This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Luke 8:26-39.
Feeling comfortable with that gospel reading? Even more than other categories of Jesus’ miracles, stories of exorcisms can leave us feeling uneasy; what was really going on? What are demons, and how do they come to interact with human beings? And to what extent is this kind of encounter with them unique to Jesus, and how much should we consider them relevant to our own context?
Although the story in the gospel can shape our thinking on this, it’s probably fair to say that we are not going to understand these things in the way that the earliest Christians did. A quick trip to a mental health ward will tell you that, because you will – I speak from experience – meet people there convinced of demonic involvement in their lives, who have very thick medical files documenting the physical nature of their illness. We can’t turn back the clock on our thinking and see demons in a simple or naïve way.
But I also remember that when I was in college, one of our lecturers once talked to us about the things he wished people had told him when he was in college. And one of his comments was that he wished college had prepared him for the first time he would be called on to be involved in deliverance ministry. When I talk to older and more senior clergy, many of them have stories of encounters with things which are not easily reduced to or explained away in scientific terms. This strand of Christian experience can’t be dismissed with the simple idea that “we know better now.”
The ancient world understood the spiritual powers – angels, demons and the like – as non-material, invisible, heavenly entities with specific characteristics or qualities. These are all the good creations of a good God, but some of them have “fallen,” becoming more or less evil in intent, and may even be set on the destruction of humanity.
And this reminds us that the question of exorcism is really tied in to the bigger idea of what the charismatics call “spiritual warfare.” The idea that while God is at work in the world, bringing about God’s purposes, and will ultimately triumph, there is also evil at work in the world, in various ways (not just or perhaps even primarily through possession but also perhaps involved in the oppressive forces in the world, in spiritual deception, and so on). You can go to quite unhealthy places with that, and I’m not going to encourage you to start checking under the bed for demons.
But I’d say that it’s a concept, again, that we probably can’t dismiss out of hand as having no use in explaining how we experience the world. Some scholars have suggested that it is better, in our own context, rather than thinking of quasi-magical beings, to understand demons and the like as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power working for evil. In that way, we can also understand what is sometimes called “Satan” as the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity; and I’d suggest that’s not a bad starting point.
So what can we usefully say about this encounter between Jesus and demons? It is a dramatic presentation of a personal confrontation between God and evil, as it was understood in the culture of the day. You see, exorcism actually wasn’t unusual in Jesus’ day; or for many centuries before and after it. But in general, an exorcist used to call upon a higher power – usually his god or an angel or the like – to subdue the demon. What was unique in Jesus’ exorcisms is that he doesn’t need to do that; he is the higher power, present to and standing to confront evil in his own being. And the demon recognized it too; the demon had cried out to him as “Son of the Most High God”!
And something else I think it’s helpful for us to recognize here is Jesus’ compassion for the man in front of him. The gospel describes his wretchedness; naked, living among the tombs, bound with chains and so on; but Jesus met him and loved him enough to want to remedy the cause of this wretchedness.
And if we take that concept and entertain it for a while, we can see that for a Christian, what is important is to be in some way present to Jesus, if we hope to find whatever evil we do confront overcome. Whether that is through prayer, through the ministry of the Christian community, through being filled with the Holy Spirit, or in whatever way God may be present to us, it is through the presence and work of God that whatever is evil – whether we understand that in personal terms, as a demon, or in other terms – is transformed as we are brought closer to God, and God’s love for us is able to change us.
You see, we live in an in-between time. If we want to use the imagery of battle, then the healings and exorcisms which Jesus did and which we have recorded in the gospels, are an open assault on evil, and an indication that the kingdom of God is winning.
Ultimately, Jesus, through his death on the cross and his resurrection, has brought about the final triumph of God over every form and manifestation of evil. And yet that is still being worked out, and is not yet complete. So we wait, and in the meantime, we still experience evil; but we do it in the full knowledge of the reality of God’s ultimate triumph. That’s where our focus needs to be. Because while we need to recognize evil in the world, we also need to be able to be part of God’s work in overcoming that evil, whether that is in individual people, or in institutions or social systems or cultures. So we need to be a church of people who are confident of God’s victory in Christ, of God’s protection and his power, as we make that known outside these walls.
Paul put it this way: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Christ has fought and won the decisive victory over whatever may be that is evil. Christ is triumphant and we, in union with Christ, share that triumph even while we wait for the final victory parade.
And that’s why gospel stories like this matter. Because as we read them, they bolster that confidence, they help us to take shelter under that protection, and they help us to recognize the power of God when we see it at work in the world today.