A sermon for Epiphany 5 B, 2012
“And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
I was intrigued this week by the presence—again—of demons in Mark’s Gospel. Last week’s gospel also was an encounter with a demon (actually, Mark didn’t use the word “demon” in that passage, but rather a phrase translated “unclean spirit” which in the Greek was literally a “spirit without catharsis.”) The idea that Jesus is the one who can cast out demons must have been very important to Mark, because Jesus is constantly encountering, silencing, and casting out demons—and this is replicated in Matthew and Luke.
I am comfortable with thinking of Jesus as a healer (which he also is today, which is why were are offering anointing for healing later in the service). I am comfortable thinking of Jesus as a teacher, and I'm even mostly comfortable with thiking of him as a sacrificial lamb—but I am a lot more squeamish with thinking of Jesus as an exorcist, even though that is one of his fundamental roles in the Synoptic gospels. The idea of demons is something that in the 21st Century Church we shy away from and try to keep at a distance, not so in our popular culture, where movies and TV shows about vampires, werewolves, zombies and even people possessed by demons are hugely popular.
So what is a demon? I come at that question with a general assumption that evil exists. There is too much evil in the world—in violence, in greed, in blindness, and in demonization of others for me to believe that there is not some clash of good and evil, of light and darkness. And some of that is personalized in us, and yet, at some level not of us. The experience of demon possession comes out of the sense that we are sometimes controlled by someone or something else; and if when we are called beyond ourselves in good ways and attribute it to the Holy Spirit, perhaps attributing being called beyond ourselves in bad ways might be attributable to an evil spirit.
There are two places where the Episcopal church carries that assumption of the reality of demons into the 21st Century; and one of them should be very familiar to all of you, because we just did it two weeks ago right here. Do you remember? Our baptismal rite actually still contains the remnants of an exorcism; before I ask the person being baptized, or the parents of a baby being baptized, if they believe in Jesus, I ask three questions about evil—they renounce evil and Satan and the powers of wickedness three times before they affirm their faith in Christ three times. Historically, the evil spirits had to be exorcised and removed before the newly pure person could be baptized and made a Christian.
The other place demons continue to be recognized in the Episcopal Church is much less public. The Book of Occasional Services contains the following:
Concerning Exorcism: The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of his messiahship. Very early in the life of the Church the development and exercise of such rites were reserved to the bishop, at whose discretion they might be delegated to selected presbyters and others deemed competent. In accordance with this established tradition, those who find themselves in need of such a ministry should make the fact known to the bishop through their parish priest, in order that the bishop may determine whether exorcism is needed, who is to perform the rite, and what prayers or other formularies are to be used.
Now, Andy Dietsche, our Bishop Coadjutor Elect, has just been to “baby bishops” school, where newly consecrated and soon-to-be-consecrated bishops learn the ropes of their office; I wonder how much time they spent on what to do as a bishop when you’re called upon to authorize an exorcism. I only know one Episcopal priest who, to my knowledge, has ever actually performed an exorcism, and he refuses to talk about it; so it’s certainly not a frequently used practice. But the very fact that it exists points towards a faith in demons and evil being rather more corporeal than we might assume if we were to just write off demon possession as a first century way to explain mental illness and emotional distress. And to be clear: illness, whether physical or mental, and frailty, are not demonic. They are mortal, and there is a difference between mortality and evil.
If we talk today about demons, it’s usually in the context of “giving in to our demons” or something as a way of explaining why we did something we knew was not good: drinking too much, eating too much, reentering old patterns of relationships, giving in to stress or anger or a misguided self-image. Our demons are bad habits. And there’s something to that. It’s like when St. Paul talks about not being able to do the good that he wants to do, and somehow being forced to do the bad that he doesn’t want to do. Demons are those forces that prevent us from doing what we want to do—what we know God wants us to do. They are the evil that lives inside us, along with the good, that is in an eternal battle for control of our lives.
But they are also “ours”—we always refer to “our” demons. So I’m not sure that demons are so separate from ourselves; I don’t like the idea that demons just anything that cause us to be out of control or that prevents us from being our best selves (or the selves we imagine we are). Demons cannot just be an excuse for our imperfections.
If there were some way for Jesus to cast out the evil that is inside of me, I would show up at Peter’s mother-in-law’s doorstep to get myself cured. But as I experience evil inside myself, it is of my own making; it is mine. It’s not something outside of myself that I can say doesn’t belong to me. I wish it didn’t—I wish I could give it away. But when it comes down to it, and I sin or commit an act that is evil in some way, the devil didn’t make me do it. The demon didn’t make me do it. I did. So to me, my demons are, in the words of our collect this morning, “the bondage of our sins.” And Christ is the one who casts those sins out—who washes them away, purifies us, and sets us free from being controlled by them. In that sense, Jesus is the one who exorcises me—but not of my demons, rather of the entirety of my sin, but offering eternal life and forgiveness.
So if someone asked me, “Do you believe in demons?” I’d have to respond, “Well, that depends upon what you mean by demons…” If you mean a personal spirit that belongs to me, not really. But I do believe in the demonic. Because somehow, sometimes, the evil that is inside of me, speaks to the evil that is inside of you, and the evil in the next person and on and on until somehow the evil generated is more than the sum of its parts—and THAT, to me, is the demonic—because it is in that sort of group evil that we demonize others. That we deny the goodness in other human beings, emphasize their faults, and lose sight of our own frailty. That is demonic.
As I said at the beginning, there are lots of incidents of casting out demons in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But there are no incidents of casting out of demons in the Gospel of John. In fact, the only person accused of being a demon in John is Jesus himself, who is repeatedly accused of having a demon or being a demon by his opponents. It is Jesus who is demonized by his opponents—they cannot believe that someone would be able to do the acts of power Jesus is doing if he were not possessed by evil. In the Gospel of John, the Jews demonize Jesus; and then Christians turned that around for centuries and demonized Jews. It has been bad for everyone.
Demonization is real. Evil feeds on evil, and it is those personal demons, that personal sin and weakness, that feeds on demonizing the other, where we no longer recognize our own demons but project them onto someone else. Jesus is the one who stops that circle of demonization. He is the one who said, “Yes, demonize me, and I, who am without sin, will let myself be killed, and you will think you have won. But I will rise. And I will triumph.”
Demons do not have the last word. Life does. Jesus does. But that web of the demonic, that evil feeding on evil and growing ever stronger in people, whether here or there, whether us or them, whether close to home or far away. that evil needs to be named and cast out. We need to say, collectively, “Be gone. You are not welcome here. In the Name of Christ, you have no power here, and I command you to leave.” Because we have Christ’s power, each one of us who has been baptized, not just me, not just the bishop, every one of us. And nothing can withstand that power, not even our own evil. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.