Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
31 January 2021
One of my favorite films of all time is “The Exorcist.” When it first came out in 1973, I was too young to see it in the theaters. But I did see a hilarious parody of it on the “Carol Burnett Show,” which made me want to see it even more. I was finally able to see it a few years later. The film exceeded all expectations. It’s a classic. I’ve seen it several times, and I’ve also seen the sequels. Not only am I a huge fan of horror movies; I find the religious dimension of “The Exorcist” fascinating – the Roman Catholic priests driving out the demon, all the mysterious rituals associated with it, the dramatic struggle between good and evil.
In today’s Gospel, we read about the origins of the Christian tradition of exorcism. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he encounters “a man with an unclean spirit.” The man cries 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.” Jesus then confronts the spirit and drives it out of the man (Mark 1:23-25).
Jesus is the original exorcist. In the Gospel of Mark, it is an exorcism that launches Jesus’ public ministry. Moreover, the exorcism establishes Jesus’ identity and authority. The demon calls Jesus “the Holy One of God.” Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus with power over the forces of nature. He can calm the stormy waves. Here, we see him with power over the supernatural world, the realm of spirits. Jesus is lord of all. There are numerous exorcisms that Jesus performs throughout the Gospels. And he empowers his disciples to do the same. For two thousand years, Christians have been carrying out exorcisms in all parts of the world, and they have played a significant role in spreading the faith.
You may not have noticed, but there is exorcism incorporated into many of our rituals, for instance, in the prayers for blessing Holy Water or blessing a new house. And the big one is baptism. The candidates for baptism are asked to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “to renounce the evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” In the Book of Occasional Services, which is a companion to the Book of Common Prayer and contains various rituals not in the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a section on exorcism. It begins with this statement: “The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of his messiahship.” It goes on to say that if a person is “in need of” the rite of exorcism that he or she can inform the priest, who then consults the bishop. So if any of you are in need of an exorcism in the future, please contact Fr. Charles – but not me. By the way, I found out from Fr. Charles yesterday that in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Church of England, there is usually an official exorcist in each diocese appointed by the bishop.
I don’t know about you, but in spite of the fact that exorcism is in the Gospels and is also a part of our liturgy, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I love seeing movies about exorcism. But I’ve never seen an exorcism in person, and I doubt that I will ever see one. Spirit possession and exorcism are not part of my experience or worldview.
Among Christians today, there are different views of this phenomenon. Most biblical scholars view demonic possession as a form of mental illness. Ancient people didn’t have modern psychology so they turned to supernatural explanations.
But the belief in demonic possession has not gone away in modern times. In fact, it’s thriving in Christianity today. Although Christianity is declining in Europe and the United States, it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. And the form of Christianity that the new converts are embracing is one that is rooted in the world of the supernatural. Unlike us, they have no difficulty with the exorcism stories in the Gospels, and, in fact, they’re also casting out demons and performing acts of miraculous healing. What is interesting is that in many cases, Christian exorcism draws on indigenous beliefs about the spirit world. In Korea, for instance, the exorcist will diagnose the possessing spirit not as a demon but as the spirit of a discontented dead relative, an angry ghost. So be nice to your mother-in-law.
Exorcism is alive and well in Asia and Africa. And we have it in this country as well, though we may not hear about it as much. Pentecostals and charismatics take the exorcisms in scripture literally, seeing them as gifts of the Spirit, and some practice exorcism. And, to go back to the film “The Exorcist,” it deals with an exorcism that takes place in the context of modern Roman Catholicism in the United States. Many Romans today believe in the reality of demon possession and exorcism. So it looks like those of us mainline Protestants who have a rational, scientific view of the phenomenon are actually in the minority in Christianity.
Yet, whatever differences we may have in our views of exorcism, what is undeniable is the fact that it is a form of healing. The unclean spirits cause mental and physical pain and suffering. Exorcism frees the person from the illness and brings healing and wholeness.
Whether we believe in demons or not, we cannot deny that there are forces of evil that seem to grip us at times and cause destructive tendencies. Indeed, we contend with unclean spirits in our daily lives. Perhaps it’s an addiction – alcohol, drugs. Or perhaps it’s a personal vice – gossip, backbiting, road rage. We try to stop the bad behavior, but it’s almost as if an outside force is controlling us. And then there are the demons that possess us collectively as a society – racism, homophobia, corporate greed, and, recently, domestic terrorism. The forces of evil are real, and they abound within and around us.
Yet, as people of faith, we have hope in Jesus, the Holy One of God. Just as he drove out the demon from the possessed man in the synagogue, he will drive out the demons that possess us today and grant us healing and wholeness. He will make us pure and holy, even as he is pure and holy.
I would like to conclude with a prayer that is part of what are called the secret prayers, which the celebrant prays in preparation for Holy Eucharist. You may have been wondering what Fr. Charles and I say under our breaths at the altar. Well, this is one of them. This particular prayer is said during the washing of the hands as a sign of purification. But I think this prayer is appropriate to pray together as we purge ourselves of the unclean spirits in our personal lives and in the society around us. So as we seek healing and wholeness in the Name of Jesus, we pray:
Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and sustain a right spirit within me. Amen.
 Paul S. Berge, “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-4
 Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28,” Working Preacher.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 302.
 The Book of Occasional Services (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1991), 170.
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