Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (2017)

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (2017) - Holy Cross Monastery

The Healing of the Gadarene Demoniac

Today, in the Gospel, we heard of a case of demonic possession. I’m not sure about anyone else here, but I have only once been exposed to something like this. A little over a year ago, I had the blessing to visit Pochaev Lavra in Ukraine with one of our brothers. One of its churches is dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity. When we stepped inside, we heard people crying out at various times during the service. Some were gurgling and coughing. We realized that many there were possessed or suffering from mental illness—some accompanied by their long-suffering loved ones beside them.

I remember one lady specifically who was standing in front of us—she was either afflicted with a demon or mental illness; all I know is that she was very reverent and attentive in prayer during the service. However, every so often she would place her hands on her poor head and shake it from side to side—it looked to me that she was fighting with evil thoughts or voices inside her head. But she did not give up! She shook her head, made her cross, and continued to stand in attentive and deep prayer. Then she would repeat this for the whole service.

I still imagine to myself what the daily life of this woman could be like, and I marvel at her faith and devotion and perseverance. I also wonder about all of those who were present at that service. A moleben and akathist served in honor of the Pochaev Icon takes place there everyday; and I believe it is specifically served for the possessed and mentally ill. Those people are living martyrs! That church was so soaked in prayer, and the torment of those people was so tangible that it seemed to burn up the very marrow of my bones with compassion and pity, and I am not easily moved.

Hollywood has had a terrible effect on the way people view the possessed. They present the case of such a person as one who is completely damned and forsaken by God. This is not the Orthodox teaching; which, I think, is best summed up by the case of St. Sebastian of Optina and Karaganda, who had the gift from God of casting out demons, yet sometimes would not do so. He was enlightened by God, and knew that some people’s salvation was only to be found if they struggled with the affliction of possession for the rest of their life. He comforted them with these words: “Bear this cross of demonic possession in this life, and you will fly straight through all the toll-houses into heaven!”

Most of the world does not have to bear such a cross for their salvation. But some do. Even so, we all have to bear something difficult—physical or emotional pain, a difficult person, a bad work environment, mental illness, sickness, a departed loved one, and many other things. We have all been born into and formed within this fallen world.

Now, we all find ourselves here, in this church, waiting upon the mercy of God, seeking to draw closer to Him in our hearts, awaiting Holy Communion which knits us together by grace, transforming us all together more and more into the Body of Christ. Some are here for the first time, some have visited a few times, some of us live here all the time—but all of us are one in Christ through the communion we share in the Orthodox Church, the One Body of Christ.

Our Faith transcends homeland, nationality, family relations, social status, education or lack thereof, human strengths and weaknesses. We are all one in Christ, Who makes us one in Himself together with His Father and the Holy Spirit. This is a great thing!

We recognize each other as living members, even if we have not met once in this life. Even in countries half way across the world—when we meet Orthodox brothers and sisters—we recognize them. We are part of this One Church; the word Church—as it is used in the New Testament—means: a gathering together of those who are called. We have all been called into the Church who has many members all over the world.

Faithful Orthodox Christians are in the minority these days! Our battle against this godless age is growing greater and greater every day. Those of us who live our daily lives in the world—whether at schools or jobs—are more than aware of this. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, though; it is against invisible spirits: demons who never sleep and never eat, who are constantly trying to make mankind devour one another.

Our struggle is not political, national or academic; our struggle is spiritual. Many terrible things are happening these days—riots, shootings, suicides, self-mutilation, drug-overdoses, homosexual marriage, transgender confusion, social divisions, much natural disorder; and many other dark, strange and utterly demonic things in unseen places: worshippers of demons and satanic cults, some of whom sleeplessly invoke the demons against mankind more than we invoke the name of God over it for its peace and well-being.

It seems that most of the world has gone mad; what is called normal by it is called demonic possession by us. Nation is striving against nation. Our country is being run like a wicked circus, and through the media it is being broadcasted to the whole world as if it were some game show. Catching glimpses of it on TVs while I have errands in town, it is simply unbelievable to see the undignified manner of supposed “dignitaries”; it doesn’t seem real.

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov’s words apply even more to our own day than when he cried them out in his own day, when revolution and communism were coming upon Russia—he cried out: “In view of the prevailing, all-encompassing movement of universal apostasy, let your hand not rise in the attempt to stop its elemental flow and progression. It is allowed by God because of human sinfulness to overshadow Christendom and is far beyond our meager attempts to do something about it. Instead, ‘acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved!’”

Is he a defeatist? Is he lazy? By the world’s standards—yes; in truth—absolutely not! When he says not to do something about it, he is speaking about human action unaided by God. He does not mean to stand still and to remain silent when others are spewing out godless nonsense right before our face; but he is calling us to a deeper struggle, and to turn most of our energy, and desire to transform the world around us, towards our own heart—exhorting us to do as the great St. Seraphim said.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich, the Serbian Chrysostom, shows how our own personal life affects the rest of the world in a way which we cannot understand; he says:

Water is finer than earth; fire is finer that water; air is finer than fire; electricity is finer than air. Nevertheless, air and electricity are dense elements in comparison to the spiritual world.

Electricity is very fine, but the voice is finer than electricity; the thought finer than the voice; the spirit finer than thought.

Air is fine and it carries the voice over a great distance. Electricity is fine and it carries light over a great distance. Nevertheless, how much more so is every deed, word and thought of yours carried to all the ends of the spiritual world.

Oh, how dreadful it is to commit sinful deeds and to speak sinful words, and to think insane thoughts! To what immeasurable distances are waves amassed from this on the spiritual sea! But do not peer into the details of the unknown world.

The main thing is that you know and measure how all your deeds, words and thoughts unavoidably create an impression on all four sides: on God and the spiritual world; on nature; on men; and on your soul. If you train yourself in this knowledge, you will attain a high level of saving vigilance.

Such are the words of a great Saint who understood the spiritual life. His word reveals also how all the Saints understood these things. This is how they became so spiritually sensitive, so conscious. They knew that we are in a constant state of struggle in this world—a battle of life and death! Spiritual warfare!

They did not approach the spiritual life—or anything in life for that matter, no matter how simple or small—in a careless, half-hearted manner. I cannot say the same about myself.

If we look into our own hearts, we may find much insensibility and carelessness, even though our God is everywhere present, and a Consuming Fire of Love—Three Divine Persons of uncreated Love! The Father has manifested Himself through the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; and through Christ, the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the Church; which all of us are members of.

We have been created to be the very temple and body of God Himself; but often we are overrun by passions, sins, old habits, evil thoughts and feelings, becoming dwelling-places of demonic sin.

St. Ignaty speaks about a different type of possession than the one we heard about in today’s Gospel; he speaks about a moral possession—when the demons have a hold on us by some passion, attachment or sin. Maybe it is envy, greed, drunkenness, gluttony, hatred, lust, worldliness, the love of our youth or the pride of old age. All of these have their corresponding demons who teach us evil, nourish it within us, fan the flame of it, and destroy us by it.

We are all broken in some way; some more and some less; we all have our strengths and weakness, our gifts and sins; yet we are not alone in our struggle; we are one man, the Body of Christ.

Seeing the great tragedy of our modern world, our hearts can become overwhelmed; we might give in to the spirit of the times; or maybe we simply do not care, or worse, maybe we judge and gossip about the affairs of this world and its people instead of pouring out fervent, pain-filled tears in prayer for them, that all may be enlightened and saved from the darkness of hell which already cloaks the mind of the ungodly and makes them to rebel against their all-loving Creator and Father.

What is left for us? Holy repentance, honest confession, and the pouring out of our hearts to God, speaking into His ear with sincere prayer, as if speaking to a human—for indeed our God has become a Man, and is forever the God-Man.

See Who it is Whom we serve and worship—He is the God Who created all things out of nothing; the God Who spoke with Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses; the Guide and Father of ancient Israel. This is the God Who became a Man, making a Virgin into a Mother; who spent 30 years in obscurity as a humble carpenter. He is the immortal King of the angels; the only true High Priest, the Creator, Lord and Savior of all, Who was crucified, suffered, buried, rose again and ascended to heaven for our eternal life in Him.

This is the God into Whom we have been baptized; the God Who makes the bread and wine which are set behind me into His Very Self! He knows every heart. No sparrow dies without His knowledge; no blade of grass exists without His providence; no tiny ant in a forest where no human foot has ever trod is unknown by Him—His care is over all, His love is incomprehensible; yet His desire is even greater for us to become more and more conscious of Him, alive in Him, and united with Him! This is His greatest desire!

His prophet cries out: “Rend your heats and not your garments!” And His psalmist says: “Come, let us fall down and weep before Him Who created us!” That is, let us cast ourselves down in body and soul, kneeling before Him with broken hearts, ever begging Him to overfill them with His fiery love, granting us contrition over our unworthiness before His incomprehensible holiness and majesty. This love will overfill us and pour out invisibly, but powerfully, upon the whole world. This should be our one prayer.

It doesn’t matter if we are a Saint or a sinner, we can never be too full of God, we can never be content with where we are at—for our God is an infinite Abyss of wonders and goodness; no height can we attain where we can say: “I’m okay, I’m fine where I am at.”

Therefore, let us strive to appreciate the great gift of God—Who transforms bread and wine into Himself, feeding us with It as His little children, and transforming us thereby into His very Body!

Let us pray that this knowledge will become ever more deeply impressed upon us, that we may worship with one mouth, mind and heart our all-glorious Savior Jesus Christ, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit. For only by this unity will Christ be manifested to the world; and the true God known. Amen.

1 comment

  • Mary Bernardelli

    Such a rich passage.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.