24th Sunday after Pentecost
In the Gospel reading for today, we heard how our Lord Jesus Christ and his disciples sailed to the country of the Gadarenes on the opposite shore from Galilee. When our Lord entered into this land, He came upon a man who was demon possessed – who went about naked among the tombs. As soon as our Lord came near, the man possessed by the demons cried out, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!”
This legion of demons possessing the man could not bear the authority and light of our Lord and at His command they were forced to flee into a herd of pigs, which then went crashing headlong off the cliffs and into the water.
Whenever we read the Gospels, we need to read it with attention and we must search our hearts and ask our Lord, ‘what does this mean for me?’ What lessons can we learn from today’s reading?
I think that there are several things to be learned from this Gospel passage including: the reality and nature of the spiritual world, how we should approach the spiritual life, and the great hope and consolation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s speak first about the reality of the spiritual world – a world which we, in our fallen human nature and in our spiritual immaturity and blindness, rarely see or comprehend. St Theophan the Recluse stated that ‘The spiritual life is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world does not penetrate.’ Nevertheless, whether we perceive it or not, that spiritual world does indeed exist – and, not only does it exist… you and I will spend the better part of our existence in that spiritual realm… Our earthly life here is but a blink of an eye in the context of eternity. And yet we pull our hair out over the most trifle preoccupations and concerns – as if this world and our earthly existence were all there is to life. If we believe in the life beyond the grave, wouldn’t it make sense to understand it and to prepare ourselves for that reality in which we will spend, by far, the greater part of our existence? Indeed it does make sense and indeed we should occupy ourselves more fully with such spiritual concerns.
Today’s Gospel also reveals to us that the spiritual realm is a battleground where there is good and evil, where there is the angelic and the demonic. We have to be aware of this… It is all too common for people to naively believe that anything ‘spiritual’ is somehow worthy of our interest and attention. There is a saying that: ‘All that glitters is not gold’. Just because something is ‘spiritual’ does not mean that it is beneficial for us.
In turning our attention to our spiritual life, we must be wise and vigilant and we must also examine what our expectations and motivations are…
What do we expect from God? Is our Orthodox faith an intellectual pursuit – feeding our pride about being correct? Is our faith driven by fear as a sort of ‘fire insurance’ to do everything right to avoid God’s wrath and the fires of hell? Is our faith simply an adornment to make us feel better about ourselves? What exactly is our motivation to begin trying to live an Orthodox life? This is a question we must ask ourselves and must examine with complete honesty.
We hear of three main motivations within the Gospels. I have spoken about these with you before, but I think they are worth repeating…
The first is the fear of God and the fear of punishment. This is a legitimate concern and Christ spends a fair amount of time discussing the consequences of a life lived in selfish pursuits without God, without love for others. This fear of hell fire can be called the motivation of the spiritual child. Just as we teach a small child to not do something by being clear about consequences, so this fear of punishment, this fear of hell is the motivation of the first level of spiritual maturity.
The second level of maturity is motivated by the promise of reward. We may be motivated to stay away from sin, to do the right thing, because we desire that heavenly kingdom promised to us by our Lord. This is also a legitimate motivation discuss often by Christ in the Gospels. I would call this the motivation of the spiritual adolescent… Just as we learn as we grow up to delay our gratifications for a greater good, we can be motivated to do the same in the spiritual life.
The third level and the sign of the fully adult spiritual motivation is based purely on love. When we come to know God and His extreme love and sacrifice for us unworthy ones, we grow more and more in our love for Him. Out of the abundance of our heart we wish never to sin, never to disappoint Him or estrange ourselves from our God Whom we love. This is the beginning of the kingdom of heaven even here within this life!
I wish with all of my heart and pray with every fiber of my being that each and every one of us may know this overwhelming love for God and that this may be our motivation for praying, for fasting, for doing good, for denying ourselves and living in service to others and to our Lord. These things then do not become a burden or an unwelcome duty; they become the natural outpouring of a heart aflame with love for God.
Finally, let us also take consolation and courage from today’s Holy Gospel as we see the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ over the evil one. As soon as our Lord set foot on the shore of Gadarene, the legion of demons possessing the poor man called out that Christ would not torment them. The very presence of the Light of Christ threatened the darkness of the demons. Just as we see in our worldly life, when we shine a light into a darkened room, the darkness is no more – so it is with the Light of the Grace of God, which banishes and eradicates the darkness of the evil one.
It is a great temptation for us to be overcome by fear. The evil one uses fear to eclipse our clear vision of Christ our God and our Hope. We must be careful to not allow these fears and thoughts to dominate our life – thus providing an opening for the evil one to indeed harm us. The demons can rattle their chains for a time, but Jesus Christ is victorious and shall be victorious! We need to make sure that we are living a life of prayer, of struggle against sin and selfishness, and that we are clinging close to God through the grace of His Church and her sacraments. If this is so, then we may embrace the confident words of the Apostle Paul: ‘Yet in all things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
This is the armor of an Orthodox Christian! God is with us! The question we have to ask ourselves is ‘are we making sure that at all times we are with God?’?
Let us take consolation and encouragement in the victory of Christ our God. We may have tribulation and sorrow and all manner of trials in this life, but this doesn’t matter… for Christ has promised us, ‘In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!’ God’s love and mercy are forever victorious for those who love Him and trust in Him.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us draw these lessons from today’s Gospel… understanding the nature and reality of the spiritual life, striving with all of our heart and mind and strength to love God, and placing our whole life and our hope in God and in God alone!