Harrowing Of Hell
February 4, 2024

Freedom, Love… and Demons?

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Good morning. Over the last month or so I’ve been preaching about big visionary things, sweeping things, that call to mind our place in the evolutionary progression of Christianity. I spoke about the 500-year cycle, where now we find ourselves at the point of breaking out of the encasement around institutional religion, liberated to see what has always been there in a brand-new way; understanding the immutable, unchangeable, ever-present God revealed in each human soul and expressed in this space that exists between all things… like water dancing as a river between rocks, God is that to all the world, to all creation, dancing in the space that exists between all things, from the smallest lepton to the largest black hole. And the name given to this living water, this binding agent, in Greek is agape and in English is love.

As I said last week coming to understand God in a new way provokes a little bit of tumult and anxiety, even as it generates authentic spiritual renewal. The name we have attached to this renewal at Epiphany is Relata… which is a spiritual exercise of community theology, where people gather around tables to have conversations about the paradoxes of life, and the notion of God.

Relata is a community conversation based on the belief that everybody has something relevant to say about God. You’ll hear a lot more about this, and I hope you become as excited about it as I am. Relata is going to need the energy and attention of a capital campaign only oriented toward the care and connection of human souls. For it is the soul that makes us human together.

In a world divided understanding what is at the core of every single human being, and then revealing it in relationship, is actually what is going to bring healing and wholeness and health to our world. Relata will provide a safe space to sit with all sorts of people, share a meal, and talk about the core things that make us human together. To do this is our calling as a parish perched on the shores of the Salish sea. It is how we will help pierce the casing of stagnant Christianity, liberating us to understand the God that has always been there… in a new way.

What I’d like to do today is look closely at our pericope from the Gospel of Mark and wonder with you how this text can be liberated from the shackles of old thinking.

There are three seams we are going to dig into: The return to health of Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law. The casting out of demons. And Jesus’ movement between the villages in Galilee. For the most part, if you’ve been around church for a little bit, these are familiar Gospel vignettes; healing stories, demon stories, and Jesus on the move.

My intention today is to give you a framework for understanding these three types of vignettes so, when we come across them in the Bible they are more revelatory than they are confusing. The keyword will be, in each case, FREEDOM. Why? Because there is no love if there is no freedom, and these stories are all about the love of God.

We begin with the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She was sick. Jesus made her well. Old thinking might provoke us to wonder about Jesus’ ability to heal. Is it miraculous? Could he manipulate viruses and cast them out of a body? Or maybe our mind would wander toward the prejudice of patriarchy, meant to model how women should push through their illness to serve men? I might suggest both these interpretations through the material or the cultural lenses give us no insight into the love of God.

My understanding is that these healing vignettes are really about inclusion. Here’s why. In the days of Jesus, if one was poor, widowed, incapacitated, or sick it was believed that the person was out of favor with God; that they had done something to offend God. By healing someone Jesus returns them to communal life. Jesus makes the point that they too are loved by God. So, these healing stories are not about Jesus’ capacity to manipulate human physiology or his preference of a particular cultural hierarchy, they are stories that reveal the absolute inclusive nature of God.

But here is the aha moment taught us by Simon Peter’s mother-in-law: once she is liberated, freed, from isolation, represented by her illness, she seeks to serve her community, because she knows that freedom isn’t about autonomy; liberation isn’t about doing your own thing; freedom is about connectivity with community. Which is why Desmond Tutu writes: “My humanity is inextricably linked to your humanity.” Remember the word?  Umbutu.

Freedom obligates us to serve, because freedom enables us to know the love of God, and the best way to acknowledge the love of God is by serving a neighbor. Which is a message, incidentally, I hope you express generously tonight when you come to the Have a Heart fundraiser. And I hope you come, and if you can’t come, I hope you make a generous financial contribution. This is a significant way to honor the reality that our humanity is inextricably linked to the humanity of all people in this city and around the world.

Which brings us to vignette #2: the casting out of demons. And what this may make us wonder, if we’re thinking in the old way, is what are demons? Were there demons back then? Are there demons now? Or were demons just another way of understanding mental illness? We want to tack this down and get “the answer” here. And if we can’t, demons then (maybe) give us an excuse to throw out all the Jesus stories. Some people do that.

A new understanding of demons can be found in the dynamic tension provoked by the role and purpose of demons as an ideal that existed in the cultural context of Middle East culture 2000 years ago. Demons were supposed to be part of the pantheon of the eternal hosts within the created order, which also included angels and humans.

Angels were eternal beings that served God. It was their bounden duty to do what God said, when God said, the way God wanted it said. They were the messengers of God.

Demons, on the other hand, were eternal beings that did not serve God. They had freedom to do what they want, when they want, the way they wanted to, with one exception: they could not deny the presence of God, nor rewrite God’s plan.

Humans were made in the image and likeness of God. Imago Dei. They are eternal beings, YET veiled from the full realization of their eternal status by the curtain of mortality. Their eternal status can only be accessed by faith.

What makes humans unique within the pantheon of eternal beings is their freedom to accept or deny the presence of God. And it is this unique freedom that also makes them, us, full recipients and participants in the love of God. Freedom and love are inextricable and are possessed not by angels, and not by demons, but only by Imago Dei.

And so, when Jesus is in the presence of demons they must, by their nature, acknowledge him as the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. And because the witness of the demons could potentially put a thumb on the scale unduly swaying humans’ opinions about Jesus, he tells them to keep quiet. And so, again, we see how the presence of demons in the story is (at the very least) a literary device that expresses Jesus’ divine desire to maintain human choice.

Finally, we find Jesus by himself in prayer… but not for long. Soon the crowd catches up with him. This should come as no surprise to us. Souls, after all, can’t resist their source like a river seeking the sea.

And Jesus’ response… to move on. The old paradigm would suggest he’s moving on to share his message with more people. But we know, as we seek to understand God in a new way, that this vignette is really about freedom, because we know it is really about love. Were Jesus to stay in one place the gathering of people around him would have been enormous: the feeding of the 5000 on steroids.  And this would have triggered a response from powerful people deluded enough to think they are actually in control.

We see this in the Jesus stories, particularly, in the Gospel of Luke, when Herod Agrippa is pursuing Jesus throughout Galilee. Jesus calls him “that fox” (Luke 13:32),  and avoids him until they meet, at a time chosen by Jesus, during Passover. Had they met earlier, Jesus would have been forced to either go with Herod, before his time had yet come, or repel Herod which would have been to deny him his freedom… and since Jesus is God, and God is love, then he was always on the move.

And so, as with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and the role of demons, we see the moving about of Jesus in a new way, a way that reveals freedom, given in the hope that it will inspire people to seek the love of God.

These vignettes are about freedom, freedom, freedom, which means they are stories about love, love, love. It is a love that has always been there, revealed in a new way, enabling us to be part of the Jesus community that shatters the encrusted casing around stagnant Christianity.

Our work is to share this love; person, to person, to person, soul, to soul, to soul. It is our providence, it is our duty, it is our calling…And it is as simple as inviting someone to church, or gathering around a table where we talk about the paradoxes of life and the notion of God.

And so, I’ll leave you with a question to ponder. I’ll ask it in a couple of ways:       

How would Christianity be viewed by your friends and neighbors and colleagues and relatives if they understood it as we teach it here at Epiphany?

How would the world be different if all people understood Christianity as you do? If all churches who claimed to be Christians were like your church would the world be worse or would the world be better?

And what might your role be in this new way of understanding the God that has always been there?