“Who Is This? Even the Wind and Sea Obey Him?”
The Gospel According to the Avengers
Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, ME
June 24, 2012, Fr. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
Recently we went as a family to see the movie The Avengers. It was great fun. I highly recommend it. The Avengers are superheroes who have to put their egos aside so that they can band together as an effective team to save the earth from certain destruction by an alien race that is completely and remorselessly evil. The invaders have advanced technology that far surpasses anything on earth and their soldiers come in swarms with the mindless obedience of the hive. This movie depicts a battle between the power of good and the power of evil. It is a story of which we never tire because it is a story that rings very deep in the human heart because it is a story that we live day in and day out both individually and as a race. To depict the full range of both good and evil power the movie combines spiritual and technological power. The depictions of technological power are very convincing but the script writers understand that to really explore the theme of power the question of supernatural power must be addressed as well. Both sides have amazing technology; it is the spirit that animates those who control the technology that counts.
The depiction of evil is very convincing and the leader of the invaders and his minions evoke in a truly creepy way the devil and his demons. The capacity of the human heart for courage is also convincingly depicted and so is human frailty and betrayal.
No one of the individual super-heroes who make up the Avengers has any chance against this foe but together they might just pull it off. The Avengers are led by the super-hero Captain America. Captain America is very retro. He is a figure from the 1940s and 1950s, a hero of the battle against the Nazis. He represents the values and convictions of another era. Compared to the hip super-hero Iron Man, Captain America is square, even naïve. He even believes in God. One of the great lines in the film occurs when it is pointed out to Captain America that one of the enemy is really the Norse god Loki. Captain America answers, “There is only one God and I don’t think he dresses like that.” Captain America has the most limited power but he has the purest heart and natural leadership ability. If the hip Iron Man doesn’t tame some of his narcissism and cynicism there will never be a team. If Iron Man can’t follow the lead of Captain America and even pick up some of his square values including self-sacrifice there is no hope. In the exchange between Captain America and Iron Man you can hear the generation coming of age now wondering whether their grandparents had beliefs and values discounted by their parents which need now to be redeemed and recovered. But can it happen? Is it possible?
Of course this team must battle not only the enemy at the gate but also the venality and incompetence of political leaders. I won’t spoil the movie but good wins out though it is a near run thing and there well may be rematch.
After the victory there are a series of interviews with political leaders and people on the street. The question: can this group of all powerful super-heroes resist the temptation to use their powers for self-aggrandizement? Doesn’t power corrupt and are not super powers an especial temptation? Can loyalty to the team and the camaraderie of friends prevent this new story from having a very old ending? Can there really be such a thing as trustworthy power?
Here is a version of the great question of our time. Our time is sometimes called post-modernity. The modern age was the time when traditional truth and wisdom including the Christian faith was put to the test and when non-traditional alternatives were proposed such as Freudianism and Marxism and more recently the attempt to stretch evolutionary biology into a whole philosophy of life. All of these proposals about how the power of good can finally overcome the power of evil call themselves scientific and rational. After living with them for a while, it has come to be recognized that though there is some truth in all these grand theories they all fail to bring in the human good and that in different ways their claims to truth are really coded bids for power and domination. This sense of alienation from traditional wisdom, from the faith of our fathers, and a sense of complete disillusionment with all the alternatives is the post-modern mood. Cynicism, despair and ironic detachment are the currency of the intellectual and cultural elites. So the great question of our time of post-modernity is: Is there such a thing as true goodness? We know there is real evil. It takes very little imagination to recognize that. But is there real goodness and can it prevail? Can goodness prevail in our hearts personally and can goodness prevail on the world stage and on the stage of history, or will the forces of evil ultimately consume everything like swarms of locusts? Or to put it another way, is Captain America for real? Can there really be such a thing as a dependable and disinterested and self-sacrificing leader who can lead us to victory over evil? The human heart will never stop hoping that there is, because our hearts have been created to embrace this hope. If the leaders of high culture for the most part peddle despair, the leaders of pop culture know they can touch the hearts of millions with a story of hope.
This story of the battle of good and evil is the story which has ever and will ever interest us. This question: Is Captain America for real? Or put a better way, is the saviour for real? — is the question that interests us above all others. We are always telling ourselves the story to which the story of the saviour is the answer. We may from time to time lose our grip on the answer but the question will not let us go.
To answer this question of questions is the purpose of St. Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel has a very spare account of the teachings of Jesus. Matthew and Luke and John in a different way have much more of the teachings of Jesus. The teachings are there but they are not in the center of the story Mark tells. What interests Mark above all else is the drama of the battle between good and evil. A characteristic phrase of Mark’s Gospel is “and he cast out the demons and cured many that were sick.” When the forces of evil recognize Jesus they know they have met their match. If we were to keep reading in the Gospel of Mark we would come next to the story of the Gadarene swine. A man who is possessed and who has supernatural strength and cannot be restrained and who hurts himself and others sees Jesus coming, “We know who you are, Jesus Christ son of the most high God.” Jesus asks the name of the demon and the reply is “legion because we are many.” Jesus bids the demon to come out.
There is another part of story in the Avengers that is familiar to us. One of the central evil characters has an instrument of immense power. It is kind of a cross between a spear and a magic wand. It can emit energy that can vaporize people but with the right touch it can change a good person into an eager and compliant servant of evil. This happens to one of the Avengers and to a scientist whose help is needed to prevail. As we watch the film, we wonder are they gone forever or can they be turned back? Is there any way back is one of the deepest questions of the human heart.
St. Mark’s answer is yes. Jesus has the power to turn people back. Jesus has the power to defeat and cast out evil, and the demons came out and went into a herd of pigs who stampeded over the cliff and into the sea and were destroyed and the people were filled with awe.
In the Gospel for today, Jesus and the disciples are on the sea and the storm threatens to sink the boat and the disciples are afraid. Though they have seen the power in Jesus they don’t really understand who He is. Jesus awakens and rebukes the storm. It is another demonstration of His ability to vanquish evil, to quell the demonic and destructive forces whether in the human or the natural realm. When they saw the power that was in Him they were frightened. “What manner of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” How will He use that power next? It is this question—Is Captain America for real—Can it last? Is there such a thing as truly good and trustworthy power? Is there such a thing as a truly good and trustworthy leader? Are we always doomed to be betrayed by those in whom we put our trust?
St. Mark has an answer. He recounts story after story of exorcism and healing, story after story of the power of Jesus to prevail over evil and to push back the realm of darkness. As the disciples and the crowds witness these deeds of power, they ask again and again “what manner of man is this?” No one in the entire Gospel gets the answer to this question quite right until the very end. Peter tries to answer it. He says He is the promised saviour, the Christ. Now use your power to vaporize our enemies. “Get behind me Satan.” James and John, the sons of thunder are the post-modern nightmare come true, practitioners of the rhetoric of goodness but really interested in self-aggrandizing power. “Let us sit one on your right hand and one on your left when you come into your Kingdom.” He tries to teach them one last time on the night in which He is betrayed. “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many.” Only one witness gets it completely right. The Centurion standing at the foot of the cross takes it all in and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
Captain America is a great character. He is a figure of hope but he is not real. But there is a real person who is the answer to the hope that characters like Captain America evoke. He is goodness in person, beauty in person, truth in person, and He can defeat the evil within and without. In the end evil will not be able to stand against Him. His power is awesome, truly awesome but it, unlike any other power we know, is completely trustworthy because it is the power of pure, self-sacrificing love. It is the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection. It is the power of the sacrifice that is made known to us in this service of Holy Communion. This is the power that can humble our egos and make it possible for us to live together as brothers and sisters not seeking to be served but to serve.
In the movie Captain America’s costume is not very hip. It is old fashioned. Someone suggests something more contemporary. “Let it be” is the wise answer, “Before this is over people may really need some old fashioned.” Christian faith is not often thought to be hip. It is often thought to hopelessly old fashioned. Remakes and updates are being constantly proposed. “Before this is over people may need some old fashioned.” Iron Man is very cool but he is not going to make it by being cool, hip and cynical. Somehow he has to find the faith of Captain America or things will not end well. In the movie the other Avengers have things to teach Captain America but he has a lot more to teach them.
We are each one of us something like the characters in the story who have been changed by a strange power. The role we are meant to occupy in the story is the role of super hero but we have been entranced and hijacked into another role altogether. There is one who can turn us back and He reaches out to touch us today with his transforming love in the words of scripture and in the bread and the wine. Let us open wide our hearts to Him. Amen