Our Gospel reading for this morning describes the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as Mark tells the story.
As far as we know, this is Jesus’ first preaching, although interestingly Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus actually says. All we know is that the astonished people who heard it thought of Jesus’ message as a new teaching with remarkable authority.
This is also Jesus’ first miracle in Mark. A demon-possessed man interrupts the service, only to have Jesus drive the demon out of him. The man is left in convulsions, and as we might guess, the rest of the people are even more amazed.
There is much that one might say about this passage. Normally with stories like this one, I am not inclined to go there. I don’t like preaching about evil, or even thinking about it. But this week I couldn’t get away from it. So with regret, I warn you that my focus this morning is on the demon and on what it says to Jesus before being driven out. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
One of the great Fathers of the Church, Saint Augustine, got me thinking about that line. Augustine notes that what the demon says is pretty much the same as what Peter says when Jesus asks the disciples, who do you say that I am? Peter answers, “You are the anointed of God” (Luke 9:20).
The demon is silenced and punished for what it says. Peter is praised for saying virtually the same thing. Augustine asks, what is the difference? Why is the demon wrong and Peter right?
At one level, the answer is obvious. It’s a demon! He is an apostle! For good reason, we don’t expect great things out of demons. We do expect great things out of an apostle.
But Augustine goes deeper than that. The demon and Peter speak the same truth. But the demon and Peter don’t speak the truth in the same way. The words might be the same. But as Augustine says, “Peter spoke in love, but the demons in fear.” 
There is an important lesson for us here.
We should speak the truth, of course. Now, at a time when false claims are routinely made particularly on social media, discerning what is true and speaking the truth is more important than ever.
But just speaking the truth is not enough. For us, as for Peter and the demon in our story, how we speak the truth matters almost as much as that we speak the truth. As Christian people, we are called always to speak the truth in love.
The stakes here are high. Augustine’s contrast between the demon and Saint Peter suggests that speaking the truth—lying is worse, but even speaking the truth—if we do it without love, is literally demonic. Speaking the truth without love is something demons do. Speaking the truth in love is what Christians do.
That is worth sitting with.
Think about our public discourse. How much of what we hear sounds as if it is spoken in love?
I am not talking about a sentimental, feel-good, hold-hands-and-act-like-we-all-agree kind of love. I am not talking about the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we look at puppies. I mean the kind of tough, honest love that confronts people who need to be confronted, that says what needs to be said, but speaks always with the best interest of the other person at heart, that always aims to be genuinely constructive even when saying hard truths. I am talking about the love Jesus shows while on the cross, and also while driving out the money-changers and confronting the Pharisees.
How often does that seem to be the case with politicians? Or media personalities? Or a shockingly high percentage of the loudest “Christian” voices? How many of them seem to be speaking in love?
From where I sit, it seems like most people, people I disagree with but also people I agree with, are more often interested in proving they are right, more often interested in scoring points off their “opponents,” more often interested in demonizing the people they disagree with, than in really communicating and communicating with love.
If Augustine is right, and I believe he is, speaking the truth, and I say again lying is worse, but speaking even the truth without love is demonic. By that standard, much of what I hear and read is demonic. That is something we need to pay attention to.
Unfortunately, it gets worse before it gets better.
I care, deeply, about our public discourse. If we can’t figure out how to talk to people with whom we disagree, our nation is sunk.
But our Gospel reading is not just addressed to people with big platforms and loud voices. Our reading is addressed to us, too. Ordinary people as we go about our ordinary business.
So how often do I speak without love? How often is what I say demonic? That is a sobering question to contemplate.
Here is my answer, and I don’t think I am alone. A lot. A lot of what I say is said without love.
Some small part of what I say I say with active hostility. But I don’t do too much of that. I am not a hostile kind of person. Still, a lot of what I say I say without real love. And that means a lot of what I say is, by the Gospel standard, demonic. Not literally coming from the mouth of a demon inside me. But spoken in the same manner as the demon in our Gospel reading.
That is an uncomfortable thought.
That is the bad news. Thankfully with Jesus, there is always good news.
As we see in our reading, Jesus comes into our world and into our lives as one with the power and authority to cast out demons, to heal us of our own worst tendencies, to cure us of our terminal inability to love God or each other. Jesus comes to replace our demonic speech and action with loving speech and action.
And Jesus gives us each other to practice on.
So when we have our annual meeting, we work at loving each other, even if we don’t agree with something that somebody said. When we encounter a rude clerk at a store, we work at loving her even though she is obnoxious. When someone in our family is irritating, we work at loving him even though we’re not really in the mood. Maybe hardest of all, when we read something offensive on social media, we work at loving whoever posted it.
Love is first a grace we receive from God. But love is also something we work at. Love is something we practice. Love is like a muscle that gets stronger when we use it.
And the alternative to love is to resemble the demon in our reading. That’s true for our politicians. And that is just as true for us.
And so my prayer for us on this fourth Sunday of Epiphany is that Christ will cast out the demons of hatred that possess so many of us at least some of the time. And I pray that Christ will fill our hearts with love.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II, Mark, page 21.
2/3/2021 11:25:37 am
The three questions you should ask yourself before saying something:
2/24/2021 08:19:22 am
Mary, I heard those same words from a former colleague and they have stayed in my mind ever since. I try to apply them before I open my mouth, but it is not always easy.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan