Monday, September 18, 2006

Leaving satan behind

(Based on yesterday morning's sermon, Mark 8.27-end)

Poor Peter. He’s just declared his belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah – and now Jesus is in his face calling him satan. What has caused this response? What is making Jesus so angry?

A little while back I talked about hell, and it’s worth saying a little about satan, just to fill out the story. How many of you saw Mel Gibson’s “Passion”? There satan is portrayed as shadowy whisperer, and it’s a good representation. The devil has no material existence, no physical power, but there is a reality that comes from listening to the whispers of the world that brings eternal death in its wake

Peter’s offence was Peter’s taking of offence when Jesus describes what will happen to him – that he will be beaten and abused and rejected and finally crucified. Peter is speaking with the values of the world, because he sees the crucifixion as something shameful, and this question of shame is what Jesus goes on to speak of – whoever is ashamed of him, Jesus will be ashamed of them. The whole point is that, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, the cross is folly in the eyes of the world – “has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … for the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.’ The cross is itself a symbol of shame, a shameful death, but with the resurrection it becomes a badge of pride for christians, a sign of the realm of shame that they have left behind.

Jesus links this with the salvation of our souls, through the immortal teaching ‘what does it profit a man…?’ The link being established here is between the world, shame and the devil, and so the challenge put to us by our gospel lesson this morning is whether we accept the verdicts of the world or whether we trust in Christ alone. In Christ Alone.

Jesus describes the devil as the prince of this world, (Jn 12.31) – by this is not meant the lord of creation, the master of the physical world – hardly that, that’s gnosticism – but rather that satan is the lord of social institutions, the social sphere of our lives. The devil deals with social reputation – that is his currency – and if we conform our lives around social respect then we are being paid in the devil’s coin. Social respect is a trap and one of the most common ways in which the devil digs his claws into our lives. It is not that it is wrong as such to be socially approved of as such - it is that if we lose sight of what God approves of, and become distracted by caring about what society thinks of us, then we have fallen into the way of the world, and we are well on our way to losing our souls.

It is very dangerous to occupy a position of social respect; it is particularly dangerous to occupy a position of religious respect. For it is possible to be in a position of very high social respect and yet very far from Jesus, from God and from the kingdom – after all that is exactly the position held by the pharisees and sadducees in Jesus’ time. What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?

Think about what the opposite of social respect is – it is scandal – and if there is a scandal, in part there is gossip associated with it, which is always diabolical – in fact the word often translated as slander is the word diabolos (as James describes) – but scandal is the process which leads to scapegoating and judgement and condemnation – it is because Jesus was a scandal that he was crucified, and the maintenance of a scandal is precisely the way in which the devil works. Instead, Jesus teaches “blessed is the one who takes no offence at me”. We are not to be shocked or offended or scandalised by anything under God – nothing human is foreign to us – for we have been set free from that tyranny of the devil by the scandal of the cross – when the devil led the world in being offended by the incarnation of the truth – and God put the world into its place and overthrew the devil in the resurrection. (Of course, you can use this to interpret certain events of the last 48 hours.)

At the heart of social acceptability is copying – copying what other people think, what other people respect, other people’s points of view – in order to win the devil’s currency, social approval. Well, copying is inevitable, and we as Christians are also called to copying and imitation – but we are called to imitate the one truly human being, Christ, who sets us free from the world and allows us to become fully human, fully ourselves, free from the social pressures which distort who we are and prevent us being the people whom God is calling us to be. And this freedom we receive in Christ is to be applied in our relationship with others – this is why we are told repeatedly and emphatically that we must not judge one another – that the penalty for judging one another is precisely that we ourselves, in judging, are cast into hell itself. For the process of judging and condemning one another is the devil’s dance, it brings destruction in its wake. We are not to deal with the currency of social approval, and that means we are not to deal in the currency of scandal or shame – we are not to be shocked or surprised or offended if our neighbour is revealed as a sinner – most of all we are not to take sides against the sinner, for we are all sinners through and through and any goodness comes entirely as grace, as a gift from the one above.

The traditional understanding of satan is that he is the accuser, that is what the word “satan” actually means. It is best understood as the prosecution in a trial – satan is the lawyer who will put you in the witness box and then trap you and bring out all of your hidden sins, you will be wholly exposed and led out for a shameful parade… but thanks be to God for the holy spirit! For the Holy Spirit is the advocate, the comforter. Strictly speaking the word paraclete means the defence counsel. Satan is the prosecution, accusing us – and the Spirit is the defence counsel, acting for us. The whole point of the cross is that the world’s verdict is made on Christ – and the resurrection shows God’s verdict upon the world. What this means is that the devil can do his worst – he can establish and make public our worst sins – he can bring scandal down upon us and prove to the world that we are worthless and appalling people – but to God none of this is important. We are hidden within the wounds of christ on the cross. It is the Spirit which defends us and acts on our behalf – for we are not redeemed by our own merit, we can never be redeemed by our own merit, but purely through Christ who exposes the devil for the charlatan he is.

I wonder if you have a voice within your minds, which whispers quietly into your ear and makes you feel bad about yourself. The language of this whisper is very distinct – it uses a certain vocabulary very consistently, words like ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘must’ – and it hinges entirely on social approval, that unless we do what we ought to do then people will not think well of us, that we might end up being excluded from the group, and that is very frightening, so you must be afraid and your fear must goad you into action… This is the voice of satan. When you hear this voice, learn to recognise it, and learn to respond to it in precisely the way that Jesus responds to Peter: Get behind me satan!!

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Free from the burden of sin. This is what it means to break bread and wine together: ‘this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins’. When we share the sacrament we leave behind all notions of judging one another, we all come to receive as forgiven sinners. Sin is no longer the dominant reality of our lives. And we are free – free to be ourselves, where our only concern is with our relationship with God: whether we accept his unconditional love into our lives, to heal us and bind up our wounds, to cover over our sin – and it is this which is what allows us to walk with the liberty of the children of God. That is the path of faith – to let the Spirit lead us in the ways of peace and righteousness, and to leave behind the realm of sin and scandal and offence, of judgement and condemnation; to leave satan behind us.

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