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Sermon: Jesus And Evil

Luke 8:26-39

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.

The famous words from C S Lewis’ introduction to The Screwtape Letters, and words well worth bearing in mind as we read today’s Lectionary Gospel reading about Jesus and the man infested with a legion of demons. For those who get obsessed with demons, Lewis reminds us not to put them in the limelight; for those who say you can’t believe in them, the story reminds us that if we call Jesus ‘Lord’, then we cannot say he was wrong about this.

Either way, the important factor in considering this story is to see Jesus as the central character. This whole account revolves around Jesus. So I want us to reflect on this famous Gospel story by relating everyone and everything to Jesus.

Firstly, Jesus and the demons. Let’s tackle the most difficult part of the story first, but it is one that tells us a lot about how we may regard evil in the light of Christian faith. What the demons do to the man is characteristic of evil in general. In what ways?

The man is ‘of the city’ yet he lives ‘not … in a house but in the tombs’ (verse 27). At very least, this illustrates the social breakdown caused by evil. Sin and evil break up societies and families. Given that it was highly unusual for adults not to marry (Jesus was quite an exception), there may well be a fractured family as a result of the demonic activity. Think of the similar way in which drug abuse shatters families, and you have a comparison with what has happened here.

He wears ‘no clothes’ (verse 27) – again, he is an outcast from society. Such is the force of evil that his behaviour means he cannot fit in anymore. Moreover,

To stay overnight among tombs is a mark of madness in Jewish tradition.[1]

Furthermore, this evil brought by the demons results in the man having unusual strength, such that normal human constraints cannot contain it:

For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds. (Verse 29)

Family and social breakdown; madness; and human inability to contain the strength of evil. No wonder this man was isolated. Imagine the fear in the city. The only way to protect people from him was to ensure he kept at a safe distance. It’s rather like the way we cry for dangerous criminals to be locked up for life, or we protest when proposals are made to house mentally ill people in the community. A naked man meets naked fear.

But Jesus is not afraid. Not one bit. Why is he not afraid of the damaging evil caused by the demons? Simple. He knows he carries divine authority. He has the right as Son of God to command the expulsion of evil spirits. Good and evil are not equal and opposite powers. God reigns, evil must ultimately submit.

He also knows that in his hands lie the ultimate defeat of evil in every form. Not that he will do so in the conventional form of aggressive, violent warfare, but rather by suffering and passivity. He will conquer the principalities and powers of evil by his death on the Cross, and by being raised from the dead.

What does this mean for us? It gives us confidence and faith in the presence of wickedness in any form. Even if it does not submit to Christ now, one day it will. We may even be part of conquering it, as we act in the name of Jesus – that is, with his authority. However, he may call us to conquer evil through our own suffering.

Secondly, let us consider Jesus and the man. As I’ve already said, such was the state of this man that ordinary society had ostracised him. So much is he at an arm’s distance that you wonder how he even obtains the basic necessities of life, such as food and drink. Perhaps he scavenges like an animal. Maybe he uses society’s fear of him to terrify people into giving him what he wants, rather like a bank robber with a gun. Either way, his contact with the rest of humanity is minimal. No-one can change him for the better, so people take what steps they can to protect themselves from him. They warn their children not to go near him. The local equivalent of the Daily Mail runs a campaign against him. Every action can be summed up in one word: fear.

But fear and impotence are not in Jesus’ repertoire. Love means he approaches the man and commands the demons to leave, whereas fear has made others retreat and put up barriers. He knows he has what the man needs in order to be healed and restored. He does not need to put the man in permanent quarantine. Rather, when he has exercised his divine authority, the local people come and find the man

sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. (Verse 35)

In the face of powerful evil, Jesus brings healing. The madness is gone. The man is sitting at Jesus’ feet – the posture of a disciple. And we see the discipleship in the man’s desire to ‘be with [Jesus]’ (verse 38), which Jesus redirects into another expression of discipleship:

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (Verse 39)

What do we learn from Jesus here? Surely that we have nothing to fear from evil and everything to gain for the kingdom of God if we face evil with the love of God and the authority of Jesus Christ. If we refuse to run away from evil in the way the world does, but instead remember that evil, even demonised people are still people who need the love of God in Christ, then situations and people can be transformed.

I am not suggesting that we all rush to become exorcists – most churches rightly put policies and restrictions around that, because there are too many loose cannons around who fancy themselves as spiritual superheroes and who cause great damage. However, every one of us at some time or another still comes face to face with manifestations of evil in one form or another. Those are the times to believe that Jesus has given us authority to act in his Name, and if we do so from a heart of Christian love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, then healing will come, and even new disciples for Christ.

More than that, when society is troubled by fear and reduced to reactions and policies based on fear, it’s time for Christians to be confident about the power of the Gospel. And by that I don’t just mean the message of forgiveness, I also mean what follows on from that, with changed lives. Jesus Christ is the world’s hope in the face of evil. Let’s not be shy or embarrassed about that.

Thirdly and finally, Jesus and the local people. What Jesus does here should be good news, shouldn’t it? But fearful people are confirmed in their fear, even when faced with the evidence of Jesus’ saving power. When the herdsmen see the man ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’, we read, ‘they were afraid’ (verse 35). When they give an eyewitness account of what they saw happen (verse 36), the local population comes to a consensus:

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. (Verse 37)

All they can see is that Jesus is the culprit in the destruction of their pig herd. His salvation of the man has had a detrimental economic effect upon them. And admittedly we find his willingness to let the demons enter the pigs difficult to understand. All we might guess is that Jesus acknowledges that the time for the final judgement against evil is not yet. But we are not the people suffering economic loss here. So no wonder they don’t want him around.

Yet maybe that is the choice with which Jesus faces them. To accept his ways will sometimes mean we are less well-off financially. Being his disciple involves sacrifice, especially for the well-being of others. You know I won’t have anything to do with the ‘Jesus wants you rich’ brigade, but there is a subtle variation that seduces many Christians. It’s more along the lines of ‘Jesus wants you comfortable’. We have similar lifestyle aspirations to people who have little interest in God and faith. Christianity becomes the ‘redemption and lift’ phenomenon that Wesley and others observed, where converts give up certain habits and practices, and the money saved leads to a higher standard of living – at least, in economic terms.

We know our nation is in for a bout of protracted hardship as we begin to reduce our massive national debt. We shall get a flavour of that this coming week with the Emergency Budget. I wish hardship on nobody, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable. But times of financial deprivation are occasions when Jesus may well ask us how serious we are about following him. Will we do that, even if we feel the pinch? Even if our Christian ethics prohibit some personal economic short-cuts that would alleviate the difficulties for us? Even if strictures for us meant benefits for others?

The thing is, we have incredibly good news in Jesus Christ to celebrate and to share. It gives us confidence of victory over evil. It makes new the most broken in society. But it comes with a challenge and a cost. Because as Jesus makes all things new, he will conflict with vested interests. It is then a gospel matter whether we send him away in fear or embrace him and pay the price.

Which will we do?

[1] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p407.

Sermon: Compassionate Mission

Luke 7:11-17

We had all returned to college after the summer vacation, and were comparing experiences from our summer placements.

“I had a strange experience,” said Tom. “Someone in the parish died, but some members of the church were convinced God wanted to raise this man from the dead. They persuaded the staff in the hospital mortuary to let them pray over the dead body.”

Secretly glad that none of us had had to offer advice in that circumstance, we asked Tom what happened.

“Well, don’t you think you would have heard in the national media if he’d been raised from the dead?”

How we wish we might witness in our day the kind of miracles Jesus did, such as the one here. Like this story, perhaps we especially long for such supernatural turn of events when a young person dies. When an elderly person passes away, we often say it was their time and they ‘had a good innings’. But no parent wants to bury their own child, like the widow at Nain did. You will all know of people who died ‘before their time’, and sense something of the pain and injustice that surrounds such deaths.

Some Christians would say that we can receive more of the astounding power that Jesus exhibited in his ministry, and if we would only be more open to the Holy Spirit, we might see more miracles. Others (perhaps infected the disappointments of the years) would rather explain these things away.

I have no doubt we should be more open to the Holy Spirit’s power, and if we do, then we shall certainly see more amazing things than we presently do. Yet even then, we shall still have our disappointments and our questions. So I want to reflect on this story to ask some basic questions along these lines: how does the mission of Jesus in the world as seen here shape the mission he calls us to in the world?

Firstly, I want to draw attention to Jesus’ feelings. Luke tells us ‘he had compassion for her’ (verse 13). The miracle will be for her, not her son, because he gives the young man back to her afterwards (verse 15).

How critical it is that in mission our actions are driven by compassion for others. How easy it is to reach out to others for different reasons. When outreach becomes based on the thought that ‘We need to bring in more people if our church is to continue’, then we are no longer acting with compassion. In those cases, we are simply trying to preserve ourselves. Our feelings are far from those of Jesus.

He knew that the widow was in desperate need. Not only was she mourning the loss of her son – and we know instinctively it is not right for parents to have to bury their own children – he knows she will be in desperate economic straits. Her husband, who would have provided for her material needs, is dead. Now her son, who would have taken over his father’s rôle as the breadwinner, is also dead. There is no pension or other social security provision to act as a safety net for her. She is now potentially destitute.

So this isn’t an indiscriminate miracle. This is Jesus identifying a clear social and economic need, and then responding with the love of God and the power of the Spirit. He calls us to do the same. Who are the people we know in the community who have great needs or who are in pain? He sends us to those people, not to save the skin of our church, but because he has compassion for them. They are people who need the love of God.

Very well, then: how can I share Jesus’ compassion for lost and broken people? There is a simple prayer that any one of us can pray. ‘Lord, give me your heart for those who need your compassion.’

It’s a simple prayer, but it’s a dangerous one. For if we truly want God to share his compassion for people with us, then we may find he breaks our hearts. He will break our hearts with the things that break his heart. Yet if we are to be bearers of his love in the world, we shall need to embrace this simple but dangerous prayer.

An illustration from some of my novel-writing friends might help here. They tell me that when they want to put a point across in a story, the classic motto of the novelist is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ That is, they get the character to show their beliefs by their actions, rather than putting a long speech into their mouths. Clearly for the Christian it can’t be as simple as ‘Show, don’t tell’, because at some point we have to proclaim or explain the love of God in Christ to people. But if we have the compassion of Jesus, it may be something like this: ‘Show before you tell.’ As General Booth once said, “If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it’s the wrapping around a sandwich.”

Secondly, I’d like us to observe Jesus’ actions. His compassion leads to action. What is that action? ‘[H]e … touched the bier’ (verse 14). In those four words are some enormous implications.

This action ‘is a silent appeal for the funeral procession to be stopped’[1]. Now who is ever popular for interrupting or delaying a funeral? You may remember the kerfuffle here two years ago at Effie Downs’ funeral when an irate playgroup mother castigated me for allowing Pennack’s undertakers in the church car park when she wanted to pick up her little girl, and who then protested by gunning her engine as the funeral procession approached the church doors. If you recall that incident, you will have some idea of the disruption Jesus threatens to cause here at such a delicate time. I’m not suggesting for one moment that Jesus was aggressive and hostile as that woman was, but the mourners must have feared for what was coming next.

Not only that, you will probably have heard preachers tell you before that for the pious Jew, touching a dead body (even if all Jesus effectively did here amounted to touching the wooden plank on which the wrapped body was laid) made you ceremonially unclean. Jesus goes outside the boundaries of the Jewish Law in order to make his point.

Put these two insights together and you see that by touching the bier, Jesus risked offending social and religious customs in order to get on with what he needed to do. Jesus will take risks in order to act on the compassion he feels for the widow. He is not deterred by the thought that some people might not like him or approve of him. Staying within the boundaries of social niceties is no priority for him.

This is something that goes deep in the Methodist tradition. In remembering John Wesley, we rightly dwell much on his ‘conversion’ of 24th May 1738, when his ‘heart was strangely warmed’ and he was assured that he trusted in Christ alone for salvation. However, we ought also to dwell on 1st April 1739, when he gave into George Whitefield’s badgering to preach in the open air to the colliers at Kingswood, near Bristol. Wesley said that he ‘submitted to be more vile’, because he had previously considered it a sin to preach anywhere other than inside a church building. That was when the revival began.

For Jesus, the love of God meant disregarding the rules of respectable society. For Wesley, it was the same. What about the Church today? Take the way some churches talk about young people. They agree they want to reach them, but are not willing to take social risks. So they will not let them use parts of their premises for fear of vandalism. Or they refuse to give food and drink to some who do not know proper etiquette.

Jesus would ask us how many social boundaries we are willing to cross in order to bring his compassion to people. The American church planter Neil Cole has a provocative – to me, at least – way of putting it. He says we must be willing to ‘sit in the smoking section’. As someone who detests tobacco smoke in all its forms, those are challenging words to me. Jesus would tell us that if you want to share divine compassion in a hurting world, you’ve got to touch the bier.

Thirdly and finally, let us reflect on Jesus’ words. Yes, the words come last. He shows before he tells. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (Verse 14) Rise up. A literal rising up may not happen as routinely as the people my friend Tom encountered hoped for, but the Gospel leads us into other situations where the message is ‘Rise up.’

One of my very first baptismal services involved the baptism of twin girls born to a church couple. When I visited them to plan the service, the husband told me that his brother and family would be present. He wanted me to know, because – to his bafflement – his brother was part of a strict church where the entire message was about doom, gloom and sin.

“I just don’t get that,” said Steve. “To me, God is about the word ‘welcome’.”

I believe the one Gospel needs couching in many forms, according to different people’s circumstances and needs. For the proud, a message of sin and repentance may need to take the headlines. They need bringing low before they can be raised up. (Although of course, we all must heed the call to repentance.)

For others, though, the message may well be what Steve called ‘welcome’. It will be a message that says “Young man, I say to you, rise!” For the poor and downtrodden, for those damaged by the demeaning or violent actions of others, for those whose self-esteem is lower than ground level, Jesus may well want to say, “Rise up!” The love of God brings new dignity to people, the dignity of being made and being remade in the image of God, the dignity of knowing you are loved by the God of the universe. As the Psalmist puts it:

But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high. (Psalm 3:3)

God ‘lifts my head high’ – he is ‘the lifter of my head’,  as the Authorised Version puts it. Being loved by a God who gave up his only begotten Son to the Cross lifts our heads high. And because God does that for us, a key way in which we share his message is by raising people’s dignity. Why? Because they are ‘loved with an everlasting love’, just as we are.

Where to begin? Here’s a thought. When the New Testament talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we read that they are for ‘edification’. That’s an interesting word, edification. It has to do with an edifice, a building. Spiritual gifts are therefore to ‘build people up’. It’s time to start practising building people up, because that is key to the work of the Holy Spirit. We may find it easiest to begin with our church family and then look for opportunities in the community.

We can be sure of one thing: we live in a culture that enjoys raising people up, only to tear them down. Which footballers will be subjected to that in the next few weeks during the World Cup? The Christian Church is called to be different. Our call to mission involves building up the lowly and downcast, saying to them, “Rise up! You are loved by God.” That becomes part of our witness as we seek to introduce people to personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Each week, the Essex Chronicle carries a ‘Remember When’ section. It looks back at news it covered in previous decades. Thursday’s edition contained a small piece from 1980 about a Catholic nun from Danbury called Mother Teresa (‘not the famous one’, as they said) who had put a shade at the top of her car’s windscreen with the words, ‘Smile, Jesus loves you.’ She commented how people would come up to her and tell her that it had made their day.

Of course, it will take more than a car sticker to do Christian mission. It will take godly compassion, a willingness to cross social barriers and a thorough commitment to build people up rather than run them down. That is what the example of Jesus shows us. May we have the heart to follow the example he sets, and may we seek the Holy Spirit’s power in order to do so.

[1] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p323.

Sabbatical, Day 25: Ash Wednesday Soup

I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.

Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.

Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.

Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.

Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.

Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.

At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.

What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.

And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.

So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’

On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.

During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.

See you tomorrow.