Anglican Church of the Incarnation, Cambridge, Mass.



Sermon preached by Mr. David Trumbull on October 19, 2003, Being the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

“The world, the flesh, and the devil,” is the unholy trinity from which we pray God for delivery in the collect for this eighteenth Sunday after Trinity. “The world, the flesh, and the devil” --it sounds like the title of a new television series on HBO or FX-- is a memorable phrase. I “googled” it and got 13,500 hits. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations credits our Book of Common Prayer as the source, where it first occurs in the Litany, the oldest liturgical text in the English language.

The World: well, that one’s easy isn’t it. We all know that living a life in Christ means renouncing “friendship of the world (James 4:4). And we all recognize that the worldly exultation of the pleasures of the Flesh reduce man to animal instincts and crushes the spiritual impulses. But the Devil? Even we traditionalists have, I think, if we are totally honest, some difficulty believing in a literal Devil, a malevolent creature opposed to God and determined to steal our souls. Evil forces or some evil principle that is an allegory for the absence of good: yes, we can accept that; but the Devil, Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer? Why, he is just another option for fancy dress on Hallowe’en.

I begin with the devil because I believe that the hazards of the World and the Flesh are properly understood only in relation to the difficult issue of the Devil. The Devil is not a rhetorical flourish tacked on to the more easily grasped phrases “the world” and “the flesh.” Originally this collect begged for deliverance from the Devil; World and Flesh were later prepended in the 1662 revision of the Prayerbook. So, we begin with the Devil.

Literally, we begin with the Devil, for at the beginning of our Christian life, at Baptism, we --or our sponsors-- “renounce the devil and all his works.” (BCP p. 276)

We do not renounce the world, for we worship --as we sang in the opening hymn-- “The God who gave all worlds that are, and all that are to be.” At Baptism we renounced “the vain pomp and glory of the world.” It is the corruption and the illusions of the world that we eschew. We are called to be holy while living in a world that was created good but has been corrupted by sin and Satan. In the first lesson today, the prophet Amos, teaches us that we shall answer for how we use the goods of the world. Today's Psalm, Psalm 62, sings that the salvation that comes of God exceeds vain riches. And in the Gospel (St. John 7:38) Jesus proclaims that he --not anything in world which we may erroneously value-- is the source of the water of life.

The Gospel then goes on to relate a dispute about the birthplace of the Christ, reminding us that our Lord was born in a specific place, Bethlehem in Judea. Much more than merely a Cosmic Christ, our Lord became flesh as a particular man in a particular place at a particular time. And by taking on our flesh in our world, He transformed both. And our religion, Christianity, does not --unlike many religions-- renounce the world, rather it transforms the world.

We renounce the “sinful desires of the flesh,” yet we do not renounce the flesh. That is an ancient heresy that dualistic believe that flesh is bad and spirit good. Sins of the flesh are grave because the flesh is so central to our human existence that to corrupt the flesh is to corrupt the spirit and soul. That is why, when God redeemed us, He came among us as man. Not appearing to be man, but becoming flesh and blood. As we say in the Nicene Creed at Sunday Mass et incarnatus est, and we genuflect at the mystery of God becoming flesh. You see, the problem is not the flesh --that Satan uses it; rather the problem is that he teaches us to misuse the flesh. The Devil uses flesh; God became flesh in the Incarnation. And Christ redeems our flesh so that finally, at the last we shall rise in the body, as we professed minutes ago in the Apostle’s Creed, Credo in carnis resurrectionem “I believe in the resurrection of the body” --or in the original Latin, the flesh.

So what of “the world, the flesh, and the devil?” Among a few friends I joked that this sermon might be called “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad,” for as we see, the world and the flesh are only bad insofar as we abuse them and attach an inordinate affection to them. And that is exactly what the Devil wants.

Throughout Scripture we read of the Devil, always as an evil creature, never in term that can be understood as allegory solely. Our Baptismal renounciation of the Devil and centuries of Christian thought all agree that the Devil is real.

A September 13, 2000 Harris Poll reported that "the overwhelming majority of adult Americans believe in God (94%), heaven (89%), the resurrection of Christ (86%), the survival of the soul after death (86%), miracles (85%) and the virgin birth of Jesus (82%). The numbers who hold these beliefs have not changed significantly since similar questions were asked in 1994 and 1998." The same poll showed that 72% believe in the Devil. So while the Devil is not having much success in turning us into atheists, he has at least pursuaded one in four Americans that he doesn't exist. Now, just how do you fight an enemy you don't believe in? The Devil is our enemy. Let's be clear on that. St. Peter wrote: "[Our] adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." (I Peter 5:8)

Oh, we can take heart in the fact that that Harris poll showed far fewer people – but still many – believing in astrology (41%), ghosts (39%) and reincarnation (20%).

Presently we shall kneel and say the Our Father. "Our Father who art in Heaven...deliver us from Evil." Equally valid as a translation, say many scholars, is the phrase "Deliver us from the evil one" --The Devil.

Let us conclude by reflecting on the words of a fine old Lutheran hymn

    A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
    Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
    For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
    His craft and power are great; and, armed with cruel hate.
    On earth is not his equal.