5th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Understanding Demons

Today we’re confronted with St. Matthew’s account of the Gergesene demoniacs.  I say, “confronted,” because it’s very rare that we even hear anymore that there is such a thing as demonic possession.  This is ironic because there are so many examples in our world today of diabolic violence and murder, of the defaming of the image of God, of blatant disrespect for human life, of cruelty on such a demonicscale, so many otherwise unexplainable acts of violence and murder we see happening here, including, of course, but especially that violence which targets children and the unborn, and the most vulnerable. Mental illness is almost always given as a blanket ‘explanation,’ but is it all mental illness?  Are there no limits to insanity, or is there, in reality, something more sinister at work in the world where such diabolic violence occurs?

St. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6, that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of [c]the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  

Our Lord Jesus Christ calls Satan “the father of lies.”  He is the one who planted the seeds of fratricide in Cain’s heart when he murdered his brother Abel and is still active in our world today, still bent on mankind’s destruction and defacing.  So, it follows that those who give themselves over to such dehumanizing murderous acts, are clearly, from a Christian understanding, demonically possessed or, at the very least, under demonic influence.  

In His own day, our Lord had numerous encounters with the possessed, those indwelt by demons, those whom the demons torment and control, forcing them to do their bidding, destroying themselves and others.  These possessions would eventually lead the one possessed to his or her death, both spiritual and physical.  Today’s Gospel is one such historic account.  

The two men, the Gergesene demoniacs, are possessed by a whole legion of demons who torment them.  We read, that the men are violent, “exceedingly fierce,” so that no one could “pass that way.”  Appropriately, these men live among the tombs because they are truly among the ‘living dead.’  They are enslaved by the demons and their God-given faculties, the beautiful nous (eye of the soul) that God placed in them, having created them in His image and likeness, has been darkened, obscured by the demonic confusion and paralysis that surrounds them.

We don’t know how they came to be possessed. There are certainly many sins and practices in our own day which can give the devil a foothold: drugs, dabbling in the occult, wicca—anything that gives our rational faculties into the hands of a substance or someone else. All of us can come under demonic influence.  But some people who turn away from God actually come to be possessedby the demons.  

Certain sinful practices can also make a foothold for demonic influence as well: pornography certainly, but even video games when played to excess can alter one’s sense of reality and become an entry point for demonic activity, influence, and certainly addiction.  

With regard to demonic possession, we have no reason to believe that it does not continue in our own day; in fact, we can be sure that it does.  The same demons active in Christ’s day, are still active today and will be until the Second Coming of Christ—this we are assured of by our faith and this we observe in the world around us.  This is a reality that today’s Gospel confirms.

Holy Tradition clearly teaches us that Satan and his demons are a spiritual force to be reckoned with, to fight and struggle against.  And while medical science may treat the symptoms of demonic possession or influence—some of which may be mistakenly labeled under the generic title of “mental illness,” it cannot cure that possession or influence with drugs.  The only true healing is that offered through Christ Jesus and the new life found only in Him, the exorcism of the demons, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as well as our continued “Yes” to God’s work in our own lives through active repentance, that is, orientating ourselves again and again toward Christ God and the life that is only in Him and His holy Church.     

Exorcism, you’ll remember, is the first part of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and a necessary precursor to putting on Christ. We expel the demons and their influence from the neophyte (the one to be newly illumined) so that Christ make His abode with him through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Chrismation. This isn’t just some quaint, ancient practice of the Church no longer needed, but a real act of protection for the one fleeing unto Christ for refuge from the evil one.

Instructively, St. Paul concludes Ephesians 6 with this admonition, “…take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness,and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always….” 

Christ came that we may be free of demonic possession, free of demonic control and influence, that we may not be enslaved by them, but may be filled instead with the Holy Spirit.  This freedom is given us by virtue of our choosing life with Him who is the Life of all over the living deaththat Satan and his minions drag those whom they have enslaved by their lies and deceit.  Christ came to equip us by the Holy Spirit to do battle against those spiritual forces of wickedness so that we may overcome our passions and their temptations that wage war against our life, our very communion with God, the Giver of Life.  

As Orthodox Christians, we need not fearthe demons: Remember that as St. John assures us, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (I Jn. 4:4). At the same time, as Orthodox we don’t downplay the reality of the evil we’re fighting against, nor do we stand perplexed when we see evil perpetrated around us in the world: we know its source and cure.

As for the Gergesene demoniacs, Christ cast out those demons and sent them into a herd of swine and they drowned in the sea.  The men went their way, liberated of their demonic enslavement.  They proclaimed throughout the whole city the great things Jesus had done for them. 

We who are called to witness to the Truth and Light of Christ in this culture by virtue of our own baptism into Christ cannot afford to look the other way when we see evil at work.  Instead, we’re called to be courageous in our love for our fellow man and our desire to see everyone freed from the enemy’s grasp and saved by new life in Christ through His holy Church.  This is what it means to truly love.  The more we’re willing to stand for the truth in an uncompromising and loving way, the more we’re willing to bring Christ and the Church to bear more on our own daily lives, the more those around us will have the opportunity to see an alternative to life without God and find freedom in Christ from the ravages of the evil one and his minions.  

This is the good news inherent in today’s Gospel: There’s nothing in this world or of this world that can destroy us, our souls, if we avail ourselves of our life in Christ in His Church, struggling for healing from our passions, actively repenting of our sins, and learning to recognize the dangers of those habits and practices so often accepted or even encouraged in our culture today.  We keep our focus on Christ, who calls us to purity and holiness, to transformation into His likeness—the likeness in which we were created.  This is the journey of deification, that saves us from this world and the prince of this world.  The battle against the forces of evil is real, but remember: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”  

Fr. Robert Miclean

Holy Archangels Orthodox Mission
Sunday, 21 July 2019
Epistle:            Romans 10:1-10
Gospel:            Matt. 8:28-9:1