You've heard the phrase, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” How true is that statement, especially when it comes to politics. It's true when it comes to religion, too, but whereas there seems to be no cure for the dangerous politico, there is a cure for the dogmatic. Love.
Knowledge of God is not a bad thing. Our Psalm tonight even expresses this, Psalm 111: Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them. Knowledge of God, his kingdom, and his works, are very important in the Christian life. Jesus tells us in his prayer of John 17, that knowledge of God IS eternal life. Not that it GETS us to eternal life, or that it is the ROAD to eternal life. Or a tool to eternal life, or an element of eternal life. No, knowledge of God IS eternal life. Studying God is the best of things.
But in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul explains to us that knowledge of God may be eternal life for us, but knowledge of God without love for our neighbor may be death for our neighbor. Consequently, that is death for us, as Christ says, “Woe to you who causes one of your brothers to stumble.” As Paul says, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Knowledge helps our walk with the Lord, but love helps our neighbor's walk with the Lord. Just as when James tells us that faith helps our walk with the Lord but works helps our neighbor's walk. Faith without works is dead faith, because works is the proof of faith. Just so: knowledge without love is dead, because love is proof of knowledge.
As Paul says, anyone who claims to know something does not yet have that necessary knowledge. But when that same person loves God, his knowledge becomes more complete and helpful to his neighbor. I read a scenario by a commentator about this chapter in first Corinthians. Three Christians sit down to eat, and the first Christian asks the host if the meat has been sacrificed to an idol. The host responds, “yes.” The first Christian stops eating and lets his two friends know. The second Christian, having the knowledge that there are no gods but the one true God, laughs and continues eating. The idols are empty, they connect to nothing, no gods. The meat is not tainted, and so there is no harm in eating it. The third Christian has the same knowledge as the second Christian. There is not harm in eating the meat, BUT he has love of God in his heart, in addition to his knowledge, and so he stops eating, too, so as to keep the first Christian from stumbling. Because the first Christian believes that the idols are attached to gods.
Belief is as strong power. There are many times that if we believe we are cursed, then we suddenly notice strange things happening to us. Things that seem like the curse is real. There's a really interesting movie called Skeleton Key, and it's about hoodoo, which is like voodoo, which is bunk, but in the movie, the main character believes, and so the curses that are put upon her WORK. She is a captive to the curses, because she believed that they would have effect.
Outside of a movie, the curses work because of belief. There are many people who walk about in Haiti—whose national religion is voodoo—who believe they themselves are zombies—whose souls are possessed by others. Their belief has such a powerful hold on their consciousness, that they actually become zombies.
Well, this sounds psychosomatic. As Paul writes, “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.” This is reality. There are no other gods. They do not exist. Idols are connected to nothing. So belief that causes effect seems like a psychosomatic symptom.
As Paul writes, “Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” In other words, some people have become so drastically brainwashed, that they cannot escape the false realities of how the world works. As Christians, we know how the world works, but there are Christians who believe the occult has power, and therefore are profoundly effected by occult practices.
Now the scene twists again, for although Paul is telling the truth and there are no such things as Gods, and all idols are false idols, here is some more knowledge to muddy the pool: there are unclean spirits. In our gospel passage, Jesus frees a man in the synagogue from an unclean spirit. Is this psychosomatic? Did Jesus practice some quick therapy on his brainwashed, deluded mind? Did he have a powerful concoction on hand—the earliest anti-depressant—that he slipped the guy, and he was cured? No. The scriptures don't lie. There was an unclean spirit. Not a chemical imbalance, an unclean spirit.
As a pastor once told me: a totem pole is just a piece of wood, but if you bow down to it, every evil spirit in the universe will race to attach itself to that pole. There are no such things as gods, but there are such things as spirits. In a way the first Christian is right. Even though there are no gods but God, there are evil spirits out there that try very hard to hinder all of our walks with God.
As C.S. Lewis writes, we should definitely be aware that demons and the devil himself exist, but we should not give them too much unwarranted attention. Let's not give them more power than they deserve. As it says in Mark 1:26, “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” The unclean spirits all listen to Jesus, so it may as well be that they do not exist. Demons should be seen as a minor annoyance. They may be a frustration, but they are not impossible for us to handle, because we have Christ. So, we've gone from the first Christian being wrong, because of lack of knowledge, to being right, because of the knowledge that unclean spirits exist, to being wrong again, because of the knowledge that the name of Jesus Christ is so powerful against unclean spirits, that they may as well not exist.
Christ called out the unclean spirits when he was among us, and so too, with the Holy Spirit now in our hearts, we, too, can call them out. In the name of Jesus Christ, I cast you out. Go back into the darkness from whence you came, and do not come back. In our collect today we prayed, “Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth.” God is in charge. We need to remember that. God is in charge. Knowledge of God without love of God puts us in God's place, we become puffed up, and we cause our brother or sister to stumble. Knowledge of God with love of God puts God back in charge. The knowledge is there so we know when to call upon his name and help our brothers and sisters in Christ through the trials and tribulations in their lives, even though they may not be OUR trials and tribulations. We know the nature of reality by studying God's word, and then build God's community on earth, here and now, through love.
Notice in the Mark passage that before the healing, Christ is teaching “as one with authority.” There is still some doubt as to whether he has the authority by the word “as.” After the healing, everyone is amazed. He teaches with authority. There is no “as.” He has the authority—there is no doubt. Knowledge plus love equals the authority of God. As we embrace the two aspects of true religion—knowledge of God and love of neighbor—let us remember that one of these without the other is empty, and both of them together contains the visible and understandable authority of God.