This sermon was delivered on the Sixth Sunday of Luke (Luke 8:26-39), October 20, 2019, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a man who has been possessed by many demons. Jesus heals the man by casting those demons out. In doing so, he shows us two things. One is that demons are real. The other is a vivid warning of the danger of spiritual deception.
First, regarding demons. Do we believe that demons are real? If our answer is “no”—or even if we simply smirk and think “yeah, right”—then we call Jesus Christ a liar. By extension, we call the evangelists false witnesses. If our answer is “no”, then we have never paid sufficient attention to the prayers and services of the Church. If our answer is “no” then we are, quite simply, deceived.
The simplest reason we would have to believe in the existence of demons is that Christ spoke of them and interacted with them. Barring all other evidence, this should be sufficient for us. If we dare call Jesus the Truth, then he cannot be lying or deceived about the existence of demons.
That St. Luke the Evangelist mentions demons should at least give us pause. Why? Because he was a physician. He was trained in the sciences of his day. He was an artist. He was, obviously, a skilled writer. He was learned. He was a critical thinker. He was not a gullible pushover. He put his professional reputation at risk to proclaim and share this good news.
We can look not only at the pages of the New Testament, but at the Church’s liturgical texts, which bear witness to and guide our life of worship. One of the fundamental elements of the baptismal process, for example, is that of exorcism. All of us who have been baptized in the Orthodox Faith have undergone exorcism.
Finally, we can look to the witness of the saints throughout the ages. There is an abundance of testimony on demonic activity from the saints of the Church, from the earliest days down to our own. We can add to this the witness and experience of priests in every generation—present clergy included—of encounters with individuals suffering from demonic influence and possession.
Despite all these things, we must remember that demonic activity is not always the stuff of horror movies. It is not necessarily dramatic and scary. Quite the contrary, it is most of the time subtle. Even so, the Gadarene demoniac can play a valuable allegorical role, being an image for us of the dark, lonely place of spiritual illness.
Insanity, whatever its causes, is a condition in which someone’s perception of an established reality is altered in a potentially harmful way.
For Christians, that “established reality” is what is called the “mind of the Church” or the “mind of Christ”. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” and, in his second letter to the Corinthians he explains that the wisdom of the Church is “not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away… [rather,] we have the mind of Christ”.
Yet this “mind of Christ” to those who cannot see beyond the supposed “reality” of this world is itself insanity. In the Gospel according to John, this is stated explicitly when Jesus reveals himself openly to the Jews. They literally thought that he was demon-possessed, like the man in today’s story. Jesus’ response to them was simple: “I do not have a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.”
So, which is it? Which insanity will we choose? Will we choose to be insane in the eyes of the world, to believe in this person called the Christ, who claimed to be the son of God, supposedly cured people, was killed, and then came back to life, ascended into heaven, and now invisibly guides his followers, supposedly feeding them from his own body that is somehow also bread and wine, so that they can live forever?
That is insanity to the nonbeliever.
Or will we choose to be mad in the eyes of God: to have been given everything by our very creator—who humbled himself so extremely as to become one of us, who healed us, who taught us, who died for us, who overcame that death and gave us the opportunity to live forever with him—only to reject it all in the name of fitting in, or wanting to pursue comfort?
If you are here today, then it is presupposed that you have selected the former insanity, that you have chosen to be “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, to be a sibling of Christ, to honor his Father, our Father. But let’s listen carefully to what Christ says about this reality, again, quoting the Gospel of John. He says:
If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God … Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. … When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.John 8:42ff
Now, at this point, you may be wondering to yourself “where is he going with this?” But what if we were to remind ourselves of some lies of the devil, so that we can consider whose children we are? Which lies shall we choose? The lie that someone else will help pay to fix the leak in the church roof, so I can go spend $500 on those new shoes or a watch, because I deserve it? The lie that habitual smoking and drinking are OK for a Christian? The lie that I am entitled to hold a grudge against that person who offended me that one time—don’t they know who I am? The lie that I can expose myself and my children to all kinds of secular values and entertainment without negative results? The lie that I am in control of my life? The lie that consummating a relationship before—or outside of—marriage is OK because that’s just what most people do now?
Are we convicted by any of these lies of the devil in this short list? Have we fallen for them or for others like them? Are we stuck in them? Are we supporting others in them? Are we perhaps regretting them but unsure how to get out of them? Or perhaps we feel indignant that something was mentioned that pertains to us?
Then, brothers and sisters, we have experienced the reality of demonic influence. We have wandered from the glorious city of God to the wasteland tombs. We have been stripped naked of our baptismal garment. We have been bound hand and foot by our passions. We have brought tears to the eyes of Christ, who encounters another person possessed, but now one who has descended from the brightness of baptismal beauty to the depths of demonic disfigurement.
But Christ is here, now, at these tombs. We can appeal to his mercy. We can repent. We can confess. We can receive his forgiveness. We can sit at his feet, clothed and in our right mind once more. But while the voice of Christ calls us to repent now, another whispers “It can wait.”
Whose shall we heed?