Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Solemn Mass By the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell
Year C, Proper 9: Isaiah 66:10–16; Psalm 66:1–8; Galatians 6:14–18*; Luke 10:1–20*
In reading the text for the Gospel, I’m arrested by the translation of the line in the last paragraph that runs “I watched Satan fall from heaven.” Every English version says, “I watched Satan” with the object of the pronoun being Jesus.
The disciples are returning from a mission trip and they are elated that the demons have been made subject to them. Jesus responds in the Greek saying “they watched Satan fall from heaven” with the object of the pronoun being the demons. In other words he is saying that the demons were subject to the disciples because the demons had already seen their lord, Satan, vanquished.
As many of you have heard me say, all translations are lies, and only trust a translator who knows he’s lying. There is a slim grammatical possibility that this text can be translated “I [Jesus] saw Satan fall,” but the easiest interpretation is “they [demons] saw Satan fall.” Yet no version of the 21 bibles in English I looked at takes this route.
The text means something different if the demons are the subject than if Jesus is. My prejudice is to go for the most controversial and as it happens the easiest reading, and that means the demons are making an observation. They are surrendering or at least being subject to authority, because they know that Satan has been defeated.
What are the signs today that Jesus has defeated the demons? It’s very easy to find signs that the demons still rule our world. Recent events would indicate that we are powerless in the face of evil. We frequently act as if the only rational response to evil is to meet it head on and in kind.
Is there another way? Can we live as if we actually believe that Jesus is winning and not be destroyed by the critique that we are naïve? Can we see ourselves as on a Spiritual Journey the end of which is determined? Evil is defeated!
Luke maintains that the demons, even if defeated, are making it difficult for us to lead a holy life. Here we are in the 10th chapter, and the 70 have exercised power over the demons.
Now if I, like the disciples, had been able to exorcise demons (I only seem to exercise mine), I imagine that my faith would’ve been unshakable. I would’ve experienced an undeniable proof that Jesus was Lord and had defeated Satan so that Satan should have no power over me. From my translation of today’s gospel, even the demons know that they have been defeated. But they’re waging a valiant if ultimately losing battle against the side of good.
We know, because we’ve read the rest of Luke, that Jesus dies alone. His disciples all leave him. Despite the demons having seen that Satan is defeated, they are successful in getting the disciples to doubt and having gotten them to doubt: Jesus is crucified alone.
However, after the resurrection the apostles and others become willing even to be martyred for the Risen Christ. After the resurrection the disciples and apostles realize that they have seen the triumph of God over death/Satan. They can now do anything.
Except of course the Second Coming, the Parousia, doesn’t happen. Christians begin to wonder about the immediate importance of faith, and the demons are once again successful. This passage was probably introduced so that the church would be encouraged. The reference is unique to Luke. Its impact is taken up in Luke 11:18 where we read about Satan’s house being divided against itself, and if divided against itself it cannot stand. Luke is reassuring his congregation that they can withstand the temptations of the demons because the end is assured; Christ is victorious.
Imagine a world in which we actually lived as if we believed that! There are many reasons why I am not an elected official. Chief among them being that I frequently display an inability to compromise. But it seems to me that in many aspects of our lives being a faithful Christian and being an elected official puts us in an untenable position. Unless we display, as most politicians do, an understanding and appreciation for realpolitik we will be dismissed as having our heads in the clouds. We reward politicians who have their feet on the ground and are practical. The problem is that we are given a gospel which is not practical and calls us to not compromise with the practical. We are given a vision to which we must, if we wish to be true to the Gospel, adhere.
For much of the 20th century it was enough for the church to succeed, by which I mean to build new and grand buildings, to employ clergy, to provide social services, to be a moderating influence on power by simply standing for the American Way and seeing it as congruent with Christianity. Many in the Episcopal Church today long for those days. We were relevant, successful and respected. We didn’t change, but the world around us changed, and despite our continuing to act, in many congregations, as if this were still the 1950s, society has rejected our message.
Earlier this week one of my nieces reached out to me to baptize her baby, preferably in the ocean in Sea Isle City, New Jersey, where our family has long vacationed and where her father still owns a home. I responded that I would be glad to if she met with a priest where she lives and met his or her requirements for baptism in that church and congregation. Then I would baptize my grandniece in the ocean on behalf of that congregation. While she might not understand when I say that baptism is not fire insurance, she is open to being part of a congregation. I think it is crucial that we form Christians in congregations so that you and I can have some confidence that the demons know that we know that they’ve been defeated and then we will go out into the world behaving as if that knowledge is true for us.
The work of the demons in our world today seems to me to be focused on chipping away at any sense of security we have. Imagine if we lived in a world that was not ruled by fear? That is really what the gospel today is telling us. Our fears are not based in reality because evil has been defeated. Of course it matters what we’re afraid of. If we’re afraid of a loss of meaning, our fears are defeated. If we’re afraid that we will be called naïve, then they are very real. You and I actually believe that the bread and wine will be transformed by you and me into the body and blood of Christ. If we really believe that then how can we worry about being called naïve?
Copyright © 2016 Peter Ross Powell.
All rights reserved.
 Julian V. Hills, “Luke 10:18—Who Saw Satan Fall?,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42, April 1992, 25–40.