A few weeks ago there was a minor flurry in the media over some pictures which seemed to capture Pope Francis offering prayer of exorcism over a sick man during one of his weekly audiences. It was fascinating to witness peoples` reactions to the very possibility of this. The social media was full of things like “Wasn`t it all a bit like the `Da Vinci code?`” and a sense that `Surely this is the kind of thing that gives Christians a bad name`; the kind of thing that would embarrass us in front of our sceptical friends.
Others were suggesting that if the Pope was praying in this way then surely it was a bit over the top. Surely, anyone in their `right mind` would explain it all away wouldn`t they? Surely in these sophisticated times we don`t believe in all that stuff do we? I mean, it smacks of things that go `bump` in the night.
But, the problem we face of course is that we have such a lot of `explaining away` to do. This notion of demon possession – the way evil manifests itself in concrete reality is so prominent in scripture that we can`t really ignore it. Let`s face it, `deliverance from evil` features not only in the Lord`s Prayer but it`s also at the heart of Jesus` healing ministry. And we had a very clear example of it a few moments ago in that Gospel reading. We heard about the man called `Legion`- who lived among the tombs. It`s scary and heart-rending stuff isn`t it? So how might we get to grips with this? Well, before we get into the specifics let`s lay out a couple of general points.
The first thing is that we need to be aware of the frequent arrogance of our day. I think we need to be a little more sceptical about our own patterns of thinking and believing. In his First letter to the Corinthians St. Paul told them `We have the mind of Christ`. Now this isn`t about becoming primitive or superstitious but perhaps we`re called to look a little more carefully at our pattern of thinking and how we assess our experience; the events around us and so on.
Secondly, we can`t get away from the notion that the Christian life is challenging. Our own experience should tell us- if we`re half serious about faith that trying to live as if God is God will not necessarily make for an easy passage. What I`m saying is that it`s important to name and own that experience for what it is. I mean some of the difficulties we face come about through what the prayer calls `ignorance, negligence and our own deliberate fault`. But Scripture describes another element. It tells us `We have an adversary` we don`t contend with flesh and blood…..` says St. Paul.
Now, in his book `The Screwtape Letters `, C.S. Lewis famously said that Christians easily fall into two equal and opposite errors. Whilst some of us pretend there isn’t a battle at all; that it`s all in the mind- others become paranoid looking for demons everywhere and living lives distracted by fear and anxiety.
So what do we do? Well, let me suggest two things. Firstly, I would invite you to pray for the grace to spot the signs of the enemy and secondly take up the resources God gives for these challenges of life. There are two passages of Scripture that can help us with this.
The first are the words of St. Peter. He says, `Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour`. So, the first thing to be aware of is that our adversary always leads us into a false diagnosis or blindness to what`s going on. And Peter calls us to be vigilant. Like Christ he say we need to stay awake. And, as I`ve just said, I think we need to take the risk- perhaps- of looking stupid and naming the culprit. I mean, what would it look like if I took a moment ask whether these circumstances I am in might just be a symptom of the `Spiritual warfare` the scriptures tell
us about. You see if you get the diagnosis wrong- you get the treatment wrong as well. But what signs might we look for? Well what about `Disruption`. Think of something you`re involved in. An otherwise straightforward process that`s disrupted through a few careless or ill-chosen words. Then the Chinese whispers begin and people are set against one another. So we get `Division` and rather than talking and praying things through and we become isolated from one another.
What about `Distraction`. Someone said `the important is rarely urgent, the urgent rarely important`. And we need to learn the difference. Many years ago there was someone who used to keep ring me late in the evening. At first glance it was all quite reasonable but after a while I realised that I was going to bed anxious and wound up. Eventually I began to see these late night conversations as what I call `enemy time`. So I ended up insisting on having our conversations at another point in the day. You see part of the problem with such distractions is that they leave us depressed and depleted. Because we took our eye off the ball we`re burdened by what we haven`t got done. So firstly I would simply invite you to keep your eyes open and to look for the signs: Disruption, Division, Distraction, Depression, Depletion- and all those `D`s are not just a sign of me trying to be clever!
Now our second passage is from St. Paul`s letter to Ephesians. He says “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil”. You see as well as offering us a false diagnosis to the challenges we face our adversary offers us a false `solution` as well. A familiar tactic is to convince you that Christ has gone his way and left us to get on with this thing called the Christian life. In other words, he wants us to become accustomed to the notion that the Christian life is all about what WE do.
So when it becomes difficult he just whispers in our ear that we “can`t do it” “we`re failures” and so on. And of course it`s true, we can`t do it all by ourselves. But we`ve conveniently forgotten work of the Holy Spirit. We`ve conveniently forgotten the words of Christ: `I will not leave you orphans` – `apart from me you can do nothing`. We`ve conveniently forgotten the ultimate victory of Christ over all these things and that we need not fear: Jesus said- “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
You see, what the adversary doesn`t want us to do is swallow our pride- and to call on Christ. The adversary makes us forgetful of our humility and of our inheritance as children of God. It`s the Holy Spirit that does exactly the opposite. The Spirit builds us up and brings to our remembrance the words of Jesus. These passages in the Gospels and elsewhere that talk about demons and possession and spiritual warfare are not there to embarrass us. I don`t admit to understanding what`s really going on in half of them.
But for me they stand there as a constant reminder that there is something deeper going on in and around us. And Christ wants us to open our eyes to this. Go and look at that encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus- who responded so obtusely to questions about the work of the Spirit. Jesus had to say to him “Are you a teacher in Israel and you do not understand these things?”
I don`t think we take half as seriously as we should St. Paul`s call to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. Passages like the one we heard this morning, even though they might seem odd, give an account of the ministry of Christ which was one of conflict on so many levels. And these passages re-present to us the nature of the Christian life and the adversary we face. We might initially react with intellectual scepticism. But what they are really doing is pointing out our ignorance of the spiritual life and the adversary`s tactics.
And because we are lulled into such ignorance we then fail to take up the resources God gives for the fight: our identity in Baptism and the power of the Spirit.
And so as individuals and congregations we find ourselves blown all over the place. Disrupted, Distracted, Divided, Depressed and Depleted. You see, for example, congregational tensions are seldom just `personality clashes`. That`s the wrong diagnosis. So often, as Christ put it, there is a `sifting` going on. But if we are wise we`ll remember the words of Paul: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God”.