Tuesday 11 June 2024

How can Satan cast out Satan?

Saint Augustine and the Devil, by Michael Pacher

Reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 11th June 2024

Jesus is being mobbed like a rock star in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 3:20-35). He has been travelling around Galilee proclaiming the Good News and healing those who came to him, followed by crowds thronging to see this celebrity. Now he has returned to the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Even there the crowds still press in on him, so that he and his disciples don’t have time even to eat, we are told.

But not all in the crowds support Jesus. We hear of two groups of people who want him to cease his ministry – first his family, and second a party of scribes.

Back in Nazareth his family has heard how he is being mobbed. They fear that the authorities will seek to put him out of the way for being so outspoken. He must have ‘gone out of his mind’, they think – we must go to fetch him home and end this madness. But Jesus rejects their attempts. Pointing to his disciples he tells his family, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’. From this I learn that each one of us has the freedom in Christ to follow what we discern to be God’s call to us, our vocation. Even if others including family and friends oppose it. If I am certain of my call, I must be prepared to reject the well-meaning intervention even of those whom I love and who love me.

What about the scribes, who had come down from Jerusalem to oppose him? They cannot deny he has been healing the sick, since so many people have seen it. In those days it was believed that illness was caused by evil spirits – by demons. So they start to spread rumours about the source of Jesus’s healing power: ‘He has Beelzebul’ – the chief demon – ‘and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’.

Jesus understands very well what the scribes are about. He confronts them directly to their faces, dismissing their argument as a logical impossibility. ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’, he asks. ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come’. Look at it this way, he says, ‘No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man’. Jesus turns the tables on the scribes by pointing out, ‘I am stronger than Satan because I have cast out Satan’.

Jesus has refuted the scribes’ claim that he is possessed by ‘an unclean spirit’, not the Holy Spirit from God. Now he turns their words back on them. For the scribes to say that a spirit that comes from God is not good but evil is a blasphemy, an insult to God. It is the scribes whose spirits are unclean, not Jesus.  ‘Truly I tell you’, he says, ‘people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’.

Over the centuries many Christians have been confused by this unforgiveable blasphemy, ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit’. I understand it in this way. Our God-given conscience enables us to distinguish good from evil. People who cannot tell good from evil are conscience-blind. They are unable to recognise what is evil in themselves, so they cannot repent it. And without repentance they cannot be forgiven. Some Christians over the years have feared that they may be guilty of this unforgiveable sin, causing them great suffering. But they should take comfort, I suggest, that precisely because of their fear, they are not conscience blind, and can seek repentance and obtain forgiveness.

In this reading, Jesus has given us a tool we can use to discern whether someone we meet is motivated by a spirit of evil, as the scribes from Jerusalem were. Anyone whose conscience is so lacking that they cannot distinguish between good and evil must be motivated by a spirit of evil. When we recognise this, we must confront and overcome the evil as Jesus did, without violence. Such people will not be able to repent the evil they do, and so they cannot be forgiven - their sin can only be eternal.

Unless God intervenes, that is, because all things are possible with God - as St Paul, the persecutor of the Church, discovered on the road to Damascus.


Sunday 9 June 2024

Remembering St Columba

 Address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 9th June 2024, the Feast of St Columba

I ring this bell to call us to remember St Columba, whose feast day it is today.

St Columba’s name in Irish is Colm Cille, which means Dove of the Church – Columba in Latin simply means a dove. He was born in 521 in Co. Donegal to an aristocratic, warrior family. He studied in Clonard monastery, Co. Meath, became a monk, and eventually was ordained a priest. In his early years he is said to have founded several monasteries including those at Kells, Derry and Swords.

But Columba was not always as peaceful as his name suggests. He got embroiled in a quarrel over a psalm book with St Finnian of Movilla. Columba borrowed the book and copied it secretly for his own use, but Finnian disputed his right to keep it. The High King adjudicated the case, coming to the famous judgement, ‘To every cow its calf, to every book its copy’. This set a precedent that is still remembered in copyright law. Columba would not accept the judgement, and the dispute eventually resulted in a pitched battle between the supporters of the two men in which 3,000 people are said to have died.

A Synod threatened to excommunicate St Columba for these deaths, but St Brendan of Birr spoke up for him, and he was allowed to go into exile. Columba went to Scotland as a missionary, pledged to convert as many heathen Picts as had been killed in the battle.

Columba sailed into exile in 563AD in a curragh with 12 companions.

No doubt he brought with him a precious copy of the Gospels and the psalms, perhaps also a bell like this one, as many early Irish saints did, to call his fellows to prayer and worship.

Landing on Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides, Columba began his life’s work to convert the Picts to Christianity. He established a great monastery in Iona, one of the most important in the Celtic world, which he developed into a centre of learning and a school for missionaries.

He became deeply involved in Scottish politics, helping to broker peace between the warring Picts and Gaels. The aristocratic Irish warrior who caused so much slaughter became St Columba, the dove of peace.

Today’s 1st reading (Micah 4:1-5) is very apt for his feast day:

‘(The Lord) shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;

but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.’

Columba’s monastery on Iona continued to flourish after his death in 597 AD.

It was renowned for its learning, and for its scriptorium which made beautiful, illustrated manuscripts, among them the Book of Kells. From Iona missionaries went not only around Scotland, but to England where St Aidan came from Iona to Lindisfarne where he converted the heathen Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians.

The Iona monastery was eventually abandoned in 849AD after being sacked several times by the Vikings. Its treasures and relics were dispersed around Scotland and Ireland, which may explain how Kells got its famous book.

But Columba’s monastery continued to live on in memory. Scottish kings continued to be buried in its ruins, including Macbeth, whom we remember from Shakespeare’s play. 

And in 1203 a Benedictine Abbey was built in its place, which continued to flourish until it was suppressed at the Reformation.

Yet that is not the end of the story!

In 1938 a Presbyterian Minister called George McLeod brought a party of unemployed men from Govan near Glasgow to rebuild Iona’s ruined Benedictine Abbey. In doing so he founded what is now known as the Iona Community.

In words taken from their website (iona.org.uk), the Iona Community today ‘is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship. We are an ecumenical community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Church, engaged together and with people of goodwill across the world, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and the integrity of creation’.

The Community run pilgrim and retreat centres on Iona and nearby Mull. They also run outreach programmes in Glasgow, and programmes for children. Their Wild Goose publishing house makes new, exciting liturgy and hymns available to Christians everywhere. The Iona Community continues to bless Christians in these islands by building on their inheritance from St Columba.

The history of Iona is one of continuing cycles of decay and rebirth. This brings Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:20-26) into sharp focus: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.

I have a personal dream - foolish, maybe; perhaps impractical; but it is bold.

What is there to stop us in the Church of Ireland, perhaps in this diocese, from emulating our brothers and sisters in the Iona Community? What is there to prevent us from bringing together and fostering a new dispersed, ecumenical community of Irish Christians to be a resource for the churches of all traditions in this island?

This new Community might draw on the experience of Iona to develop new and exciting resources for modern, joyful worship, designed to attract and inspire pilgrims, and the young at heart in all generations, from every tradition across Ireland.

This new Community might develop new ways to engage with the increasing numbers of people in our towns and cities, and our rural countryside, who have no contact with our Christian faith or any church.

This new Community might adopt one of our many beautiful, ancient buildings, whose stones, like Iona’s, speak of a long and living Christian tradition, as a focus of pilgrimage, prayer and retreat. St Brendan’s Cathedral at Clonfert comes to mind, as one of several possibilities. Clonfert cathedral is barely used by the Church of Ireland, which also owns the nearby ruined Bishop’s Palace. And next door is the Roman Catholic Emmanuel House of prayer and evangelisation.

Who knows what blessings might flow from a new Community like this?

I ring this bell to call us to remember St Columba.

Let us give thanks for St Columba’s arrival on Iona nearly 1,460 years ago, and for his work as missionary and peacemaker.

Let us give thanks in our own day for the 85 years of Christian witness and service of the Iona Community.

Let us give thanks for the inspiration we continue to receive from both St Columba and the Iona Community.

And let us pray in words attributed to St Colmba himself:

Kindle in our hearts, O God,
the flame of love that never ceases,
that it may burn in us,
giving light to others.
May we shine for ever in your temple,
set on fire with your eternal light,
even your Son Jesus Christ,
our saviour and redeemer. Amen.