Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jesus Christ is an Exorcist

Demons are real. Evil spirits exist. They hate you. They hate me. They hate the lunatic boy in the gospel (Matt 17:15, 18). The demon torments this boy and causes him to fall often into fire and often into water, just to hurt him, or even to try to kill him (Matt 17:15; Mark 9:22).

Demons want us to suffer. They are our enemies. They want to hurt us in any way that they can. Most of all, they want to separate us from God. They want to convince us to put our trust not in God but in them or in ourselves. They want our obedience in whatever small thing – so long as we are obeying them and not God.

It would have been a small thing for Jesus to eat bread, having fasted for forty days in the desert. He was hungry, but it was the devil suggesting he eat and satisfy himself. Jesus knows that we live not by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4). We must obey the word of God rather than the words of Satan. Life comes from the mouth of God, not from filling our mouths with the devil’s food.

When we are fasting, the devil suggests we should eat. The fruit of the tree looks good to us – good for food, delightful to our eyes, desirable to make us wise (Gen 3: 6). The fruit seems like such a small thing. Yet God commands us not to eat it and disobedience to the word of God always ushers death into the world. This is what the demons want. They want to destroy us. They want to kill us. And they’re pretty good at it. This is the bad news.

Jesus Heals a Demon-possessed Boy
Egyptian, Walters manuscript W.592
ink and pigments on laid paper
But I’m not here to preach the bad news. I’m here to preach the good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ – and the good news is that Jesus is an exorcist. He rebukes the demon, casts it out, and cures the boy instantly (Matt 17:18). In Christ, we also can be victorious over the demons that afflict us.

Demons plague us like flies – but they are easily swatted by the God-bearing angels and saints. Λογίσμοι (logismoi) – the pesky distracting thoughts and demonic provocations that buzz around our heads like flies can be rebuked and cast out by the name of Jesus and the Jesus prayer, if we are watchful and vigilant. Yes, there are demons and they are our enemies and they would be formidable enemies, except for the fact that we have Jesus on our side.

If you’re not on the side of Jesus, if you have not been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, or if you’re outside of God’s Church, you are more susceptible to demonic influence. There is a reason that before every baptism, we perform an exorcism. At baptism, we are receiving into Christ people who have not until now been in Christ and so have had no authority over demons. In the early years of the catechumenate, exorcisms were read often, even daily, over the catechumens. At baptism, we put on Christ, the exorcist.

The demon often threw the boy into fire and into water (Matt 17:15; Mark 9:22). I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it’s a mockery of baptism in water and baptism in fire, of baptism into Christ and baptism in the Spirit, of baptism and chrismation.

In ancient Israel, the water was a scary place – especially the sea. It was a place of dark depths and unknown horrors. The place of Leviathan. An abode of demons. And so today the demon tries to throw the boy into water.

Now, as Christians, we lower our own babies three times into water and by this baptism, we overcome the power of the devil, who vainly tries to use this good thing destructively.  Baptism is the undoing of all infernal attacks. It is the reversal even of death, the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26). We are baptized into the death of Christ Jesus and through death Christ destroys the devil “who has the power of death” (Rom 6:3; Heb 2:14). Baptism is our first death and it is also our first resurrection.

In Christ, we’re not afraid anymore. Water may have represented the dark and frightful unknown, but now we go into the water ourselves. Having been exorcized and having exorcized the water, we go into the water and chase the demons out. We confront them head on. Christ gives us authority over them, if we have faith, if we pray and fast. We go into death and we come out alive and we live in Christ forever. This is the good news.

But baptism isn’t a like a magic spell that eliminates demonic activity in our lives from that point on. In fact, sometimes the more we seek God, the more we encounter overt demonic opposition. Those whom the devil has already deceived, he’ll often leave alone in their deception. It is therefore necessary for us to discern spirits.   

John tells us not to believe “every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God…. Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God, [but] is the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:1-3).

It’s really rather simple, if a spirit is not of the Lord, then it is an evil spirit. There is not in the incorporeal spiritual realm the ambiguity that we experience as humans. We are good and evil at the same time, but the angels and demons, as simple spirits, are necessarily absolute and immediate in their determination for or against the Lord. As the Lord says, “he who is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30), and, in another place, “Because you are lukewarm…, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16). So, there can be no neutral angels. We do not believe in capricious fairies. Angels are either good or evil, either for or against the Lord. Any power being presented as neutral or impersonal is in fact demonic.

Whenever there are unseen powers at work, we have to ask who is doing this. Not “what,” but “who,” because all spiritual forces, energies, and powers, have their source in persons – either in the uncreated divine persons of the most holy Trinity or in created persons – whether human or angelic, who may be good or evil. If a power is not of God, then it is demonic. Many increasingly popular occult and New Age activities are in fact demonic. And many of the false and pagan gods are nothing more than demons in disguise (cf. Ps 95:5, LXX; 1 Cor 10:20).

Therefore, we should approach spiritual gifts with suspicion. We should not be immediately enticed or distracted by miracles and apparitions, but we must be hesitant, even suspicious and skeptical. The first thing an Orthodox bishop does when there is a myrrh-streaming icon is not veneration, but exorcism. Only after demonic influence is ruled out, do we venerate such an icon.

When discerning spirits, just ask, does it draw you closer to God? Does it bring you to repentance for your sins? If not, then it is not of God and we must have no part in it.

One of the Desert Fathers was praying in a cave and an angel appeared to him and said, “Prepare yourself, for in three days they are coming to make you a bishop.” Well, the monk didn’t just go along with this announcement. It appealed to his ego, so he rebuked the angel and told him to get out. The next day, the angel came again and said, “The emissaries are only two days away. Prepare yourself, for they’re going to make you a bishop.” And again the monk rebuked the angel, saying, “I am a sinner, and you’re trying to tempt me to pride.”  In other words, the monk accused the angel of being a demon! Only when the angel came the third time, he told the monk, “You are indeed a sinful man, and the Lord is going to punish a sinful people by making you their bishop.” And then monk said, “Alright, now I can believe you.” Because this was a finally a message that brought with it an awareness of his own sinfulness and an inspiration to repentance, the monk believed, and he packed his things.[1]

(Another version of this writing is now posted at Catholic Exchange).

[1] based on a story told by Father George Aquaro in an interview with Kevin Allen, “The Illumined Heart 159: The Occult – Shining Light On Satan’s Shadow, Part 2,” December 10, 2010, 31:52. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

I have compassion on the crowd

The Feeding of the Five Thousand; Jesus Walking on the Water
from an Armenian Gospel book, 1386
black ink and watercolors on paper
bound between wood boards covered with dark brown kidskin

“I have compassion on the crowd.” Jesus saw the five thousand men, the probably twenty thousand people, the great throng, and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick and satisfied their hunger. In the parallel stories of Jesus feeding the four thousand, he again has compassion on them and on that occasion, he actually says, “I have compassion on the crowd.” I heard a preacher once who would begin his sermons this way. Looking out at the gathered crowd he would say, “I have compassion on the crowd.” It strikes me as bold of that preacher to identify himself so closely with Jesus in this way. On the other hand, we are to be like Jesus in this way.

The word compassion comes from Latin and it means to suffer with. To feel the others’ pain. It’s a good translation of the Greek here, but it’s an abstraction of something more physical, fleshly, and poetic. The meaning of the Greek word here seems alien to us. I even find it difficult to say: σπλαγχνίζομαι, which we translate as “compassion”, more literally means to be moved as to the bowels. Where we would sometimes refer to the heart, the ancients refer to the bowels, which they regard as the seat of the more intense emotions. In other words, to feel it in your gut.

Like when sometimes we wince ourselves when we see our children fall and scrape their knees. We know what that feels like. So when we see someone else – especially someone we love – experience that pain, the memory of it is sharp – we can almost feel it ourselves.

And there is no more beautiful image of compassion than that of a nurturing mother toward her newborn baby, crying again in the night. She can almost feel his hunger and is driven by it from her own sleep and her own comfort again and again to comfort the helpless baby.

When we love someone, their pain hurts us too. This is the opposite of sadism or schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure at the pain or misfortune of others. We sometimes mistake the pleasure that someone gives us for love, but true love is not just a gushy feeling. Love must include compassion. This means that there isn’t going to be any such thing painless love in this life – not until that blessed day when we will see our loved ones in a heavenly Jerusalem, when the Lord “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4). Only then will our love be painless.

Jesus himself, who has loving compassion on us, encounters death. He mourns. He cries. He feels pain. Today, Jesus’ love for the crowd is not painless. One verse prior to today’s gospel reading, he had been attempting to withdraw from the crowds to a lonely place apart, to be alone to mourn, because he had just heard news that his cousin and baptist John was beheaded by Herod. Jesus, like any of us would, wanted to go and mourn his departed friend for a while in solitude. Jesus often went off to be alone, to rest, and to pray.

But finding a place to be alone in Galilee was no easy task. Josephus, the Jewish historian, claims that Galilee was densely populated at this time – with more than 200 towns, each with no less than 15,000 inhabitants. So that’s more than three million people in a small region. So it’s not too surprising that Jesus has a hard time finding a solitary place, and that the crowds from the towns quickly hear where he is and follow after him. Crowds tended to follow after Jesus, because great power went out from him and all were healed by that power. They would press in on him and try to touch him, because his touch and his presence was healing to all. This must have been exhausting for him, especially when he was overcome with his own grief. So Jesus seeks solitude and rest. He does teach us by example to care for ourselves as well as for others. He gets into a boat to escape the crowds - and then on the other shore there is another crowd of thousands waiting for him. How exasperating that must have felt. Some of us may have shouted, “Just leave me alone!”

But in addition to teaching us to care for ourselves, Jesus also teaches us to deny ourselves. And today, despite his exhaustion and despite his grief and despite his desire to be alone, he looks out at the great throng and sees their suffering, and he has compassion on them, and he heals their sick.

It must not have been easy for Jesus to add the pain of the multitude to his own pain. But that is what he does. He denies himself and takes up his cross and invites us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.

Sometimes he calls us to set aside ourselves, our heartaches, our exhaustion, our obsessions, and to focus on the needs of others. This is sacrificial love offered in imitation of Christ.  He shows the crowd compassion, and then he invites us, his disciples, also to show them compassion.

The disciples were also aware of the people’s need. They too are capable of compassion and can feel the suffering and need of others. They see that it’s getting late and that the people will soon be hungry. They bring this concern for the people to Jesus, along with a suggestion that the crowds should go off and fend for themselves. This is a familiar story: when we see a need, our first response is often that someone else should do what’s necessary to provide for the need.

Feeling the others’ pain, sensing their need is the beginning, but not the end, of compassion. Jesus, by his own compassion, invites us to compassion. He says to the disciples, “They need not go away, you feed them.”

Jesus’ response here might remind some of us of what happens when we have a great idea for some service or activity that the parish ought to be providing. We take this idea to our pastor, only to hear him say, “Thank you for volunteering to lead the effort!” The needs that we can see are often the needs that Jesus is calling us to provide for.

But the disciples have only two fish and five loaves. It’s a meager offering, but they offer what they have.

The truth is, we really can’t do it alone. What we have to offer really isn’t enough. We really do need Jesus’ help. If I have compassion on the crowd, it is only inasmuch as I am in Christ and he is in me. The disciples offer what they have, but they need the power of Christ to take their poor offering and make it sufficient for the needs of the crowd.

Jesus takes the spark of compassion in the disciples and he multiplies it, when he says to them, you feed them. Jesus is a multiplier. He multiplies the five loaves and two fish and he multiplies our compassion. He shows us that love can grow. It isn’t ever necessary to run out of love.  Love is not like money. Love is not finite. Rather, paradoxically, you have what you give away.

So, whatever small and seemingly inadequate gifts we have to offer, these we offer together with our prayers to Christ for multiplication and he will make them grow to abundance. Not only will it be enough, there will be twelve baskets left over. 

Most Popular Posts this Month

Most Popular Posts of All Time