, and casts it out of the man.
Actions speak louder than words, and in this case Christ’s actions confirm the truth of the words and teachings that He shared in the synagogue that day. St. Mark wants us to see that Jesus is not just a good speaker… or a wise teacher… but that He actually has the authority to back up even His boldest claims. That in Jesus, God’s good Kingdom has come near… and this King will not be defeated.
The words from our first reading today from Deuteronomy Chapter 18 come to mind, where God promises that one day a prophet would come to God’s people… one like Moses himself, who stood alone before the Living God, and faithfully made God’s good will and ways known to His covenant people. A prophet with divine authority.
In Deuteronomy 18:19, the LORD says: “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.” Through the Good News that St. Mark and the other Apostles have shared, we’re invited to see Jesus in the light of this promise: to recognize God at work in all He does… and to truly heed His words.
This word of warning should give us pause as Christians today, inviting us to search our hearts and ask tough questions. Like, how much are we aligned to God’s Holy One in all that we do? Are we ready to heed all that Jesus has taught us? Or are we more inclined to follow the path of spiritual darkness… saying the right sounding things perhaps, but with hearts marked by rebellion… opposed to the rule of God’s good Kingdom?
We know of course that there are forces at work in our world today, and within the worldwide Christian Church, that pay no real heed to Christ’s words and teachings… who claim to be part of His community, but who reject His ways, distort and misuse His message of Good News, and who undermine His authority as the Son of God and the only Saviour of the world.
Again, actions speak louder than words. And our actions will reveal the truth of what we really believe. It doesn’t matter how many good sounding things we may say, or how many followers we may gather… if we don’t actually heed the words of Jesus Christ, then we’re in for some serious trouble.
And if we do believe in Jesus… that He is God’s true Son, and our Saviour and Lord, then how might this truth change our choices? How can we live the faith that we claim to believe?
Our second reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth give us a real life example of what it looks like when God’s people take Jesus’ words seriously.
Throughout this letter, St. Paul has been walking the Corinthians through a number of challenging dilemmas, as they figure out what it looks like to be faithful to the way of Jesus together. In today’s reading, St. Paul is trying to help them figure out what to do with food that’s been sacrificed to idols.
In the Roman world, most of the meat sold in markets would have some connection to the local pagan temples. And for Jewish followers of the Living God, idols were a huge red flag… God had explicitly commanded Israel to make no idols, and not to worship them. God’s people were to be wholeheartedly devoted to the LORD alone… and this remained true for the early Christians, even as many Gentiles started to believe in Jesus as well.
And while Gentiles may not have been bound to the Law of Moses like their fellow Jewish believers, having left their old pagan ways behind to follow Jesus, many of them would have had a hard time not feeling as though they were compromising their newfound faith if they ate meat they new had been offered up to gods that they had once served.
So in Corinth, the Church was confused about if eating meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol was allowed or not. Would that be a sin against God? Or was it really no big deal? How were they supposed to act faithfully in this confusing situation… especially if they could not all agree on the answer?
Jesus Himself had not specifically addressed this question. The Laws of the Torah seemed a bit more clear on the matter, but as St. Paul and others in the early Church had argued, Gentile Christians, like many of those in Corinth, were not strictly commanded to follow the terms of Israel’s covenant.
Some clearly thought it would be wrong. While others clearly thought it wasn’t an issue. And so St. Paul set about, not simply to find “the right answer”, but to help them heed the words of Jesus their Lord, and follow His ways together… guided in part by these words: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
St. Paul affirms that there really is only One Almighty God. No idol or other spiritual being can rival Him, and so they have no power over His people. From St. Paul’s perspective then, food eaten with gratitude to the Living God, regardless of its source, is ultimately not a problem… and so eating meat that had been offered up to an idol is not a sin in and of itself.
But… St. Paul was convinced that what matters much more than our own liberty to eat whatever we want is that we actively love one another… especially those who don’t, or don’t yet, see things the way we do. “[T]ake care”, he says in verse 9, “that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
St. Paul goes on in verses 11-13, “So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Who were these weak ones? Jewish believers scandalized by pagan idols? Gentile believers worried about being drawn back into their old ways? Both?
St. Paul leaves it open, because the most important point here is not who’s right and who’s wrong, but how can we all walk in God’s ways together? In other words, how are we to love God and love each other, and put that love into practice through our actions?
St. Paul knew the truth, and he knew well who he served, no matter what food he ate. 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
And because St. Paul knew where his loyalty lay, and took care to heed the words of Jesus his Lord, he understood what God really wanted for His people. For you and I today.
On the night our Lord was betrayed, Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, then and now: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:33-35). If as Christians we don’t heed these words of Jesus, we know we’re on the wrong track, and headed for danger! Actions speak louder than words, and our actions confirm or contradict the truth of what we say.
Jesus’ own actions speak louder than words… embracing the way of the cross… laying down His life in love for our darkened world… actions that backs up His words about God’s saving love in ways that challenge us all, again and again.
His sacrificial, self-giving love for sinners is what He commands us and empowers us to put into practice together. This is the high calling of God’s people: to love as God Himself loves the world, through His Spirit at work in us.
Unlike the Corinthians, our own issues today are probably not about food sacrificed to idols. But there are many questions we face that are just as challenging and even painful to sort through faithfully.
Whatever these challenges may be, St. Paul reminds us that how we go about sorting through them really matters. It’s not just about being right about this or that issue… but about embodying the holy love of the Living God in all we do.
If we refuse to learn to love one another… to extend God’s grace to those who are our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, we will not be prepared to truly share God’s love with our neighbours.
So with the Holy Spirit’s help, let us learn from St. Paul how to heed the words of Jesus our Lord, and make it a priority to nurture love for our fellow believers in Christ, even when we might deeply disagree… so that all those around us might come to see, and believe in, and experience God’s love for them too… a love that’s powerful… and alive… and still at work in our world… a love which the forces of darkness can never defeat… binding us forever to the Risen King of Kings, and Saviour of the world. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School