Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The War for Souls

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

In this morning’s gospel lesson from Luke [8:11-18], our Lord Jesus traveled by boat to the region of the Gadarenes [Gergesenes] whereupon disembarking, He encountered a man possessed by many demons. It was by no means unusual for Christ to encounter demon-possessed people during His ministry, or even people possessed by multiple demons, as in the case of Mary Magdalene from whom He cast out seven demons. But the man who called himself “Legion” was certainly out of the ordinary, due to the vast multitude of demons that had taken possession of him. In the Roman army a legion could consist of anywhere from 4200 to 5000 men. We don’t know how many demons this poor man had, but clearly his was a terribly extreme case.

The thing that has always struck me about this passage is that when Jesus asked the man his name, he replied, “My name is Legion”. The point is that the demons had so completely stripped this man of his self-identity that he no longer knew his own name. This is precisely how the demons operate. There goal is to persuade people to forfeit their humanity a piece at a time until they can gain control to overwrite the image of God in men with their own foul and wicked image.

The various exorcism movies that Hollywood has produced would have us believe that demons just randomly take over innocent people for no particular reason, but this is seldom the case in real life. Most often the people who wind up controlled by demons are those who have in some way cooperated with them, opening the doors to darkness and possession themselves. Man is made to grow and change, but sometimes the change we might make is toward evil.

We often forget what a marvelous creation the human being is. We so seldom think of ourselves this way, but we truly are the masterpiece, the crowning achievement of all God’s creative actions. “More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim” describes not just our Most Holy Lady Theotokos now, but potentially all human beings who advance in the divine glorification our Creator has made available to us. Of all His creatures, man alone is endowed with the capacity for unlimited growth and change in order that we might continue through all time and eternity to become by grace what God is by nature. We sometimes might imagine that our one and only period of growth takes place when we are children, so that by the time we reach the ripe old age of 25 or whatever we more or less fossilize, making further change impossible. What utter nonsense!

Let us remember that God made us out of clay, not stone, and clay is infinitely moldable and changeable, until it is hardened by fire. My point is that as long as we have life, we have the capacity to grow toward God and become everything our Creator intended for us to be, if we so choose. The flip side to change and choice is that we can also move away from God, indulging the passions of the fallen flesh to become darker and more evil, essentially inviting the demonic spirits to have much greater influence in our life and perhaps even dominate it, as we saw with the man in our gospel lesson. The choice is ours.

Many times our choices are influenced by the company we keep and the culture we look to for guidance. The region of the Gadarenes was known for being populated by notoriously non-observant Jews that shared the area with pagan Gentiles who routinely engaged in animal sacrifices to demons. The fact that we find Jewish herdsmen raising swine, and an entire community that came out to beg Jesus to leave after He had healed the demoniac, indicates that these people had drifted pretty far from their ancestral religion. The man who called himself Legion had almost certainly derived his moral compass from this corrupted culture in which he lived. The resulting bad choices he would have made are very likely what allowed him to fall under the influence of demons, leading to his possession.

This is of particular importance to us since the society in which we live has also grown to become exceedingly corrupt. Sexual immorality, drug use, and human sacrifice--once the dark and forbidden stuff of satanic rituals--is now being repackaged and sold to the general population as hooking up, getting high, and family planning. People who are informed by that culture instead of the culture of the Church often make terrible decisions that bring great loss and suffering to themselves and to others. Many people who were promised the good life of pleasure and freedom by our society are in fact opening the doors to hell in their lives to find only depression, devastation, and further brokenness. Like the man who called himself Legion, many people are winding up naked--that is to say, stripped of spiritual grace and beauty--and dwelling among the tombs--that is to say, living with the dead, their fellow pleasure-seekers--and unable to find any real joy or meaning in life. People are literally losing their humanity and no longer have any idea of what they themselves were created to be: children of God, destined for holiness and eternal life rather than sin and spiritual death.

Each of us needs to recalibrate our own moral compass by the life and teachings of the Church, and learn to recognize and reject the demonic influences pervading the popular culture of today. Unlike the Holy Spirit, Who is meek, and Who graciously invites our cooperation with God to grow in holiness, the demons are cruel, and forcefully impose their will upon us, assaulting us with evil suggestions from our youth up, crafting the destructive values and worldview they want us to hold, and actively forming an atmosphere of godlessness in society that is increasingly hostile to Christian faith and morality.

With all that being true, we might wonder why God permits the demons to exist. Why doesn’t He simply gather them all up now and cast them into the abyss so they can no longer torment us? Our Holy Fathers have given us a very clear answer to this question: God allows the demons to exist for our salvation.

Let’s be honest: we are a fallen and broken people who don’t come to our Heavenly Father quite as often or quite as fervently as we should. We may keep the fasts, come to the services, and do all the things the Church tells us to do, but at the same time can lose sight of the fact that the Christian life is not about meeting God’s expectations, but about meeting God! The purpose of our prayers and everything else the Holy Spirit enables us to do is that we might come into the knowledge of God and be united with Him in everlasting communion. As strange as it seems, God can even use the evil demons to accomplish this goal in our lives. As they are allowed to torment us and accuse us and throw their many temptations in our path, the sorrows they cause can actually drive us, finally and desperately, to turn to God with much greater fervency. The Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos once said that without the devil to tempt us, we would think ourselves to be saints already and would never call upon the Lord to save us. The demons can melt away our complacency, teaching us that all is not well with this world, and help us to at last seek heaven as our only true and abiding home. So yes, even the demons have a purpose in God’s good and benevolent plan.

It is not our job to defeat the demons; Christ has already accomplished this for us. Our job is to resist them, to break free from their influence, and to flee unto God for salvation. God’s desire is to clothe us in His grace, and restore us to our right mind and full humanity, as He did for the demoniac in today’s gospel lesson. The choice for this is ours to make daily. I pray that we will always make it wisely.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Golden Beginning to Love

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

In today’s gospel lesson (Luke 6:31-36) our Lord declared “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise”. We are perhaps more familiar with the wording, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. As far as rules of conduct go, this one is golden. It gives us a shining yardstick for measuring our thoughts and actions toward others in such a way that can help lead toward the formation of a more perfect love within us.

The ancient rabbis had a similar rule, only theirs was expressed in the negative. They taught, “whatever you don’t want men to do to you, do not do to them”. This was a very good rule, but Christ turned it around and made it into something far better. Not only should we not do to men the bad things we would not want done to us, but we should now proactively do for men the good things we might wish them to do for us.

As much improved as Christ’s version of this “golden rule” is, we might note that it still does not quite embody the absolute perfection of love. In fact, it is rather a large step down from that. The one who has become perfected in love has become like God in that his every thought and action toward others is formed by love and becomes an expression of love, just as we see in God Himself. Such a one needs no outer rule of any sort to guide him, for the perfect rule of love already guides his heart in all things, and is manifested in all his words and deeds.

But what about us? I would dare say that most of us are not perfected in love just yet. Probably too much of the time we are still guided by our fallen and perverse self-love, and think and act toward others out of selfish instincts rather than out of the utter selflessness that is the essence of God’s love. How miserably and regrettably we can act toward others every day of our lives! And yet, it is to such imperfect and often unloving people as ourselves that our Lord has mercifully offered this little rule to guide us toward something much higher.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Doesn’t the very wording suggest that even this greatly improved rule is still meant for people who are basically rooted in selfishness? In our current state, we might not even know how to love, but each and every one of us certainly does know how we like to be treated by others! The golden rule seemingly capitalizes on this terrible “me first” orientation, teaching us to turn it around and use it to begin putting others first in our lives.

We might say that the golden rule represents a divine recognition of our brokenness and a remarkable concession to our weakness, coming all the way down to our level and showing us great mercy, while at the same time offering us a tangible path that can lead us ever upward toward the higher levels of healing and perfection and love.

If our Lord had merely said to us, “Love everybody perfectly,” our boat would be sunk before we left the dock. There’s no question that He wants us to become perfect in love, but how do we grow from being what we are to what we need to become? This is how. In the midst of coming to church, saying your prayers, going to confession to correct yourself, tithing, and fasting, and all else that you are called to do, add this little rule and begin treating others as you would wish to be treated. Start taking little, baby steps toward a better way. It is not perfect; it is not even quite love, really. But it is infinitely better than treating people selfishly as we often do. It may even represent the very best that we can do right now in our present condition. If we will start with this, God will help us, and will even begin forming His love within us. God gives His gifts to those who demonstrate that they want them. If we want love, we must press toward that love in our lives in any way that we can.

In the ’60’s there was a pop song that declared, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love; that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Well love is fine, but just imagine how much better our world would be if everyone in it did nothing more than to simply follow the golden rule of treating others as they themselves would be treated. Maybe that wouldn’t be perfect “love, sweet love” but it would still bring an amazing transformation to this world of ours, perhaps making love a much greater possibility.

Imagine nations no longer exploiting one another or governments their own people. Imagine Big Business with a genuine social conscious, or world religions that didn’t wage “holy wars” against one another. It is almost inconceivable to us how great the results from these changes could be. Perhaps we should simplify that dream a bit and merely imagine what it might be like if ordinary people began treating one another with the kindness they would like to receive. What if everyone worked in their communities or at their jobs with a sincere desire to promote the greatest good for all? No one would ever have to go hungry or live in gang and drug infested ghettos or hate their jobs! What if people drove on our roads and freeways with regard for others? We would have no further need of horns or middle fingers! What if men and women no longer dehumanized and exploited one another for personal or sexual gratification, but learned to treat each other with dignity? Priests would be working full time performing marriages and baptisms, and divorce attorneys and abortion doctors would have to seek new employment!

Let’s narrow it down even more. What if all of us in this parish truly looked out for one another, caring for one another's needs and the needs of everyone who walked through our doors? No person would ever go neglected and each of us would have rich purpose and a sense of genuine ministry in our lives! So often people feel as if their lives have no meaning, but that is because they are so wrapped up in themselves that they fail to see that service to others is the very thing that gives our lives purpose. What if we decided to stop judging, or gossiping, or focusing on other's imperfections simply because we have enough of our own? Perhaps we would finally be free to find the beauty in others and begin to beautify our own souls as well! What if we all supported our parish and its ministry with prayers and financial offerings, with punctual attendance, and with a cheerful pitching in to help with all our activities? We might find faith and an understanding that it is truly more blessed to give than to receive! What if we made all of our personal or family decisions with the needs of our parish community in mind? We would always choose that which is godly and morally pure, that which would build up our community and make it stronger, and we would never act as selfish “individuals” whose only goal in life is to please themselves.

As you can see, these things might not be perfect Christian love, but they certainly have the potential to advance us far beyond the personal hell of self-absorption. The more we care for ourselves alone, the more abstract and distant Christianity seems and the love of God becomes. We cannot love Christ if we do not love one another. Yet we often have so very little love for one another compared to the love we have for ourselves. Thus the good Christ gently intrudes into our lives with the suggestion that we begin to treat one another at least as well as we ourselves would like to be treated. It’s a remarkable thought, yet one that’s at least within our meager capabilities even now. It’s like love with training wheels, for those of us who need a little help. What a great mercy God has shown us! Let us take it, act on it, and follow the path toward a more perfect love.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.