Anniversaries, Covenants and Driving Off Demons
A sermon on Luke 8: 26-39 & Galatians 3:23-29 by Nathan Nettleton, 20 June 2004

Christian ascetic discipline is not about earning God’s acceptance, but about banishing the demons so that we can live life more fully in the here and now.


This week marks one hundred and fifty years since the foundation of this congregation. One hundred and fifty years is pretty old for a church community in Australia. It makes us the fourth oldest Baptist congregation still in existence in Victoria, and I think the second oldest continuing Christian congregation in the Prahran and South Yarra neighbourhood. But survival alone is not a great commendation for a church. As the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul said, we are to put behind us the former things, and press on towards what lies ahead. I’m not disparaging the past. Those of you who have been here for a while will know that I am always wanting us to learn from the past and be true to the heritage passed on to us by our forebears. But it is to say that God is always calling us forward, and it is whether we are faithfully responding to that call that matters now, not how well our forebear did in the past.

For this reason, in recent years we have developed an annual practice of re-forming or re-constituting the church on this Anniversary Sunday each year. The shape of our common life and ministry is expressed in a Church Covenant. It sets out the values and practices which we have decided are basic to ensuring that our church not only survives but continues to grow in Christlike faith, hope, love and discipleship. The Covenant affects everyone who wishes to be a regular part of this congregation, but for good and proper reasons, not everyone relates to it in the same way. Each year a small core group within the congregation take a big and somewhat scary step of faith and hope by committing themselves to seeking to take on not only the values expressed in the covenant, but all of the specific disciplines as well. All of us who do that will fail to live up to that to some extent, but we will fail boldly and passionately and without losing heart or hope! And however much we fail, we will almost certainly have grown more by trying more than we would have if we hadn’t ever set our sights so high.

Most of you will not be standing up in a few minutes and pledging yourselves to taking on all of the Covenant disciplines. For some of you it is because other equally important commitments simply make it impossible for you to take on these disciplines at this time. For others it is too soon: you are still finding your way in relationship to Christ or in relationship to this congregation and you have rightly discerned that this step is not for you at this time. Others among you haven’t been here long enough to know what this is all about. There is no shame or failure in any of this. But it doesn’t mean that the Covenant is irrelevant to your life and your participation in our shared life. The Covenant still describes the life that we share and aspire to share. It names the life that participation in this congregation is leading us all into. And so, after the Covenantors have made their pledge to one another, all of you will be invited to indicate your support for the vision of the Covenant and your intention to participate in that shared life with us to whatever extent you find yourself called and able.

Now for those who were listening carefully to the readings before, all this talk of disciplines and distinctions between those who take them on and those who don’t may be raising some serious questions. Didn’t we hear the Apostle Paul say that the before Christ came, we needed the law as a disciplinarian, but now we are no longer subject to such a disciplinarian? Yes, we did. So what is all this talk of a written code of disciplines?

In fact, we are talking about two different things, but Paul’s reminder is a very good one to hear as we do what we are doing here tonight. Paul is adamant that following a code of rules or disciplines, however worthy, will not earn us God’s favour or earn us God’s salvation. God loves us unconditionally because that is what God is like, and God accepts us and redeems us because Christ has gathered us to himself in faith and baptism, and as people who are now held in Christ’s embrace, God can no more reject us than reject Christ himself. Taking on, or not taking on these disciplines will not change that one little bit. When we all stand together as one people who live together in Christ, that will be how God is seeing us: no insiders or outsiders, no covenantors or non-covenantors, no employed or unemployed, no male or female, no gay or straight, no educated or ignorant; just all one in Christ, and put right with God through entrusting ourselves, heart and soul, to Christ.

But while it is absolutely true that taking on additional spiritual disciplines makes no difference to God’s love and acceptance of us, that doesn’t mean it is of no value and will make no difference to anything else. All of you are committed to living out at least some of the values and disciplines expressed in the Covenant, and those commitments make a considerable difference to who you are and what you are becoming in the world. They may make a very real difference to the extent to which you are able to stand firm against the demonic forces that would drag you down the dead end alleys of the culture around us and rob you of the life which Christ would have you enjoy to the full in the here and now.

In the gospel reading we heard the story of Jesus freeing a man from a mob of demons who had infested his life. Whether or not you think of demons as defined creatures with individual personalities doesn’t make any difference, so long as you are aware that they are so real and so tenacious that they might as well be, and so long as you realise what it is that they are doing to us. None of us are untouched by their influence. All of us have been colonised or infested by a legion of things which would keep us fearfully compliant with the corrupt powers that divide and feed off us, and with the toxic systems which lure us into increasing greed, callousness and superficiality. One of the lies they have succeeded in selling to much of the Church is that so long as you are “saved” you needed worry about or strive for anything more. In some places it is even preached as so long as you are saved you can participate in the competitive and profiteering systems of the dominant culture with impunity. This is a demonic lie. If you follow it your faith will be reduced to pie in the sky when you die, for your capacity to live a life full of love and mercy and compassion in the here and now will be eroded away to nothing.

As Jesus said on another occasion when he was confronted by someone whose life was completely under the grip of these demons, some demons are so tenacious that it is only through prayer and fasting that they can be tackled. Prayer and fasting - spiritual disciplines. For all of us, however little or much we can take on of these covenant disciplines, the reason we take on spiritual disciplines at all is to strengthen our resolve and build up our strength so that we might stand firm against the ever present demonic forces that would corrupt us and diminish us and intimidate us into resigned toleration of the powers of injustice, hatred and death.

Christ is risen and has broken the demonic power of death, the power of fear, the power of greed. And when his victory begins to bear fruit in our lives and we are seen free of the demons, clothed in Christ and in our right minds, much of the world around us will react exactly as the people of Gerasa did. They will say, “this is too weird, too dangerous. Get away from us, we don’t want anything to do with this.” But we will know that we have found the pathway to life in all its fullness, and no discipline that promises to take us deeper into the fullness of that life will ever seem too much to ask.