holy cross sermon for the fifth sunday after pentecost, year c, june 23, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In today’s reading from Luke, we have the story of theGerasene demoniac, and the infamous “Legion,” whom Jesus casts out of the man, delivering him from his slavery to devils.

Many of you have probably seen the movie “The Exorcist,” and in any case the idea of demonic possession and exorcism is one that fascinates and frightens our culture. But this story from Luke’s gospel certainly isn’t there to frighten us, nor is there to satisfy an idle curiosity about the topography of the spirit world or the operations of its inhabitants. So what ARE we meant to see in this story? What can we learn?

First of all it is important to say that spirits, both good and bad, are real. In the Nicene Creed we profess to believe God to be the creator of “things seen and unseen.” By “things… unseen,” we are not meant to understand the dust-bunnies underneath our sofas. It is talking about the spirit world, the inhabitants of which are not made of matter, and are therefore normally invisible to us. But they do interact with the world we see, and most often, if we are aware of them at all, spirits are known to us by their effects.

The Bible is replete with instances of spiritual beings making themselves known within our world. Today’s Gospel lesson is an example. Another example is the Annunciation, where the archangel Gabriel, a spiritual being in the service of the Lord, announces to the Blessed Virgin Mary that her vocation is to become the Blessed Mother of God.

So spirits are real. That is one very basic lesson from today’s Gospel text. Another basic lesson is that some of them are evil. And, we might add, the evil ones are truly evil. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church recently preached a sermon in which she referred to demonic possession as something “beautiful and holy.” She is wrong. Evil can have no part of goodness. But as St. Paul says, “The unspiritual [person] does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to [her], and [s]he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned,” (1 Corinthians 2.14).

Evil spirits are evil. And one of the primary reasons for this, or one of the primary aspects of this (depending on how you look at it), is that their mission is death. They want to kill us. That is primarily what they are about. And one of the main weapons in their arsenal is mendacity: lying and perverting the truth. Experience has taught this, but Jesus also taught it. Jesus said, “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies,” (John 8.44). We see this too at the very get-go, in Genesis, when the serpent shows up to rob mankind of life by telling him a lie (cf. Genesis 3). The goal of Satan and his minions is to kill us, and their main tool is mendacity – lying.

But why should mendacity be so useful to the demons? The answer lies under the surface of today’s text:

“When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him, and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech you, do not torment me.” For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man…. Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter these. So [Jesus] gave them leave.”

So why are evil spirits such liars? Because of their weakness. The demons beg Jesus not to execute on them the judgment reserved for the end of time, by commanding them to depart into the abyss. And they have to ask for Jesus’ permission to enter into the herd of swine (cf. Chrysostom). They only have power that is ceded to them, and to get people to cede power to them, they lie. This led St. Athanasius of Alexandria to point out that if they have no power even over the swine, they have much less power over men, who are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we ought only to fear God, and to despise the demons.

This passage shows Jesus’ lordship over the evil spirits. In the passage immediately before this one in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commanded the winds and the waves to be still, and they obey him. And here we see him commanding evil spirits, and they too must obey. Why? Because Jesus is Lord. In the final verse of the reading this point is driven home syllogistically. Jesus said to the man from whom the demons had gone out: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And it says the man “went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much JESUS had done for him,” (Luke 8.39). Why? What are we supposed to infer from that verse? That Jesus is God.

If we are on his team, if we are united to him by faith and baptism, if we listen to him and stick close to him, in the bosom of the Church, by prayer, and frequent recourse to the sacraments, we have nothing to fear from evil spirits. The only power they have over men is what we cede to them, and they can’t even trick us into ceding that power to them if we know the truth, the truth that Jesus himself IS – because diabolical power only works if we believe the demons’ lies. This is another dimension of what Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” (John 8.32).

We ought therefore to remain close to Jesus. The man who was delivered from the demons in today’s lesson asked that he might remain with Jesus, but Jesus sent him back to his home. The great biblical commentator, St. Theophylact (ofOhrid) said that the Lord sent him away to teach us that even when Jesus seems to be absent from us, he can protect us by his grace – and his grace courses through his Body (the Church) to its individual members (us). I have known more than one priest who has been called upon to apply the ministry known as “major exorcism,” whereby authorized ministers of Christ cast out devils in his name. Indeed a little exorcism is performed over the water in the stoups at the doors of this church each time it is renewed. Likewise the Church says that the St. Michael’s Prayer, which I pray with the servers after every mass, is a minor exorcism.

The upshot is that Jesus came to deliver us from the power of evil spirits, and he has done so. It is true that they exist, and that they are truly evil; it is true that they want to kill us forever. But they only have power that is ceded to them. They cannot harm those who belong to Jesus.

Let us therefore pray to God in Jesus’ name, that we may be led not into temptation, but delivered from every evil.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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