On Christ Destroying the Works of the Devil

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday after Easter Day, 2021

Hope, real hope, is woven into the Easter greeting we so joyously use in this season; the greeting: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!” Jesus became man in order to give us this hope, this real hope—as opposed to the false hopes that so often are tempted to cling to, as the children of Israel, even as Moses was on top of the holy mountain communing on their behalf with God and receiving the Ten Commandments gave into their temptation toward false hope and fashioned an idol, the molten calf, around which they danced and sang; the people of God are ever tempted to do this very thing, to turn false hope into an idol. The real hope of Jesus Christ is ever-lasting communion with the triune God—that is, communion within the eternal community of Father, Son, and Spirit. Beholding God face to face, in the words of the Apostle Paul; and seeing Him as He is, because we have become like Him, in the teaching of S. John heard today.

The hope of Easter—the hope given only through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Who in dying on the Cross for our sake trampled down death by death—the hope of Easter demands our personal transformation. This is what S. John tells us today: “every person that hath this hope in Jesus purifies himself, even as He (Jesus) is pure.” In Jesus, John also adds, is no sin; yet in us is sin: and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, John so memorably teaches. This is why the hope of Easter demands our personal transformation.

And this is why Jesus did what He did in becoming Man. For this purpose, John teaches, the Son of God was manifested: that He might destroy the works of the devil. And as the works of the devil are destroyed in our hearts, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. The two tests of growth in the spiritual life are a greater desire and capacity to pray, and, even more practically speaking, committing fewer sins. We commit fewer sins (and, of course, our desire and capacity for prayer increases) as the works of the devil are destroyed in our heart. The human heart is God’s chosen battleground to fight the devil, who is the prince of this world. When we commit sin, John reminds us, we are of the devil—dancing with the devil around the molten calf. But for this purpose the Son of God was manifested—for this purpose He showed forth Himself within the economy of God: His incarnation not only in human flesh, but His incarnation in the consecrated bread and wine, His Precious Body and Blood carry on His incarnation as well—that through His death He might destroy the works of the devil, all of which lead to death (whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual): all this is so His incarnation can reach fruition and completion: in our hearts.

And note how directly Saint John ties together destroying the works of the devil with Christ’s incarnation: again the verse: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” For this purpose (destroying the works of the devil) and not others, at least not primarily. The primary or main purpose of the Incarnation, John is teaching, is to engage the battle happening in our hearts: for God’s chosen battleground to fight the works of the devil is the human heart. It is not that the Son of God was manifested, that people can live in comfort; it is not that the Son of God was manifested, that people can read and write theology; it is not even, primarily, about being good people. Now, all of these might result. But these are by-products, of Christ’s chosen battle (against the works of the devil) in His chosen battleground (the human heart).

My dear brothers and sisters, our primary concern must be allowing Christ to accomplish His mission in our hearts, and asking daily, hourly, even moment to moment, for His mercy upon us. He is the good Shepherd, we are His sheep, and it is for this very reason that He laid down His life for us: that He might destroy the works of the devil in our heart, and thereby in the choices we make, and thereby in all our  lives. With God nothing is impossible, for the power of His Name makes the Devil quiver in fear.

Living Baptismally, pt 11: Being Open to God’s Correction

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17), 2020.

Last Sunday our Gospel passage from Saint Matthew was the first half of a momentous episode in Scripture. Today’s passage completes the moment. Recall that, after Our Lord’s second, more provocative question to the Twelve, “But who do you say that I am?”, and Peter’s proclamation that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven.” And so as I observed last Sunday, it was not seeing Jesus—what He looked like, what He sounded like, what He said and taught, none of this—it was not seeing Jesus that gave Peter this deep insight into Jesus’s divinity, the insight that He is God. It was only a revelation from the Father, given to Peter from heaven that, at this for this moment, opened the eyes of Peter to reveal Christ transfigured in some sense so as to cause Peter to proclaim Him the Son of the living God.

All of which makes what comes next, the second half of this momentous episode, all the more intriguing. Because it was from this time that Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Note that it was from this time—and not before. In Saint Matthew’s version of the Gospel, the teaching to the Twelve by Jesus of the Passion that is necessary begins here—begins in the transfiguring revelation given to Peter from heaven, and the response by Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (words, as I said last Sunday, that are a summary of the whole Nicene Creed). Coming to some kind of sense of what the death of Jesus truly means is tied up into a sense of the divinity of Jesus, and even beginning to grapple with this Truth is itself a gift from the Almighty Father in heaven. Christian worship begins in this, what Jesus calls this rock.

But, Saint Peter did not like Our Lord’s teaching about the Passion. (And I added here his title “Saint” to remind us that Peter, in his error, is still a profound example to us about discipleship; more on that in a moment.) He did not like this teaching, and said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Notice the words of Our Lord. Peter is not condemned because he said words “like Satan”; not condemned because his words could remind people of Satan”; what’s more, Jesus does not say, “Get behind me, person who is like Satan,” as if the problem is that Peter’s ideology is simply too close for comfort to that of Satan. No! Jesus clearly says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter is not like Satan; here, he is Satan. The very man on whom, but a few verses prior, was proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the Church is to be built. What is going on here? Is this Jesus making a joke, an example of His divine sense of humor?

I do not think so. Jesus does have a divine sense of humor, and we always do well to remember that as we reflect on His words and actions that might trouble us or seem contrary to the nature of He Whose nature is love. But here, Jesus has for His Church fundamental doctrine. And that doctrine is seen when we remember that Peter, in objecting to Our Lord’s showing the Twelve that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised, Peter said “This shall never happen to you,” meaning Peter would not let it happen. In other words, Peter put himself between Our Lord and the Cross. And because of it, he was called Satan by Jesus. So who is Satan? Satan is anyone who gets between the Cross and Jesus. That’s who Satan is, that is, the primary characteristic of Satan, no matter the outward form Satan might take; the thing underneath the outward appearance is getting between Jesus and the Cross, or between us and the Cross—for the Cross is where Jesus is, and always has been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

So how, then is Peter a profound example to us about discipleship? Peter is an example to us because despite his erroneous understanding, Peter remained an agent through whom Jesus extends His Incarnation in the world. Peter was vocal about his view, but he also left himself open to being corrected by Jesus, which Our Lord did over the course between this moment and the Upper Room when Peter’s leadership truly became the solid rock foundation of the Church at Pentecost. Having erroneous views is, therefore, not itself any kind of disqualification from membership in the Body of Christ. As disciples who are, in the words of Saint Paul, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling—grappling with the paradoxes of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ—we are allowed to get things wrong, as long as are not rigid in such views, but allow them to be corrected by the Holy Ghost as He sees fit, and in the way He sees fit. Peter went on to deny Jesus three times on the very night of His voluntary entering into His Passion. But, after the Resurrection, Peter allowed himself to be corrected by Our Lord in His glorious Body, saying three times to Peter: “Feed my sheep,” then “Tend My sheep,” and again “Feed My sheep”—three teachings to correct Peter’s three denials. It is in this way that Our Lord’s teaching and direction to us happens on the course of our life in Him, that He might graft in our hearts the love of His Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us, as He did Saint Peter, the fruit of good works.

Homily: “On Temptations in Lent”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The First Sunday in Lent, 2019.

I ended my sermon for Ash Wednesday with these words: “We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentance.” The Church has entered Lent in dust and ashes, not as a sign intended to make us unnecessarily sorrowful or weak; not to force us to focus inordinately on our mortality—rather as a sign of our creatureliness in the face of a Creator Who is both tremendous and mysterious in His power—wholly other from us yet walking, talking, and dwelling among us—His nature being that of boundless love Who guides all things with His hands and causes the dawn to know its place and gave the clouds their garments, Who possesses us that we will be agents of His boundless love, and proclaim through our words and deeds God’s heavenly peace—that frees the captives and ennobles the poor and downtrodden—a heavenly peace that shines from the glorious cross and which transforms ordinary reality into sacramental reality—a universal message for all people that is captured in the simple yet radiant image of Mother and Son: because God chose to reveal Himself to the world in the arms of Mary.

This and so much more makes for the overwhelming way God manifests His glory. And the Church has taught, because it was revealed by God directly, that her members need to be overwhelmed by the mysterious tremendousness of God—not once, or twice, but constantly, all the time, even every day, and multiple times a day if possible. Because being overwhelmed by God is what called holy fear, and time and time again we find in the Scriptures the teaching that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And therefore it is the beginning also of repentance, and it is necessary for a holy Lent.

A good way to think about Lent—not the only way but a good way—is that it is like the walking down from the mountain that Peter, James, and John did with Jesus after the Transfiguration. It did not take them forty days to reach the bottom; maybe it took them forty minutes. But even as an analogy, why is this period of time a good way to think about Lent? It is because their shadows had been revealed in crisp detail, because that is what happens when we are close to the Light. Too often we think we have to struggle to find our shadows, digging tirelessly through our mind, our memories, to uncover our hidden sins—the Transfiguration story sets things properly: put ourselves close to Jesus, close to His Word, as close as we can to the Cross—and then in humility, abandon ourselves at His feet, that through our surrender, we listen. God will reveal to us our sins as we are able to bear the load of them upon our shoulders. God will handle that: our job is to sit at His feet like Mary Magdalene and listen.

It is a very curious thing that despite what must have been an astonishing experience beyond words—Jesus brighter than the sun with Moses and Elijah on His right and left—the Evangelists do not give us any details of the reactions of Peter, James, and John after the experience. It is another instance of what I have called “holy silence” by the evangelists where we would think detail would be abundant. How did these three disciples process this experience? We get an important clue from Saint Mark, and we see it when James and John ask to be on Christ’s right and left in His glory—ask, that is, to be just like Moses and Elijah were. It seems like a desirable place to be, and it is an understandable, and frankly admirable, thing to request of Jesus—and Jesus, far from admonishing them, simply says that such a request is not for Him to grant, but the Father. And perhaps Peter and John, after the Coming of the Holy Ghost later, winsomely chuckled about their request, admirable as it was for the time: because after all who ended up being on Christ’s right and left but the two robbers crucified with Jesus.

In an understandable way, nonetheless James and John (and we might presume Peter as well) did succumb to a temptation—such as Jesus was faced with in the wilderness when the Devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory . . . If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” It is the temptation to prideful ambition with a dash of Envy thrown in, based fundamentally on a very human need for approval. And Jesus, in answering the Devil’s temptation, gives us the remedy whenever we might face such temptation to authority and power: the Scripture “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” We are to allow ourselves to be prostrate at the foot of the Cross as our service to God, and wait for Him to speak with us and tell us what to do. God in His Providence has all things in His hand, including a plan for us, and it is in His interest to make known to us His plan for our lives: our job is to come to Him in humility, surrender, and openness so that we can listen and learn how God approves of us, loves us, cares for us.

We are told by Saint Luke that the Devil addressed Jesus as “the Son of God.” Biblical scholars tell us that the term “Son of God,” despite how it rings in our ears, did not ring in the ears of the early Church the same way—it would have meant not the Second Person of the Trinity but rather the official representative of the historic faith of Israel—the significance of which might be startling: the Devil probably did not know quite who Jesus was. He addressed Our Lord by saying, “If you are the Son of God” something like “If you are a Prophet like Moses and Elijah and Isaiah.” Jesus, therefore, chose to go into the wilderness so that He could use the experience to teach more effectively His disciples the key aspects of overcoming the primary temptations in mature Christian life: the temptation to need security (the first temptation: magic for food in the stones turned to bread), to need approval (the second temptation: adulation by all), and to need control (the third temptation: commanding the angels to save Him from His fall).

In our lives, we face these temptations in every day ways, and in serious Christian life, they are heightened: the need for security, the need for approval, the need for control. But it is by meditating only on God’s holy words in Scripture that we can overcome these temptations. Because when we meditate on God’s holy words, we find Jesus. And when we find Jesus, we again realize that His boundless light is closer to us than our own breath.

Homily: “On Teaching and Healing”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany, 2019.

Because our mortal nature is weak, our Collect has it, we can do no good thing without God. That is a truth that we may not think about in such stark terms. — that we can do nothing good without God. Does it confront us, this truth, and cause us to flinch or raise our eyebrows? We can expand that theology and say still more: not only can we not do any good thing without God, but we cannot do any beautiful thing without God, nor can we do a true thing without God. That all that is good, beautiful and true of this world comes from God is an iron-clad law, and happy are they whose delight is in the law of the Lord.

What this truth expresses is the reality of our baptism. In baptism we are buried with Christ in His death, and we are reborn in baptism in Christ’s resurrection. We are born: not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. The grace of God possesses us—we have said yes to God as Mary said yes to Him through Gabriel, and our mortal nature passes away, and our glorious nature, which is Christ in us, takes over—and we become people who are walking in His light, delighting in His ways. When we see this, when we allow this to be our identity, when we conceive in our hearts the very same Christ who Mary conceived in hers, we fall into awe, we tumble into wonder, and we leap for joy as Elizabeth and John the Baptist leapt for joy at the presence of Our Lord through His Mother.

Yet we do not always recognize our true identity with such simple clarity. We sometimes do not see ourselves as a child of God. Rather we see ourselves as troubled, as wounded, as unlucky, as beat down. We see ourselves as far from God, and far from His grace. With full reverence because we tread now on holy ground, let us in this holy space, a space filled with the presence of God in numerous ways, let us allow ourselves to see such self-identifications in the way Saint Luke characterizes those who came out to hear Jesus teach—as troubled with unclean spirits.

Being troubled by unclean spirits is not a rare or uncommon thing for followers of Jesus, but a common and normal condition, and the same is true for us. It is through the meddling of the unclean spirits led by Satan, who is known as the prince of this world, that we forget who we really are. Each of us is a child of God, a member of His Body, who live and move and have our being in Christ’s Resurrection, here and now, and more abundantly to come. Yet we fall prey to temptation to forget this self-identification, to forget this name for ourselves, to forget the grace that at all times empowers us. We forget that the very reason for our being biologically alive and not erased from existence owes entirely to God’s grace. Everyone alive right now, from the most saintly to the most satanic, is only alive by God’s grace. We keep that fundamental truth in mind, and the claim that we can do nothing good without God in our Collect becomes almost obvious.

The pattern Our Lord demonstrates to heal people from the work of the unclean spirits, to cure them of the condition by which they forget their true identity and accept a lesser, false identity, is that He teaches them. This is the next dimension revealed about the Light who is Jesus in Saint Luke’s telling—the close connection between the ministry of exorcism, healing and teaching. When Jesus teaches “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven,” any identity the poor and downtrodden among Him had as poor and downtrodden is transformed—again this is the truth captured in Our Lady’s hymn, Mary’s Magnificat: He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humbled and meek.

By His teaching about Who He is, He teaches about Who those are that follow Him, the identity that have in being a disciple. Finding out who we are—profoundly who we are in our core—that we are like trees planted by the streams of water that flow directly from the holy mountain of God into our roots—this is the Gospel. We can imagine that 120 people gathered in the Upper Room after Christ’s Ascension all finding out together their true identity as children of God living in Christ’s Resurrected Body is part of what blew the doors off the place with the mighty wind of God. Finding out that no matter what our economic or social status might be—into what conditions we have been thrown, no matter what our givens might be—that we each are a child of God already living in heaven and growing into the stature of Christ who is in heaven bleeding gloriously from His cross the blood and water of the Sacraments we receive—that Christ is resurrected and He in part lives His resurrection through us—this and only this is true happiness; this and only this is true goodness; this and only this is true beauty.