holy cross sermon for the fifth sunday after the epiphany, february 8, 2015

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

In today’s Gospel reading we hear of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, who lay sick with a fever, as well as of the Lord’s ministry of exorcism, casting out demons.

These two realities – sickness and demonic oppression – went together in the ancient world, and physical maladies were often thought to be the result of demonic influences. It is tempting for us, as modern “enlightened” people, to leap to an anachronistic transcendence of this association. We naturally want to say that we “now know” that physical maladies have immediate physical causes. But we must guard against categorically denying that the spiritual world touches on the material world – I call this the “Dawkins Falacy.” In other words, if it is true, in a particular case or in general, that sickness is not immediately caused by evil spirits, this is not because evil spirits have no influence over the material world. The data of both Scripture and tradition rule out that kind of belief.

The teaching of our faith is clear: demons are real. They are at work in our world, and they want to kill us.

But the Gospel reading bears witness to a deeper theological reality as well: of our world’s subjection to both spiritual and physical corruption. Evil and death are indeed bound together as a package, and Jesus Christ alone has power over both, for “he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (v. 34).

We overcome the one by overcoming the other – by being susceptible to the power of Christ, by being obedient to him, by becoming his servant. Early in the 300’s, St. Athanasius of Alexandria said this to a pagan audience:

In a word, then, those who disbelieve in the resurrection have no support in facts, if their gods and evil spirits do not drive away the supposedly dead Christ. Rather, it is He Who convicts them of being dead. We are agreed that a dead person can do nothing yet the Saviour works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in face of death, manifesting Himself to each, and displacing the irreligion of idols ; while the gods and evil spirits of the unbelievers can do none of these things, but rather become dead at Christ’s presence, all their ostentation barren and void. By the sign of the cross, on the contrary, all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from earth to heaven. Whom, then, are we to call dead? Shall we call Christ dead, Who effects all this? But the dead have not the faculty to effect anything. Or shall we call death dead, which effects nothing whatever, but lies as lifeless and ineffective as are the evil spirits and the idols? The Son of God, “living and effective,” (Heb. 4. 12) is active every day and effects the salvation of all; but death is daily proved to be stripped of all its strength, and it is the idols and the evil spirits who are dead, not He. (De Incarnatione, Chapter 5, Section 31)

And this is the meaning of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them” (v. 31). Jesus always reaches out his hand to us, to lift us up, to heal and empower us, to take us to himself, and to make us like him. And we should always remember that one of the chief ways that he makes us like himself, is in that he makes us a servant, for “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mrk. 10.45). And this too is one of the chief proofs of our deliverance from the evil powers at work in the world: our being empowered to abandon ourselves, to GIVE ourselves, to Christ, and for the salvation of those around us. Because the powers of evil in the secular world encourage us to demand “our rights”, to build walls around our acquisitiveness, concretely to demarcate what is “mine” and what is “yours”. The world knows nothing of self-abandonment and renunciation.

But what does it mean that “Jesus always reaches out his hand to us”? It sounds like a saccharine slogan from a Hallmark card or a bumper sticker. Obviously its a figurative statement. I don’t go through life seeing a physical hand reaching out to me all the time. Rather it means that Jesus is God, and God is love; and the essence of love is self-gift. Self-gift, therefore, is the essence of God. Jesus comes and gives himself to us. Always. He never withholds himself, but he is always beckoning to us, offering himself to us, and to the Father FOR us. In a sense, all Jesus ever does is give himself to us, and to God for us. And in him there is no distinction between “what he does”, and “who he is”. He IS the gift of himself. For him to reach out to us means, in his own words, that he stands at the doorway of our lives and knocks, and if we will but hear his voice and open our lives to him, by allowing ourselves to become vulnerable to his power, by becoming humble and obedient before him, he will come to us and eat with us, and we with him (cf. Rev. 3.20).

Finally, I want to draw your attention to the second half of today’s Gospel reading: “And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him pursued him, and they found him” (vv. 35-37). The light of the world goes out into the predawn darkness, “to a lonely place, and there he prayed”. Here we have one of those brief glimpses, encountered occasionally in the Gospels, of the utterly mysterious communion of Jesus and God the Father. Here we have, as it were, a very brief glimpse into the inner life of the godhead, the eternal interpenetration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in this image of Jesus praying alone in the darkness. And here we see the secret of Jesus’ power over evil and death: his eternal communion with his Father. All that he has he receives from God, and he receives all that God is and all that God has, God’s very self, whose essence is love, the gift of self.

His disciples pursued him to this place, and here they find him: praying to the Father in the darkness.

When we seek the Lord in the midst of the darkness of our lives, we find him in the communion of God, for he said “I am [never] alone, for the Father is with me” (Jn. 16.32). If we pursue him, we will find him; and in finding him, we find God. And in finding God, we find the mystery of divine self-donation, which empowers us to overcome sin and death, and so to serve him, in his ministry of healing and deliverance.

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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