The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Toronto (Riverdale), on Sunday, June 23rd.
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A Sermon about Beautiful Feet.
Luke 8.26-39; Galatians 3.23-29
“Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him (8.39).
I speak to you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the Anglican Church, like many other churches, we baptize infants. This may lead one to the conclusion that it is necessary that we keep having children in order to keep the church alive and growing. This may especially be the case in an aging church. “Where are the young people?” “We need to attract more young families to keep this place going!” These are sentiments not uncommon in our time. Yet, the life of the church is not dependent upon childbirth but upon conversion. Put another way, we have more to do with spiritual (re)generation than we do with natural generation (though we have much to do with natural generation as well). The gospel sheds fresh light on how we might understand families: “And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,” (Lk 8.20-21).
There’s something about the feet of Jesus. Three times in this eighth chapter of Luke alone, people find themselves at Jesus’ feet. Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come and heal his dying daughter. The woman with the issue of blood finds herself there also. You may remember, also, the woman from last week’s gospel reading, down at Jesus’ feet, washing them with her tears, drying them with her hair, anointing and kissing them. And of course, there is the demoniac in our reading from today who twice finds himself at Jesus’ feet. Initially, confronted with the very power that is the presence of Jesus himself, the demoniac hurls himself before Jesus and proclaims at the top of his lungs, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” (8.28). It should not be lost on us, the fact that the demons are the first to recognize Jesus as the Son of God. It is as if they are able to see what is unseen by human eyes. I, on the other hand, typically more readily identify with the disciples. You know, those of little faith. Prior to today’s gospel reading, the disciples are in a boat in the middle of a storm and wouldn’t you know it, Jesus is asleep. They wake him up in a panic: “Master, Master, we are perishing!” Jesus wakes up, yawns perhaps, and calms the storm. “Where is your faith?” he says, turning to the disciples. Indeed, I propose a new slogan for the Anglican Church. Perhaps we can pioneer it here at St. Matthew’s. Picture the front sign: “St. Matthew’s Anglican Church: The Church of Little Faith”. Of course, we know that even a little faith can accomplish much. Perhaps that is you and I? The disciples fear Jesus’ absence as he sleeps in the boat; the demons fear his presence because they, more than we, are able to recognize who threatens them. The demoniac dwelt in the tombs among the dead and was, therefore, able to recognize the one who is life (Hauerwas).
Yet, the confession of the demons is not one of faith. Rather, their confession is that of the dreadful and agonizing cry of a defeated army. Indeed, in every passage this is how the demons respond to Jesus. It is all that they can say, all that their disordered chaos can say, in the presence of Jesus. In fact, it is only in the presence of Jesus that the chaos of this poor man’s disorder is revealed for what it is. Indeed, it is only in the presence of Jesus that the chaos of our disorder is revealed. This is because, as Luke mentioned a little earlier, Jesus goes about “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (8.1), and the good news of the kingdom of God is terribly awful news for the kingdom of darkness. Who is this man, the demoniac, that could not be bound? He is not simply sick and out of his mind. Nor is he simply some sort of representation for the marginalized and oppressed that we keep at our borders, as some have interpreted the story. For Luke, the man is quite frankly a casualty of the cosmic battle between Christ and Satan. Demons are, says the 20th century theologian Karl Barth, “the indefinable concretions of indefinable chaos.” They are the, “true enemies of God and His kingdom.” In the gospels, it is the property of demons to take possession of a person, to estrange him from himself, to control her, and to disturb and destroy her both in body and soul. And, to do this in a particular context, in the service of a whole kingdom of disturbance and destruction (Barth). This abyss of darkness is in contention with the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed and embodied. Thus, Jesus’ exorcisms, like this one in Luke, characterize the trend or direction of his whole person and work. Like his raising of folks from the dead, Jesus’ exorcisms reveal the total and absolutely victorious clash of the kingdom of God with the opposing realm of darkness. Indeed, Jesus invades the darkness, that sphere of power which was introduced into the cosmos by the sin and guilt of human creatures, penetrating to its poisonous source. Like the stronger man who comes upon the strong (11.14-23), Jesus takes up the battle for humans, the distinctive battle of the kingdom of God, and plunders the house of the strong man, dividing the spoils, forgiving sins, comforting the sad and healing the sick. And so, when the demons shout out what we hear is that the darkness finds itself threatened and in danger, and recognizes that this is the case. The darkness which has become accustomed to victory and the assertion of its dominion, has met its master (Barth).
Now, contrast this with the second time the demoniac, confronted with the goodness of Christ, finds himself at Jesus’ feet, freed from the power of the devil, clothed (he had been naked), and in his right mind (8.35). Sitting at Jesus’ feet, his posture suggests that he was calmly being taught in the fashion of a disciple. What a drastic change for “the man from whom the demons had gone,” (8.35). This is not just a remarkable healing, this is salvation. The salvation which God promised long ago, which has appeared in Jesus, and which has already reached many in Israel, is now starting to spread further afield to the Gentiles, even to the dirtiest and the lowliest (N.T. Wright)! There is something about the feet of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” (52.7). Is this not Jesus, who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who sets a man free from captivity to demons, who takes the disordered chaos of our lives and sets them straight? A few verses earlier Isaiah proclaims, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city,” (52.1). St. Matthew’s, who is our strength? Is it not Jesus? Is the risen and living Christ, he who dwells with us and in us and we in him, is he not our beautiful garment? Indeed he is. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians as we heard it read this morning: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” (3.37). Just as the demoniac who was shamefully naked but after he is freed is clothed and seated at Christ’s feet, so too we who, in the shame of our sin, were naked are set free from our captivity to sin and death and clothe ourselves with Jesus, our beautiful garment. And this makes us something that we cannot be by ourselves. Clothed with Christ, we become that which is greater than the sum of its parts.
All of the people from the surrounding country cannot endure to have Christ among them, but he who has been delivered from the devil desires to leave his own country and follow him. “Hence we learn,” comments John Calvin, “how wide is the difference between the knowledge of the goodness, and the knowledge of the power, of God. Power strikes men (sic) with terror, makes them fly from the presence of God, and drives them to a distance from him: but goodness draws them gently, and makes them feel that nothing is more desirable than to be united to God.” Have you tasted the goodness of God? Are you familiar with the sweetness of His love as made known in Christ Jesus? Have you felt that overwhelming desire to be united to Him? Has it been some time since you have experienced this? Perhaps you have been hurt, or desired to go your own way, and you have slowly hardened yourself to the penetrating and transforming love of God? But that we would daily open ourselves to him!
Yet, for one reason or another, Jesus would not allow the man to follow him. Instead, Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And, Luke tells us, the man did just that: “So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him,” (8.39). A good deal culminates here and we should not miss it, for it is in some ways the crux of the story. The man wants to stay with Jesus. Things would not be easy back in his home territory. There might be considerable reluctance to accept him again as a member of a family or village. But Jesus does not say to him, “follow me” in any literal sense. Rather, the man is one of those (the majority we may suppose) to whom Jesus said, “go home and tell them,” (N.T. Wright). Having experienced the good news in action, he must now tell it himself. And notice the subtle shift in Luke’s wording: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” This is not yet a carefully worked-out doctrine of how “God was in Christ”, at that moment it is simply something people discover in their experience: what Jesus does, God does (N.T. Wright). Or, put the other way round, if you want to tell people what God has done, tell them what Jesus has done.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” proclaims Isaiah. Jesus is this messenger, as he goes about “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God,” (Lk 8.1). Paul takes this portion of Isaiah and quotes it in his letter to the church in Rome: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10.15). Did you notice Paul’s revision? “The messenger who announces peace,” in Isaiah, is in the singular. Paul takes this and pluralizes it, “those who bring good news!” In Luke 8.1 Jesus is, “proclaiming and bringing good news of the kingdom of God.” “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” (Isa 52.7). Then in our reading Jesus sends the ex-demoniac away to proclaim what God has done for him. Shortly after this, Jesus gathers the twelve disciples together, “and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” (9.1-2). “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10.15). And when the disciples are sent out they are to bring nothing, not even an extra tunic (9.3), for they are to clothe themselves with Christ.
In baptism, we are taken up into Christ. We clothe ourselves with Christ, says Paul. The risen Jesus is our life, and together he makes us into something that is greater than the sum of its parts, that is, he makes us his very Body. His proclamation, he entrusts to us, as we live in him. And as we proclaim what Jesus has done for us, the beauty of his feet becomes the beauty of our own feet. Let me assure you, you needn’t have a seminary degree or an expansive knowledge of scripture to do this. All that is required, is that you go and tell what Jesus has done for you. And this is one of the major reasons we gather together to worship as we do on mornings like this one. Here this morning, the gospel is proclaimed in Word and Sacrament. We are, so to speak, seated at the feet of Jesus, drawn there by the beauty of his love and goodness. And the entire order of our worship is designed in such a way as to recall what God has done, and continues to do. That is, when we come together we remind one another of the story which makes sense of our lives. The story which our lives are taken up into. But we cannot stay here forever, for Jesus bids us to depart and go out, into our homes, our jobs, our neighbourhood, and so on, to proclaim what God has done for us in Jesus. There isn’t exactly a “how-to” manual when it comes to this sort of evangelism. It needn’t be awkward or phony, though it may well make us a bit uncomfortable, after all, we’re generally more accustomed to talking about ourselves. That being said, you and I bump into all sorts of people throughout the week, and as we live our lives together with our neighbours over time there will come opportunities for us to share what Jesus has done for us. Indeed, if we open our lives to our neighbours and love deeply, folks may very well ask the sorts of questions to which the only answer will be the gospel.
Let us pray: Draw your Church together, O Lord, into one great company of disciples, together following our Lord Jesus Christ into every walk of life, together serving him in his mission to the world, and together witnessing to his love on every continent and island. We ask this in his name and for his sake. Amen.