I had a really good friend who taught Jr and Sr High. He was a master teacher and the kids honestly respected him: even the “problem children.” Part of his control of the classroom had to do with his extraordinary sense of humor. He would occasionally remind the kids of the collection of disciplinary power tools he kept in his desk. Outrageous language can be an effective rhetorical devise.
Does anyone really believe that Paul, literally, became “all things to all people.” No. It was a creative way of saying that he would try hard to meet people “halfway.” He would work to see things from the other person’s point of view. Often, we read the Bible as though smiles are not permitted.
Now there is another text in today’s gospel which left me scratching my head. Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. Everyone who knows me knows I have a critical turn of mind.
At our sermon preparation group Wednesday, I asked what folks thought that the demons knew that Jesus did not want them to say? One of our colleagues had a quick and profound answer. I don’t know about Jesus. But the demons know my deepest fallibilities, faults, and vulnerabilities. And use them effectively.
Here is a short course in evil. Our baptismal covenant, that we renewed together a few weeks ago, sets forth 3 aspects of evil: personal preference, social systemic, and satanic spiritual. I do evil for which I am personally and morally responsible. This is evil flowing from my fondness for my own personal privilege, power, and self -centeredness: my own unique individual cussedness.
I participate in evil for which I am not personally and individually responsible, but for which I share responsibility with others. There are systemic powers and principalities that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. These systems privilege us, as a group, and disadvantage the others, as a group. Think white privilege.
There is a third kind of evil for which I am neither personally individually responsible nor do I simply share responsibility with others, but to which I am in bondage. One of our greatest vulnerabilities as human beings is the capacity for self-deception. I can actually lie to myself, about myself, and mystifyingly persuade myself that the lie is true. I do not know how to describe the demonic in precise scientific physical (or metaphysical) terms. But, of the reality of the demonic, I am completely existentially certain.
The heart of Satan resides in this universal human capacity for delusion and self deception. I can make choices to change my personally and socially unethical behavior. But when I have lost myself to the Spiritual Lord of Lies, I have fallen into bondage and I need to be rescued by another power higher than myself. I need to be saved (redeemed) by the one we have learned to call the Holy Spirit of God in Christ through the person of Jesus.
I once was lost and now I am found. And the brutal truth of the spiritual life is that I will loose myself again and will need to be found by grace again.
The people in the community of Christ who especially love us, have a special vocation to tell us the truth about ourselves as they see it. This can be scary, But, these precious relationships are essential to any healthy Christian Spirituality. Perhaps, the next time I may not loose myself quite as badly and may be a little more easily found by grace.
In Jesus’ name, amen.