A Transfiguring Us
A sermon based on Luke 9:28-43
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 7, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a day on the church calendar when the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is traditionally remembered. The story is a sort of preview of Jesus’ glory witnessed atop a mountain by his top followers Peter, James and John. Jesus prays and is transformed – transfigured– with a dazzling brightness. He’s joined by top prophets Moses and Elijah to discuss what the reading calls his “departure,” but it is better translated as “exodus,” an exodus they talk about being achieved in Jerusalem. At the end of this mountain top visit God shows up as a foggy mist and speaks to the disciples saying “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” Then Jesus and the disciples come off the mountain and are met by a large crowd, a sea of people. A dad asks for help for his kid and, as we heard, Jesus’ presence causes a demon to leave the child and then Jesus rebukes that demon.
In a departure from my usual Transfiguration Sunday sermon about what happens up on the mountain, I am going to focus today on the last part of the Lectionary reading, about Jesus coming off the mountain into a sea of people and dealing with the departure, the exodus, of a troubling demon.
Talking about demons and an exorcism may seem a bit odd for progressive pastor in a progressive church. It may even make a number of us wince. There is no need to. Nonetheless I thought I’d lighten the mood a little and put us at ease with some humor, you may thank Charlotte for my putting this pun back in the sermon: Do you know why demons and ghouls? Because “Demons are a ghoul’s best friend!”
And here’s some real life “Demon” humor. When I first got to seminary I heard a number of pastors claiming they have a D. Min. and ordained students talking about “Working on a D. Min.” It was disconcerting to think that so many well trained clergy worried about “demons,” until I learned that “D. Min.” is short for doctorate of ministry . . . D. Min. It’s an inside joke I now smile over.
Most folks in Christianity don’t smiled over the actual word “demon.” It mostly tends to be understood as a scary thing. It is often used and understood as a word for a supernatural minor deity, a dark-angel type of demon. My trust theological dictionary defines a demon as an “evil spirit that works contrary to the divine will.” Demons are often considered Satan, or the devil’s, angels.
My first line of thought on this issue is theological. I ask, if we believe in one God, how can we believe in a lesser god like Satan and lesser god-like sprites such as demons? It makes no sense theologically since Monotheism by definition has no place in it for believing there are any type of lesser, or greater, or equal gods, there’s only one god, God.
My second line of thought is the first line of thought I had before I became a theologian, that is, I turn to God’s gift of science and reason. I ask where is the rational, realistic proof that evidences such demons exist? I have never seen – and do not know a single person– who has ever seen a non-metaphoric demon, that is, a supernatural evil spirit. So, like many in our modern culture, I do not believe in the type of spirits typically associated with the word demon or demons.
I do not believe in supernatural evil spirits or evil spirit possession because theologically and scientifically it does not make sense. Culturally, I am not alone in this regard.
But, with that said, other cultures and other people do believe in evil spirits and evil spirit possession. Jesus’ culture believed in them. First Century Palestine by-and-large thought that evil spirits, demons, caused diseases. They thought that those with diseases were demon-possessed and unclean and so outcast from the community. 1 And ultimately they laid the blame in good part on the diseased person.
Which is another reason why I reject the common notion of demons, because even today the idea of demonic possession tends to lay blame on the afflicted, the victim of the disease is thought to have done something wrong to bring about the infestation of an evil spirit, making themselves unclean. 2 . (We often avoid, look away from, or otherwise outcast diseased people still).
Interestingly “in the first-century mind, there was a connection between demonic possession and colonial oppression” 3. As I understand it, the victim of disease was in a sense blamed for the personal affliction, and Rome was blamed for the demons lurking about. I think of it as akin to some televangelists’ modern notions of what they consider a vengeful god–which to my mind’s eye looks like an evil spirit– who aims disasters at geographic locales because its not governed in accord with the televangelist’s theology, and that the disaster hits the victims there because they did not stop those who disagree with the televangelist; making it the fault of the misgoverning politicians and the people afflicted.
You can imagine that a theology connecting evil spirits to the governing body does not sit well with people in power. Rome in Jesus’ day did not like it at all, it challenged their governance. Since Rome was thought by the culture to be connected to spirits and that exorcizing them challenged the Roman, Rome made it a capital offense to perform exorcisms. 4
Our story today comes from Luke 9. A few verses earlier in Luke 8 there’s a famous story that echos this First Century demon idea I’ve been talking about, setting it up for our story. In Luke 8 Jesus frees a man of demons named after the Roman military unit “Legion.” Jesus casts Legion into a pig herd which runs off a cliff. “Legion,” an imperial sign of power, is mockingly cast into swine that go back to where the Roman Legions come from: the sea. 5. The naturally upsets the Roman dictatorship.
In cultures that believe in spirit possession there are folks who can cast them out, Shamans. By all accounts Jesus did exorcisms and was a Shaman. Exorcizing “legions” of demons is just one more layer of Jesus’ efforts to oppose and protest culture exclusions of others from community. It’s one more way he worked to bring ALL to the counter-community, counter-culture He created. That’s the community symbolized in his open table, the very table we reenact and celebrate this morning.
In the Gospels we have stories of Jesus bringing in the criminal, the loathed and the sinners, forgiving them and curing them of being outcasts. In the same vein Jesus brings in the strangers and the poor and enemies– welcoming and feeding them. He brings in the sick – curing them of being ostracized as “lepers” of one sort or another. And Jesus is also exorcizing whatever demons people thought people had that made them unclean so that the formerly demonized were welcome at his table and in his community.
In story after story after story in the Gospels Jesus cures all manner of outcasts from being outcasts – and teaches his followers to do the same. There’s not a single person Jesus is unwilling to let into his community and embrace and love if they want in. And we are told that even those who do not want in, he loves.
Jesus teaches in what he says and does that “love of others” is paramount. He is the One who calls us to love even the enemy. He is the one who loves everybody and this goes on today experientially. JESUS LOVES YOU AND ME AND EVERYONE ELSE WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED. We are loved. All are loved whether we like it or not.
And we are supposed to aim our moments, our days, our lives–and our church– toward that very same type of extravagant love– exorcizing whatever demons ail outcasts. I often hear all this love everybody stuff is unrealistic, but I refuse to believe Jesus’d give us those tasks if they were unrealistic. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Jesus lived and died making them a reality in his circle, and teaching His followers to spread the circle out. And that God rose Jesus up to make that love a reality in a circle so wide it is intended to include the whole world. And that, that is the Good News.
Our story today shows us how those Good News happenings work. Jesus transfigured on the mountain, comes off the mountain and the first thing he does is transfigure a child who is diseased and considered demonic. Jesus turns the loathed to the loved, the outcast to the welcomed. He does this over and over and over. He did it then. He does it today. Jesus does this for the glory of God. He creates an exodus for outcasts out the demonic ridden Egypts and Deserts of existence bringing everyone no mater what afflicts them into the Promised Land of community and love. It’s there for you. It’s there for me. It’s there for every one.
Providing extravagant love is what Jesus is doing in the Gospel stories. He’s taking action that defeats what defeats lives, being cast out and being looked down. Jesus wants that to be no more. Jesus wants us all to be equally loved and cared for and sets out to do just that in his God soaked ministry.
At that time, in the story, Jesus’ followers have apparently done as Jesus did and taught. The child’s father was unsuccessful in getting the disciples to take the demon away “I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not,” he says. Jesus is pretty angry when he hears that his followers are not able to cast out, to set aside the Roman demon and bring the child into his fold free of whatever evil spirit was thought to haunt him and cause him to be outcast.
Somehow the disciples were unable or unwilling to cleanse the child of cultural uncleanliness–which if we look at the long arch of Jesus teaching and acts means setting aside any, any, anything that might make someone an outcast. We can hear this to mean, that just like today, Jesus’ Followers back then had a propensity to not do as Jesus taught. The unclean were left unclean, the outcast were still outcast, to them. And guess what? Jesus is not happy about it.
He heatedly says to the disciples “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Jesus bears with them to the end, of course, and then upon his remarkable continuing on in experiential existence, THE RESURRECTION, he bears with it still. And Jesus continues to beckons his followers – us– to follow his Way of the open table and community. Jesus’ path of exodus parting the sea of demons in the Egypts and the deserts that keep humans down continues to exist. His Way that causes all the demons that keep anyone from being loved, to part from our lives and the lives of others is open for travel still.
See Transfiguration Sunday is not just about Jesus being transfigured, but all of humanity being transfigured on his Way. On Jesus’ Way we are welcomed – and are to welcome– regardless of whatever ails or haunts or demonizes us or anyone. So leave here this morning knowing that you are loved and are called to love. AND THAT THIS TABLE UP HERE, THIS LORD’S SUPPER IS THE HOPE FOR COMMUNION FOR ALL OF HUMANITY THROUGH LOVE.
1. Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography, p. 84-93
2. Ibid., p 86
3. Ibid. p 89
5. Ibid p. 90
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED