The following is a sermon on the Gospel of Luke 8:26–39, given by Archpriest Oleg Stenyaev—a well-known author and lecturer in Moscow.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy is from Luke 8:26 and on. In this Gospel, we are told how Christ came to the land of the Gadarenes, and while in that country He healed two demonaics who were so possessed with evil spirits that when they were bound with chains, they broke those chains. And they lived in graves, that is, in caves where people were buried, as was the accepted practice in Israel in those times. When Jesus Christ approached those demonaics, the demons begged Him to send them into the herd of swine. These are unclean animals, and that is why the demons asked for this, since what is unclean always yearns for the unclean. And the Lord commanded them to enter the herd of swine; and so they came out of the demonaics, entered the herd of swine, and then the entire herd lunged over the cliff and into the sea, where they all drowned. The main question that theologians ask is: Why did Christ command the demons to enter the swine? What is the lesson here for us?
The fathers of the Church explain that through the example of the swine the Lord showed us what the demons would do to us if they had total authority over us. After the end of the Cold War, which has now started again, the Americans declassified data that showed how alarms had gone off a number of times indicating that Soviet atomic missiles were flying, and the Americans had to fire a response. But something didn’t work, their missiles didn’t come out of the shafts—and there were several such incidents. How many false alarms were recorded by the Soviet authorities, we don’t even know. This is classified information.1 But this shows that God is restraining the power of evil in this world. If the demons and devils were to receive authority over us, then nuclear war would have immediately broken out, and in a fiery Armageddon we would have all flown into the abyss, like the swine who were flung from the cliff into the sea. And that we have not yet had a nuclear war shows that God continues to rule this world. The world is driving God away from itself, the world does not want to reckon with God’s authority; but glory be to the Lord—He has not abandoned us. He is defending different sides of the conflict, preserving the lives of innocent people.
What we can now observe in the world is the supremacy of man, the will of man above all else. It’s clear that there is no democracy anywhere, because the will of various minorities is being carried out, and their behavior is being forced on the majority. But most dangerous of all that we see is: dehumanization. The dehumanization of the enemy. When on one and the other side of a conflict a dehumanized image of the enemy is created. Not long ago I watched on a Ukrainian television program a young lady interviewing the head Rabbi of Ukraine. She asked him a terrible question: “But could there really be any good people among the Russians?” The Rabbi was amazed, he corrected that loquacious girl, saying that people are different. But that girl was quite surprised at his answer—it seemed to her that he was saying something indecent. Her facial expression showed it. In Russia we are constantly told that we are fighting with fascists, with drug addicts, that we are fighting with perverts. When the dehumanization of an opponent takes place, it is done with only one aim (and this happens on both sides): to make it easier to kill them. This is why an opponent is dehumanized.
In the Bible, where it was first stated that God is against murder, it is written: Do not spill human blood; and further on, man is deified. Dehumanization is not what happens in the Bible, but man’s deification. For man, as it is written, was made in the image of God. Do not spill human blood, for man is made in the image of God (cf. Gen. 9:6). These are the famous laws of Noah, which people received from God after the flood.
We see that God is against dehumanizing our opponent. We must remember that any person whom we can potentially kill is God’s creation. Christ goes even further to say: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that offend you” (cf. Matt. 5:44). The world drives God away from this life; the world can proclaim Christ as God, and it has recognized for the most part that He is God, but the world insists that Christ’s authority be limited to this. Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. God is in heaven, these people think, but we are on earth. To a certain extent, this is true. When Christ said, My Kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), He said it before His resurrection from the dead. But after His resurrection from the dead, He said, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18).
We cannot conduct a referendum to establish Christ’s authority everywhere—this would be considered a rebellion, theocratic fundamentalism, a coupe. The world is ready to deal with a Christ God Who is far away, surrounded by angels. But the world does not want to deal with Christ the King—and He truly is the King of kings—to Whom is given all power both in heaven and on earth. What should we Christians do? We recognize the authority of Christ the King.
There are people who are waiting for a king, an earthly king. They will get what they waited for when the antichrist comes and works many signs and wonders. But we recognize Christ as our King, and submit to His will and His Gospel commandments. He is the King of kings; He is the Lord of lords, and we become His subjects when the Gospel principles begin to reign in our hearts. Acknowledging that to Him is given power both in heaven and on earth, we pray every day: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, and by these words we ask God that sooner or later human forms of government would end; and just as in heaven the angels completely submit to God, so would it be on earth; so that the forms of human government would sooner or later end and absolute theocracy would reign. For, as is written in the book of Ecclesiastes, there is a time when one man ruleth over another to his own hurt (Eccl. 8:9).
We are Christians when we stop the movement of evil in our own hearts. When we do not allow ourselves to dehumanize any person—for that is the way of Cain, the way of the devil. The devil is the one who is called the first man-slayer from the beginning.
And so, we have today’s Gospel reading. Yes, we see that these demoniacs were possessed by whole legions of demons, but when Christ healed them, cleansed them, they became normal people. And they even wanted to become Jesus Christ’s apostles, to follow Him, to preach—and Christ did not refuse them, He made them His apostles when He said, Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee (Matt. 8:39).
In this sense, every person performs his own apostolate on one or another side of a conflict. The people did not let Christ into that city because He had harmed their business—they were raising swine, which was against the Law of God. Of course, that is, for the Jews and not the pagans, the Greeks and Romans, of whom there were many living in the Holy Land.
The world doesn’t want to give up its profits, and the world is ready to drive out Christ again and again. Ukrainian priests can’t come to us and preach, they are not allowed out. Russian priests can’t come to the Ukraine and preach, they are likewise not allowed in. It is just as Christ was not allowed into the city, and in His own city, by His own appearance, He could not preach the power of Christ the King. The healed demoniacs preach by their own appearance—by what they were, and what they became. Around Jesus Christ were different people. There was one fascist, a skinhead—Simon Zealotes. The Zealots were those who beat and even killed foreigners. And there was the collaborationist Matthew, who collected taxes for the occupying forces. Of course, if Simon Zealotes were to meet Matthew somewhere before they both met Christ, he would have cut his throat as a traitor. But in Christ, the contradictory are united. And both Simon Zealotes and Matthew the Levite become new men.
The question arises: Why were these names kept on the pages of the Gospels—Matthew the publican, Simon the Zealot, skinhead and fascist? So that people would not forget what they were and what they became in Christ and with Christ. That is why.
Those demoniacs who were healed (in one Gospel it says there was one demoniac, while in another Gospel there are two, because one dominated the other). Now the whole world is full of demons, the whole world is in a state of aggression, demonic possession—and only Christ has the power to heal this world. Christians who are on different sides of the conflict should fulfill their apostolate in their own cities, their own countries, where their brothers and sisters who by a twist of fate have found themselves on the other side of the conflict can’t come.
The devil would have destroyed all of us with our own hands, and we know that sooner or later this will happen, as it is written: The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up (2 Pet. 3:10). Moreover, the description of this fiery Armageddon is quite concrete: the elements will burn and be destroyed, the earth and everything on it will burn, writes the apostle Peter. The elements, having burned, will be destroyed—that is, the atoms will be fractured, and the colossal energy of an atomic explosion will be released. And the prophet Isaiah also says, Behold, ye cursed, you prepare arrows of fire and feed a flame: enter into that fire and destroy one another.2 God restrains this fire of Armageddon for now, but that won’t last forever. But when it happens, people will curse their rulers, people will curse their instructors, who did not safeguard their earthly home, this beautiful planet that the Lord gave us. When we walk out into the fields in summertime, the wooded land—what beauty, what a sky, what a riot of colors! Some travel to the seaside to rest. I made use of the second half of my therapeutic vacation and went to the sea… I was in a hotel called the Bella Vista in Hurgada, Egypt, in Africa. There we were all swimming in one big swimming pool—Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans. And we were helping each other climb into and out of the pool. There I had a conversation with one Pole. I asked, “Do the Christians in Poland, Roman Catholics, really want there to be a nuclear war?” He said, “Of course not.” And he pointed to that huge swimming pool, how there were people of different nations swimming in it, just as we all live on the planet. It’s our only home, and we can’t live without each other, we have to learn how to exist together.
The devil is the source of strife, the devil is the source of conflict, and we can recognize him when we hear the propaganda of dehumanization. This is always done with one aim—so that it would be easier to hate, easier to despise, even easier to kill. When someone says only bad things about a person, or about a whole nation, this is the path to nowhere. And the opposite of this, as we see from the laws of Noah, is the Bible’s deification of man: Do not spill the blood of a man, for man is created in the image of God.
And the final thing that I would like to say: In Greek, “image” is “icon”. Every person is an icon of God. True, there are various icons—there are those in need of restoration without delay. Specialists try to restore these icons, clean the dirt away, the dust, and the soot. It’s the same with the souls of many people in this insane world, where legions and legions of demons turn people against each other; these people are in need of restoration. You’ve done right to come to church this Sunday—it means that you take care not to become satanized in this hard world, to not deform the image of God in yourselves, but to continually restore it.
Today’s Gospel reading shows how God is still restraining the power of evil. He showed what the demons would do with us if they had power over us: Like they ran the swine into the sea, they would cast all mankind into nuclear Armageddon. For, as we know, the demons take no captives—once they’ve seized nations, tribes, peoples, and individuals, they want to destroy them completely. Let’s not fall for their propaganda. And when we hear attempts to dehumanize others from either side, let’s say, “No. There are brothers and sisters both here and there. There are good Christians both here and there.” Especially when conflicts arise between Orthodox people and nations, this is relevant and timely.
Thus, God still preserves us for now from the wrong path; He restrains the forces of evil; and controlling them, God equally controls in this world both good and evil—but it won’t always be that way. One day the elements will burn and be destroyed, and the earth and all the works on it will be burned up. Remembering this, let’s pray for peace; and at the Divine Liturgy today the prayer for peace was read. His Holiness the Patriarch blessed us to pray for peace, and the Church prays for peace, because peace is one of the names of God. Peace in Hebrew is sabbath, rest; and Christ says of Himself that He is the Lord of the sabbath. He is the source of peace, as the Lord of peace. And He has the power to take care of us. But He wants to see whether we ourselves strive for peace; striving for peace is striving for Christ—no more, no less.
Abba Dorotheos had a certain plan. He said, imagine a circle, we are on the edges of this circle, and in the center is God. In coming closer to the center, we inevitable come closer to each other; when we distance ourselves from each other, we inevitably distance ourselves from God. And in the New Testament it says, if you say that you don’t love your brother whom you see, how then can you love God, Whom you don’t see? And Christ says, from this they will know that you are My disciples, when you have love for each other. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you, and remember the high dignity of every human being, who was created in the image of God.
This Gospel lesson of today has a moral application and meaning for us. Christ save you.