Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Luke 13:10-17;
Heb 12:18-29; Isa 58:9b-14
ANTI-SATAN: A NEW WAY OF LIFE
Many of you know that a month after I started here at Bethlehem, my wife Ellen was diagnosed with breast cancer. Nine months later, we’re gradually getting more to a point of normalcy again. But it is a new normal. Because the one silver lining of the battle against cancer has been a life-changing book: Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life, by David Servan-Schreiber. I think Ellen had already finished it before she even had the surgery. I’m getting close to finishing it now. Let me tell you a bit about it.
Dr. Servan-Schreiber was an M.D. and Ph.D. brain researcher. At age 31 in the early 1990’s, he was doing a study that involved performing MRIs on the brains of numerous test subjects. When one of the test subjects failed to show up, he volunteered to his colleagues that he would step-in. When he came out of the MRI, he could tell by their faces that something was wrong. They told him that the MRI revealed a significant tumor. The next number of months quickly became caught up in standard treatment of an aggressive brain cancer. The treatment would extend his life, they informed him, but he would live no more than two years. He asked them if there was anything else he could do. Their only answer was, “Make sure you don’t smoke.”
He wasn’t satisfied with that answer. And as he began researching cancer treatment and studies, he noticed a significant flaw: the studies seldom took into account lifestyle differences or changes. This was true even of something as significant as smoking! The studies did not differentiate between patients who quit smoking and those who continued to smoke. Really?! Dr. Servan-Schreiber at that moment changed his field of research. For the next twenty years he pioneered the field of showing how lifestyle changes can deeply effect your ability to fight off cancer. Yes, that’s right. I said twenty years. Instead of living only two years or less, he lived for another twenty years before finally succumbing to the brain cancer.
The lines at the top of the front cover say, “All of us have cancer cells in our bodies. But not all of us will develop cancer.” Dr. Servan-Schreiber spent the last twenty years of his life researching the factors of why that’s the case. Why do some people develop cancer and others don’t? It can’t be all genetics, biological fate. There must be lifestyle patterns that either contribute to or help reduce one’s chances of getting cancer. In this book, he goes through those factors one-by-one. For example, a key to reducing one’s chances of getting cancer is to have a healthy, active immune system. Our immune systems are the main difference to having the cancer cells in our bodies to multiply or not. Dr. Servan-Schreiber writes very clearly in explaining how and why. On page 41, he has a chart that summarizes the findings on what inhibits and what activates our immune systems.1
[Extemporize findings on chart.]
He goes on throughout the rest of the book to elaborate all the factual science on lifestyle factors for fighting cancer — in our diets, in our environments, and in our spiritual lives, our minds. The chapter on “The Anti-cancer Mind” is one of the longest in the book, reflecting the difference of living persistently with things like anger and despair vs. serenity and joy.
I begin with Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s book this morning because our Gospel Reading is one of the finest, most revealing healing stories in the Gospels. And I propose to you this morning that Jesus gives us strong indication that healing is about much more than simply curing an ailment in our bodies. Like Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s book, he keys us in on the connections to lifestyles and spiritual practices. Twice Jesus refers to healing the woman bent over for eighteen years as setting her free. The second time he tells us what from: she has been bound by Satan.
In order to understand what Jesus is talking about here, we need to understand what Jesus was talking about when he used the name Satan. I submit to you that he was ahead of his time on that score. At the time of Jesus, long before modern science, things like Satan, the devil, and evil spirits were seen as beings who were part of a widespread human practice that essentially blamed the victim — people like this woman who had an easily identified ailment for 18 years. When someone was sick, they tended to think it was a punishment for doing something bad. God had sent evil spirits to make them sick, they thought. Let’s face it: that’s what we today call “blaming the victim.” Someone is simply sick, but you accuse them of having done something wrong to deserve it.
Accuse. Accusations. That’s the key to understanding why Jesus names Satan into the picture. Satan was actually a title that means The Accuser. Satan was the one who accuses Job in the Old Testament book that bears his name. The Book of Job is basically one long challenge to this practice of blaming the victim, one in which Satan has the crucial role.
So Jesus’ innovation is that he seemed to understand Satan not so much as a separate spiritual being who literally bound people. No, instead, he understood Satan as this very real human tendency to blame victims. This woman bent over for 18 years is not bound by Satan in a literal sense of some invisible, otherworldly being tying her up but rather in the sense of other human beings adding the burden to her life of blaming her for her illness.
It’s a longer story to show you how Jesus understood Satan. We can at least glimpse it through the main story in the Gospels, where Jesus is healing other people by casting out the spiritual things that burden them. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul, the lord of the demons. Jesus responds with the “parable” of Satan casting out Satan as keeping the human family perpetually divided against itself.2 The implications are that the Pharisees have just tried to play the game of Satan casting out Satan against Jesus. They think themselves on God’s side in accusing Jesus of being satanic. But Jesus suggests to them that they are not on God’s side, but Satan’s side, the side of the Accuser. In bring false accusations against Jesus, he is exposing how the human game of blaming victims is one that keeps us perpetually divided and thus prevents us from ever fully reaching our human potential. It keeps us from full wholeness and wellness. “Satan” is something that binds up all of humanity.
The climax of Jesus’ ‘pulling back the curtain’ on Satan is when he lets himself be falsely accused on Good Friday — duly tried and executed on the cross. But on Easter morning God raises him from the dead in order to expose the deadly human game of Satan casting out Satan, thus vindicating Jesus. Those who executed Jesus were not doing godly work of casting out evil. They were doing the satanic work of keeping humanity in its diseased state of perpetual Us-vs-Them thinking, the stuff of conspiracy theories and political violence. Jesus came to not only free people like the woman in today’s Gospel, who are victims of this oppressive game. He came to ultimately heal and set free all of humankind from this deadly ailment that keeps us forever divided from ourselves, forever at war with each other.
This salvation includes the perpetrators of this game, not just the victims. It includes those who wield the power of accusation, playing on people’s fears and resentments. In today’s Gospel, the woman is not the only one bound by Satan. So is the leader of the synagogue, who accuses Jesus of doing something wrong by healing on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue is also bound by Satan. But, tragically, he doesn’t know it, because, for the time being at least, he benefits from it. He is the one who at the moment is wielding the power of accusation on others.
It is very similar in John chapter 9, where Jesus heals a man born blind from birth. Incredible! That he could heal such a blindness! But the Pharisees in that story, too, go on to play the blame game, once again accusing Jesus of wrongdoing by healing on the Sabbath. The story ends this way:
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:39-41)
Jesus came to heal the human family from the blindness and sickness that keeps it divided. He came to heal us of the deadly games of accusation that keep us divided and even killing each other.
So let’s end this morning by bringing the two together. We began with what it takes to be anti-cancer. Our Gospel Reading basically shows us Jesus being anti-Satan, anti-playing-the-games-of-accusation-and-persecution, the games we play that keep us at war with each other. I propose to you that some of the crucial things involved with both anti-cancer and anti-Satan are the same or very similar. (Recall the table on immune systems above.)
Living with persistent anger or despair inhibits our immune systems from being able to fight cancer cells, while finding ways to increase serenity and joy helps to activate our immune systems. To persisting in anger and despair, I would add persisting in fear and resentment as things that leave us more susceptible to people drawing us into the deadly games of accusation and conspiracy theories. Learning with Jesus to increase our serenity and joy and love, on the other hand, helps us to work for reconciliation instead of accusation and conflict.
Studies show us that social isolation inhibits our immune systems from fighting cancer while support from family and friends activates our immune systems. When it comes to being anti-Satan, social isolation includes being siloed into groups who only share our points of view and thus keep us angry, fearful, and resentful of those who have different views. Jesus shows us how to even love our enemies so that we risk not being socially isolated from them. We resist attempts of others to draw us into the games of accusation, yes. But we don’t socially isolate from them. Instead, we engage them in love. We seek common ground. We might even sometimes risk letting them hurt us (Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance) in the hope that our pain can help open their eyes to the ways in which Satan binds us all from being one human family.
Jesus came to set us free from the disease that has plagued us since our beginning as a species. Jesus came to show us how to be anti-Satan. Let us live together in mutual harmony, joy, and love, even in the face of a world still broken and divided. Let us take up the mantle of offering healing and liberation. Let us help our neighbors to understand what it truly means to be free.3 Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, August 21, 2022
1. David Servan-Schreiber, Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life (Penguin Books, 2008), Table 1 on page 41.
2. See especially Mark 3:22-27 (paralleled in Matt 12:22-30 and Luke 11:14-15, 17-23). For more on this reading of Satan, see my webpage “Girard on Satan,” and the webpage for Mark 3:22-27 on Proper 5B.
3. I needed to end the sermon at this point, but I almost raised our experience with COVID. As a pandemic, the crisis provided the opportunity for us to come together as one human family. COVID was attacking us as such! We were all vulnerable to its invisible attacks. But, instead, many of our leaders (Donald Trump!) used the occasion for deepening conspiracy theories and polarization around such things as the false freedom of not wearing masks or being vaccinated. True freedom is found in the human family coming together to stand against those things which harm us.