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1 Corinthians 15.1-11 (Sunday)
Galatians 6.11-18 (Sunday Before Elevation)
Matthew 19.16 – 26 (Sunday)
John 3.13-17 (Sunday Before Elevation)
Our reading from St Mark on Wednesday this week caught my attention. The LORD casts out an unclean spirit and the people say to one another in fear and amazement: ‘What is this new doctrine? With power He commands the unclean spirits and they obey Him!’
There are those who believe the Christian Faith is just a Jewish version of ancient religious and mythological themes found in every religion. Jesus is but one face of ‘the hero with a thousand faces,’ the Gospel is but one of many ‘masks of God’.
And yet St Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles that the philosophers on Mars Hill, when they heard St Paul preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, said, ‘This babbler seems to be preaching a new doctrine of strange gods because he is preaching a Jesus risen from the dead!’ (Acs 17.18-19)
There are gods (and goddesses) who die and rise again in virtually all the other religions of the world. They are emblems of nature dying in the Winter and rising to life again in the Spring. The philosophers on Mars Hill knew those gods and goddesses very well, and even worshipped them in one form or another. So why did they see Jesus as a strange god, and the resurrection a new doctrine!
St Mark gives the reason and this is what struck me when I read St Mark’s Gospel last Wednesday. What makes the Gospel of the Christian Faith the only true Faith is that it is a doctrine of power. The LORD Jesus Christ alone has power over the unclean spirits to the point that He alone has destroyed death by His death and given life to those in the tombs. According to the witness of both the Jews in the synagogues of Palestine, and the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill, it is this power over the unclean spirits and death that makes the doctrine of the Christian Faith new and strange!
The unclean spirits are servants of the power of this world working now in the children of disobedience (Eph 2.2). They are the spirits of the antichrist who are even now in the world (1 Jn 2.18). They are devils, dividers. Even if you believe the devil is a religious fantasy, unless you’re altogether blind and dead in your soul, you know from your own experience that there is a force in the world that works in you to produce constant anger and malice, fear and depression that threatens to break your soul from the weight of despair and dark thoughts of suicide.
This is the ruler of this age, the powers and spirits of the air, the devils working in you. Their work is to divide and destroy. They produce strife and enmity, contention, anger and hatred in order to separate lovers, families, nations, and finally to divide the soul from the body leaving you for dead. And to walk in these spirits of the world is to walk in the way of death and sin. Every one of us suffers from what St Macarius (4th cent.) calls an ‘incurable wound’ inflicted on us by these dark powers and spirits. Beneath the veneer of fine appearances, people are broken.
Anger, fear, hatred, depression, anxiety, despair, you name it; all of these are the fingers of death reaching into our soul and chilling our spirits to the bone. They are the foreshadowing of the final work of the devils working in us: death, when our soul is separated from the body. What religious doctrine or philosophical teaching, what cultic ritual or political ideology is able to heal death? The best these doctrines and ideologies can do is to anesthetize our souls with the delusional hope of some kind of reincarnation, which is not a conquering of death at all but the extension of it to eternity; or an absorption into the ‘One’, which is but a doctrine that subtly, deceptively, kills love.
All of these, the religions, the philosophies, the political ideologies, the cultic myths, are man’s own attempt to heal himself, as though he were a god. But none of them is able to save us from death or from the sickening cold chill that fills our soul when we walk in them (Eph 2.1).
So what was this young man in our Gospel this morning doing when he turned away from the LORD to hold on to his riches? What are any of us doing when we choose not to follow the LORD Jesus Christ? Are we not choosing to believe the delusional hope that our riches have the power to save us from death and give us eternal life? But what is this if it isn’t to live in this life as though we were gods? And is not this delusion of being as though we were gods the ‘riches’ that we believe will save us from death?
The preaching of St Paul was strange because he preached a Man who had risen from the dead, destroying death by His death and giving life to those in the tombs. I.e., the salvation that Jesus Christ works in the midst of the earth, in the dust of death (Ps 22.15) that we have become, is no re-incarnation, and no absorption back into a primal One. It is the LORD gathering all the broken pieces and restoring them to wholeness, and breathing His Life-giving Spirit into our dry bones and uniting our broken pieces to His own Body and Spirit in which He has destroyed death by His death, in which He who knew no sin made Himself to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him, that we might become partakers of His own divine nature in life and wholeness.
We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot heal ourselves of the ‘incurable’ wound inflicted on us by our sins and trespasses. We cannot raise ourselves to life from the grave. All of this is of the salvation the LORD has accomplished on His Cross; and it is all impossible for us. But this we can do if we desire to be saved from death and its soul-chilling fingers; we can begin working to sell all our riches, that is, our vain perception of ourselves as though we were gods; and we can begin working to give all our goods, all that we are and have, to the poor, that is, to the LORD Jesus Christ who emptied Himself and became poor for us, even to the point of death on the cross, that He might become a partaker of us in our poverty, in our death. For if we give our riches to Christ and lose our life for His sake not just visibly in the Font, but invisibly in our soul, we unite our brokenness and our death to Him. And united to Him in His death, we become united to Him in His Resurrection.
It is this strange Jesus working in us, whom the world has not seen in any other ‘hero’ or in any other god, it is this strange Jesus who has the power to cast out the ruler of the power of the air that is working the disobedience of death in us. But only if we deny ourselves and seek to lose the riches of our self-deification and follow Him all the way into the tomb of our heart to put to death our self-deification, our religious, philosophical, political efforts to save ourselves and all those around us as though we were gods. That means becoming disciples, students, of Christ; and that means becoming students, disciples of the Church, for the Church is the Body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all. That means shaping our minds in the biblical vision of the Church—so we must study the Bible in the Spirit of the Church, not in the spirit of the wisdom of our own opinions. We must be shaping our souls and minds in the prayers of the Church. Our world-view must be acquired from the lives of the saints, the teachings of the holy fathers. And above all, we must be bringing ourselves to the LORD by coming to and participating in—through listening, through praying, through receiving the Holy Sacraments—the mystery of this strange Jesus, the God-Man who is able to do what no other religion or philosophy or political ideology can do, who is able to do what is impossible to us: to save us, to cast out all the unclean spirits from us, to raise us from death to life, to make us temples of God, to make us mothers of God, to makes us His Sabbath Rest in whom He rests, and to fill us with His Glory. This, to follow the LORD as His disciples, is what we are doing when we take up our cross this Tuesday. Amen!