Spirits and struggles
Numbers 11:24-29, Mark 9:38-42
by Isaac Villegas
Sept 30, 2012
Here’s how I like to tell my story of church wandering, of moving from one kind of church to another, of switching Christian traditions several times over the past 30 years. As a kid, our family moved from the Roman Catholic Church to the Vineyard, a charismatic group. This network of Southern California congregations wasn’t into the Holy Spirit enough, I guess, so we moved on to an unaffiliated pentecostal church, where people spoke with the tongues of angels, where those with the gift of prophecy made weekly pronouncements about the future, where the faithful laid on the sanctuary floor, slain in the Spirit, rolling, full of holy laughter. When I moved away for college, I needed a break from the anarchy of the Holy Spirit so I joined up with a nondenominational church, a warm and safe evangelical congregation.
Then I came here, to Chapel Hill Mennonite, and felt like I’d arrived, finally, at my spiritual home, better than all the rest: a congregation full of the Spirit, God’s spirit of grace and gentleness but also a disruptive Spirit, breaking through, undoing the barricades between heaven and earth, a Spirit who speaks in other tongues, with human tongues, not of angels but of sinners, in our languages, with our lips, God becoming human as we struggle with our words, as we wrestle God, with prayers, with sermons, with songs, with sharing our lives in a chorus of joy and pain, of despair and gratitude.
We are like the people in Numbers 11, the seventy, who gather in the tent of meeting and wait for God’s Spirit to descend on them in a cloud, a presence who covers and permeates. “The spirit rested on them,” it says, “and they prophesied,” (v. 25); they spoke the words of God.
But there’s another part of the story, and that’s the part that calls into question how I think about our church, how I think of ourselves as the most appropriate congregation for God to show up, when compared to the other churches I grew up in. Part of the story from Numbers judges how I think of us as the premier stage for the Spirit to happen, when compared to all the other churches around here.
In Numbers, as the people in the tent prophecy, two men, Eldad and Medad, start prophesying elsewhere in the camp. Somehow the Spirit falls on them too. Not everyone is happy about this. Verse 28: “Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’” Something needs to be done about this. God belongs with the seventy, with the people gathered in the tent, not with the others. Verse 29: “But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake?’”
We hear echoes of this same jealousy in Mark 9, what Katie just read. John, one of the disciples, says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (v. 38).
The disciples seem to think that they have the patent on Jesus, that they own his ministry, that they have the corner on the market for the kingdom of God on earth. John and the disciples possess the power of Jesus, and they think other people who use the name of Jesus and cast our demons are competitors, rivals, potential adversaries.
Jesus replies with a word of judgment. When it comes to the kingdom of God, followers of Jesus are in no position to be jealous or competitive: “But Jesus responds, ‘Do not stop him,’” it says in verse 39. “Whoever is not against us is for us” (v. 40).
Jesus confuses how we think about God’s presence in the world. He complicates how we decide who belongs on God’s side. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” Jesus says. He shifts our attention away from competition with other groups and toward the work that needs to be done, work anyone can do, work that everyone should be doing.
“Teacher,” John says to Jesus, “we saw someone casting out demons.” People of Jesus work against demons, and we need all the help we can get. Demons are forces of evil that eat away at the goodness of God, the wonder of creation, the life of God in the world. Demonic forces roam the world, corrupting minds and bodies, cultures and governments, trying to bring ruin upon all that is good and beautiful. They dehumanize, devastate, and destroy life.
As I thought this week about demons, the spirits of the air, I read a report from the law schools at NYU and Stanford about president Obama’s use of drones. They interviewed over 130 villagers in Pakistan, eyewitnesses to drone strikes in their communities. Here’s part of the summary:
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. Those fears have affected behavior.[i]
Drones as demons, as evil spirits of the air, specters in the sky, shadowy presences; drones as demons, roaming the land, triggering mental anxiety and bodily harm, creators of psychological damage and death, of terror and trauma.
To work against a society, a culture, an economy that produces such demons requires all the allies we can find. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus calls us to resist forces of destruction alongside anyone, regardless of who they claim to follow. No need to be in competition. The kingdom of God is for the whole world. The society God wants is not our possession. There’s no room for jealousy as we all do our part as midwifes of the kingdom, as people who make room for life to grow, to flourish, to bloom with God’s beauty. The struggle is bigger than our small fellowship, and there’s no room for my pride.
Our struggle against destruction and death has to do with drones in Pakistan and with signs of loss closer to home: with brokenness, with depression, with shattered and strained relationships, with hopelessness, with cancer. If there’s anything unique about living as the church while forces out of our control torment people everywhere, I think it has to do with our struggle with God, the one who made the world, the one who allows for the disobedience of creation, even when it means we hurt one another, even when it means the spirits of the air rain down violence, even when it means that the cells inside of us declare war on our bodies.
If there’s anything unique about being the church, it’s that we complain to God. We complain because we believe that somehow God is involved in all of this, that God can undo the disobedience of the world, that God cares enough about human life to protect us from our worst desires and our evil creations.
Yes, as the church we join in the struggle against demonic forces everywhere, and we form coalitions with anyone who isn’t against God’s movement of life. But, as the church, we struggle with God, like Moses, like Israel, like Jesus on the cross. The last word from Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is a question that’s also a complaint, one half of a conversation that hopes for an answer: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
As followers of Jesus, we find ourselves with Jesus, asking the same question, keeping his question alive, persevering in the relationship, the struggle, between Jesus and God: a give and take with God, drawing God into our lives, reminding God of what needs to be done, and waiting for the promise of resurrection.
[i] Glenn Greenwald, “New Stanford/NYU study documents the civilian terror from Obama’s drones,” The Guardian, Sept 25, 2012: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/25/study-obama-drone-deaths