Possession and proclamation

Jonathan Rowe, 19 June 2022

Isaiah 65: 1–9; Galatians 3: 23–29; Luke 8: 26–39

All of us, I’m sure, have been to new places. Hilary and I have just arrived in Winchester, which we are experiencing as a new place full of exciting possibilities. Perhaps you have lived in the same dwelling all your life, or perhaps moving house is a distant memory. But I’m sure we have all been to new places – for example, when we’ve been on holiday or visited friends and family.

Our reading this morning starts by observing that Jesus and his disciples went to the region of the Gerasenes, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s a geographical note which highlights the importance of place.

The man who greeted Jesus as he stepped ashore lived ‘among the tombs’. The archetypal outsider is described by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah as someone who sits among the graves and eats the flesh of pigs (Isaiah 65: 4). The Gerasene man who met Jesus was a Gentile, an outsider according to Jewish law; but he also lived apart from his own family and village, among the tombs.

The emphasis upon this man’s dwelling place is telling, for although he lives, the place he dwells, among the graves, is a picture of death. The man has already been banished from the land of the living, rejected from human community and excluded from the relationships that constitute so much of human life.

Regardless of how we explain Luke’s reference to an evil spirit, what is clear is that the man was gripped by evil within as well as without. Luke describes how he was untamable, so strong that he could rip off iron chains. But … while he had superhuman strength … he had lost his humanity.

Such was the man who met Jesus, shrieking, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ It’s significant that despite the aggressive hullabaloo, Jesus doesn’t actually dismiss the man out of hand. Neither does he answer his question. Instead, Jesus speaks to him as a fellow human being: ‘What is your name?’

Jesus treats the man not according to his status or position, not according to what he has done or his appearance, but as another person. As a person, the man merits Jesus’ acceptance, his time and respect.

There’s surely a lesson there for us as we encounter others, some of whom may be difficult or threatening in some way. The way of Jesus is to treat others with dignity regardless of what they look like or how they behave.

But let’s return to the man who had lost his humanity, who answered Jesus, ‘Legion, for we are many’. Notice what’s going on here: the man cannot identify himself other than by what possesses him. He loses his identity as the legion of spirits find theirs; and he is powerless to break their hold over him. What we see here is the destruction of the image of God, the obliteration of what it means to be really human.

And Jesus comes to this man: possessed, outcast, marginalised; someone living a barely human life, really. The result? In verse 35 we see the man ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’. Jesus restores the man to himself and to the world.

The second-century bishop Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. In another gospel, Jesus says that he has come to bring life in all its fullness. The healing of the Gerasene demoniac demonstrates what this means.

All this happened among the tombs. But what might it mean for us, here, today?

It pays to be quite practical. There are all sorts of things that can ‘possess’ us and dehumanise us. Addictions of all sorts have obvious dehumanising effects, not least because it can be very difficult to break free from them. But so does living life with oneself and one’s own desires as the top priority. A good definition of ‘sin’, in fact, is that it is desire curved in upon oneself.

Addictions of all sorts have obvious dehumanising effects, not least because it can be very difficult to break free from them. But so does living life with oneself and one’s own desires as the top priority.

Some of the chains that bind are obvious. More insidious, though, are the chains we do not see. Some think that the line between our patterns of consumption, habit and addiction is becoming blurred, because what we do affects who we are.

Neuroscientists tell us our habits actually change us. Like a path across a field that becomes increasingly obvious as more and more people walk the same route, so habits result in brain functioning that facilitates these behaviours – which is fine, when those habits are good; and not, when they are vices. So, our choices matter, something that takes us to the heart of Christian ethics, of what it means to live well with God.

The Good News is that if we are caught up in patterns of living that sometimes control us more than we control them, there are practical and spiritual resources available to break this cycle. A pattern of Sabbath-keeping or fasting, for example, helps us step off the treadmill and be truly human with God.

Another practical thing, which connects with the gathering for Ukrainian refugees at St Paul’s yesterday morning. Thank you to everyone who contributed, not just or even mainly for what you did, but because your work enabled people who have been deprived of so much, who are disorientated by strange customs or the English language, who are sometimes deeply traumatised, to do something for themselves.

The Bible considers the image of God in people to include ‘dominion’, the ability – partially, at least – to control their environment. In the language of sociologists and anthropologists, to have agency. Underlying the performances and songs, the cake and conversations, was an offering and acceptance of a fundamental gift: human agency. Something of life in all its fullness was being offered to a few Ukrainian refugees. This is gospel work; I wonder how it could be developed so that this wonderful place blesses our community in new and surprising ways.

There is another important place in this story, which we will look at much more briefly. This place is ‘in the city’. According to Luke, two things happen in the city.

First there is rejection. When Jesus healed the man there was a dramatic change. Dead pigs and the living miracle of a changed life mean we are ready for an outburst of faith. But the people ask Jesus to leave!

It’s not that they were worried about losing more pigs, but that what Jesus did was a sign. If you were a Jewish reader, it was a rather humorous sign, for it equated the occupying Roman army with unclean pigs. But it was also a dangerous sign, one that pointed to the fact that Jesus’ revolution was not only personal, but social and political, too.

This is why the people were afraid. They feared that if the authorities got wind of this revolutionary message – a message that talked of driving Rome back into the sea – they would suffer in ways that were no less barbaric then than what is happening in Ukraine today.

Both the Old and New Testaments presume ‘that underneath the pain and injustice of political enslavement there is a spiritual battle’ (N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, p. 57). Yet the people were worried about the practical consequences for them of military retribution and pleaded with Jesus to leave the region.

As Jesus boards the boat – and this introduces the second thing that happens in the city – ‘the man from whom the demons had gone begged to go with him’. The man wanted to be a disciple, someone who left him home to be with Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t let him leave. Instead, in verse 39, Jesus tells him to, ‘return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you’. He was to stay in his place, returning to those who had rejected him, regaining or restarting a fully human, ‘normal’ life among the people who knew him – and explaining that it was Jesus who made it all possible.

This is an excellent image of how most of us are called to follow Jesus in the places where we live: to live well in ways that enable others to live well in every dimension of life – physical, emotional, social, political and spiritual – all of which are, of course, intimately connected.

To sum up: our reading from the gospel of Luke ascribes significance to place. A man who lived among the tombs met Jesus as he disembarked from a boat on the shore of Galilee. Jesus rescues the man from what possessed him, giving him life and restoring his identity. In the city, we saw that Jesus’ work is political as well as personal. Some, unable to accept this dimension of God’s kingdom, rejected Jesus’ message. The man whose life had been given back to him wanted to follow Jesus, yet he was commissioned to tell others what Jesus had done in the place where he lived.

Our passage this morning raises many questions, but here are two for our reflection now: I wonder, how have we experienced God’s saving power in our lives? And, how will we let this be known in the places where we live? Amen.