February 1, 2015
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome, Italy
Yesterday, a group of us participating in St. Paul’s “Excursions for young people” visited the site of our patron saint’s martyrdom off the Via Laurentina.
While these monthly site visits are designed as a way to introduce our school age children to the unique repository of Christian history that Rome provides, they are also open to all ages, and all members and members’ friends who may wish to attend.
After visiting the chapel containing the pillar that held St. Paul in chains, and seeing the three fountains that supposedly arose from where his liberated head struck the hillside, we journeyed to the other St. Paul’s in town…The Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
We wandered through the vast courtyard, ambled through the seat-less nave, and made our way to the canopied altar fixed firmly in the center of the church.
Housed below the altar is a sarcophagus that is reputed to hold the bones of St. Paul, and a bronze box which contains the chains that fixed him to the post we had seen earlier in the day.
Those chains…so simple…and yet so symbolic.
Larry brought up the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where Paul tells his readers to “Remember his chains” and we reflected on what those chains mean for us today, as a procession of strong-singing Italian Roman Catholic pilgrims made their way toward the tomb.
Chains have been on my mind for a good while now.
Two weeks ago, I preached about how the actions of Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. got transmitted to begin the civil rights movement, much in the same way that Andrew and Philip spread the word about Jesus and began the movement that became Christianity.
The civil rights movement was about breaking the chains of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and it got its cues from Christianity, which has claimed ultimate freedom in Jesus Christ from all the oppressive chains and ties that bind us in this life.
Last week, Will gave a great sermon on the costs and benefits of accepting our call as Christians…there is freedom in going where the Spirit blows, but it comes at a price…often for ourselves and for those we love.
What holds us back from accepting the call we have received in Christ? Family, Friends, Fear?
Following a call both binds us and frees us.
As I saw those chains of St. Paul’s yesterday, I saw the eternal battle we fight as people of faith…and my mind returned to today’s Gospel scene that I’ve been wrestling with all week.
It’s a scene that comes from Mark’s Gospel and makes many intelligent 21st century Christians squirm.
I’m talking about a type of chains that most of us don’t want to discuss, but which forms a major field of Jesus’ ministry.
Demons. Unclean Spirits.
Now, I’d wager that the moment I uttered those words, your mind raced to images of Linda Blair and pea soup, or maybe Paranormal Activity if you’re a bit younger, or the Robert Kirkman comic Outcast.
Whatever you imagine when you think of “being possessed,” chances are a vast majority comes from movies and media that have attempted to either explore the horrific or humorous aspects of possession.
But can you truly picture Jesus rebuking an unclean Spirit in a synagogue in Capernaum…and imagine what Mark is trying to convey about its significance?
Sure, we who have the benefit of modern psychology, neurology and toxicology know that our forbears often attributed a host of maladies to demon possession.
Perhaps the demons and unclean spirits that Jesus cast out throughout the Gospels were mental illnesses gone untreated, or were the result of post-traumatic stress…situations that can be easily explained with our advanced scientific knowledge.
Or perhaps they really were the spiritual beasts that so often get depicted in the films…parasitic entities bent on evil and the perversion of God’s good creation, that dominate and direct the actions of their hosts until they become enslaved to their wishes.
Regardless of how you wish to define them, as explainable phenomena or supernatural creatures, it is clear that Jesus is about freeing people from their influence.
Jesus confronts the unclean spirits that posses us and casts them out, so that we are free to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.
In fact, it is no small significance that this exorcism is the first thing that Jesus does publically in Mark’s Gospel.
In Matthew, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching…by instructing his hearers in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Luke, he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then preaches a sermon before provoking his hometown listeners and getting run out of town.
In John, he miraculously turns water to wine at a wedding.
But in Mark, his first public act is exorcism.
Why is this so?
Because Mark’s Jesus has come to break the chains that bind us.
He is about to embark on an all-encompassing mission of returning the creation into right relationship with God, and to remind God’s creatures that they are to be bound to only one master in this life…and that is the Lord.
They are to be chained and yoked to no one except the “one with authority.”
It was this chain-breaking and soul-freeing Jesus who met St. Paul on the road to Damascus and freed him from the rage and blindness that had possessed him and turned him into a persecutor of Christians.
Freedom from possession led Paul to willingly accept the chains the Roman Empire wanted to place on him because of Christ…just like true freedom, from the spiritual chains that had bound them, led saints from The Roman Martyrs to the Martyrs of Uganda to boldly face the persecution that the world offers to those who have found freedom in Christ.
It’s a mission that persists even today…Jesus is still about breaking the chains that enslave us, and empowering us to face the disciplines and difficulties of discipleship.
Jesus is about casting out the unclean spirits that haunt us, so we can taste the promise of true freedom.
What are the chains that hold you?
Can you name the unclean spirits that keep you from fully embracing the love of God?
Maybe those chains can be loosened with good therapy, with prayer and deeds of mercy…and with reconciliation among family, friends and neighbors.
Or maybe you just need Jesus to command those spirits to be silent and come out.
Or maybe maybe it’s both.
The point is to be free from possession.
Remember my chains, St. Paul said to the Colossians in his letter to them.
Are we to remember the ones encased in that bronze box…that held him to that whipping post where he faced beheading with assurance in his ultimate freedom in Christ?
Or perhaps we should remember the chains and unclean spirit that set him about persecuting the followers of Christ in the first place…and how far the Lord has brought him from that dark time?
Regardless, Jesus was at the center of his freedom.
And Jesus will be at the center of ours as well.