A healing beyond all expectation

Peter Seal, 23 June 2019

Isaiah 65: 1–9; Luke 8: 26–39

Today’s gospel reading is one of those extraordinary healing stories. It has a contemporary resonance. For example, there’s a strong theme of fear.

The local people living there try to keep the man possessed by demons under control with chains and shackles. They are understandably afraid of him. Whatever it is that possesses the demoniac is afraid of Jesus, making him fall down and shout at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus?’

Fear is a major factor in the life of our world. You only have to engage with the news, nationally or internationally, to see the power of fear.

The man Jean Vanier, who died recently, is an example of living without fear. He will always be remembered for helping us to see that everyone – with or without learning disabilities – is of equal worth.

It all began for Jean in 1964 when he visited an asylum for 80 men with learning disabilities, in northern France. He found the residents walking around in circles and doing little else. They were enclosed by high concrete walls; some were screaming.

One of them looked at Jean with hopeful eyes and said, ‘Will you be my friend?’ In the moment that it took him to smile and nod, Jean’s life had been changed. He began to share a house with this man, and another, both with learning disabilities. They lived as equals, needing one another. They became a small community. Others heard of them and were drawn to them. New communities sprang up all over the world.

In our small but important way, here in both our church congregations, and the nearby communities, we are building a community of people who care for and need one another. At the simplest level, in all sorts of ways we are saying to one another, ‘Will you be my friend?’ We’re seeking to say to one another, ‘You don’t need to be afraid’.

Jean Vanier used to say quite simply, ‘The future of our world lies in community’. As we try and engage with the complexities of modern-day politics, often motivated by fear, we see so clearly that this is true. The challenges of the environment and of world peace are powerful examples that ‘the future of our world lies in community’. The Christian faith has a vital, servant role in seeking both to proclaim, but more importantly to model, this truth.

‘The future of our world lies in community’. The Christian faith has a vital, servant role in seeking both to proclaim, but more importantly to model, this truth.

At a time like ours it’s very tempting to give up on politics, throwing up our hands in despair, frustration and embarrassment. But maybe we need to do just the opposite, and find for ourselves appropriate ways to become involved? It’s interesting that the National Trust has over five million members, whilst the two major political parties have only a few hundred thousand members. I wonder what this is saying to us.

As we acknowledge the power of fear, and the need for community at every level of life, let’s go back to today’s gospel. ‘A man of the city who had demons met Jesus.’ To refer to him as ‘a man of the city’ is typical of Luke. He is seeking to give back to the man everything that his illness had robbed him of – that is, dignity, status and a place in the community. Even by telling us that ‘for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house’, Luke is pointing to the man he had been, and therefore could perhaps become again.

Possibly this is not the first time that Jesus had encountered this unfortunate man. His cry of recognition of Jesus suggests a previous meeting. The cry, ‘Do not torment me’, could indicate some fear of Jesus, as if our Lord had made a previous attempt to help him. Luke writes, ‘Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man’. Luke seems to emphasise the extreme nature of the man’s illness, and the various attempts made to subdue him.

Our Lord asks the man his name. This is always a powerful question. Our name gives us both identity and our dignity as a human being. When someone looks us in the eye and uses our name, there’s a real connection – something that can go deep.

The man replies that his name is ‘Legion’. There’s sadness here; the name seems to relate to the large number of demons that possess him, rather than who he really is. You can’t imagine his parents naming him Legion when he was born. The words seem to betray a loss of personal identity through the onslaught of the illness. Perhaps we are witnessing a desperate pleading – a conversation between Jesus and the possessed man, a conversation that makes no sense in any rational way but rings true at the depth of intuition, which Jesus enabled.

Using the swine nearby, our Lord may have produced a form of transference, with a powerful effect. We will never know. But we do know that the stampede of swine is real. The loss of the animals brings a crowd. When they arrive, they see something beyond all expectation.

The man is no longer a feared monster. He is ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’. The man has been freed of all that possessed him. The man is looking up at Jesus from where he’s sitting. Jesus is his friend. The man is no longer afraid.

It’s worth noticing how the encounter ends. The one who is healed asks Jesus if he can go with him. Having been healed and freed, the man, quite understandably, simply wants to be with Jesus. We’re told: he begs Jesus to let him get into the boat with him.

Jesus says, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’. So he goes away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus has done for him. Our Lord’s reply echoes what the voice of God said many years ago to Elijah: ‘Go, return on your way’ (1 Kings 19: 15) – after experiencing God, you’ve got work to do.

It’s tempting for us to imagine that one day we will be ready for this sort of challenge; but not yet! The Lord prompts us to ask ourselves, without delay, ‘What have I already been healed for?’

Here we have an experience of healing. Now there must be a return to the community and a living out of life in faithful thanksgiving. It’s tempting for us in our lives to imagine that one day we will be ready for this sort of challenge; but not yet! In our own way we say to the Lord, ‘Wait a while until I feel really ready – more at peace within myself, perhaps; less fearful; or freed from what holds me back’.

The Lord prompts us to ask ourselves, without delay, ‘What have I already been healed for? What new task has God for me to carry out, in response for all that I have already received?’