The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Today's Gospel reading is not very congenial to many modern readers and listeners. Whilst it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, those of us who do not inhabit the mental world of first-century Palestine are liable to be bemused by this story, in which demons are a regular way of describing mental illness, and exorcism a recognised method of dealing with them. If we also champion the importance of animal rights, then so much the worse. A veritable preacher’s nightmare. The only reasonable solution is for us to start by facing the difference between the culture of first-century Palestine and that of the modern Western world, and to try to enter into the essence of the story, to let it speak to us.
Jesus is in Gentile territory. Luke places the incident in Gerasa, south-east of the Sea of Galilee. It’s in the region of Decapolis. This is an area on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire that had been settled by many veterans of the imperial army, who had been given conquered land as payment for their service. It’s an area that had struggled for self-determination and been put down ruthlessly by the Romans. More than one city in the region had been reduced to rubble. We can think of areas of the world today that have been all but destroyed in similar struggles for self-rule, and it helps our understanding of this story if we try to imagine the insecurity that people in these circumstances must feel.
The disciples have been in a storm at sea and feared they would perish. Jesus has stilled the storm, and also their fears and anxieties. Perhaps they are hoping for a rest, a peaceful time, but as Jesus steps on to the land He is met by a man with a serious mental illness. The man’s mind is in constant turmoil. He thinks he is a whole army of demons, a Legion. He lives amongst the dead, crying out and harming himself. People have driven him out of the city and he is living amongst the tombs. It’s hard for us now to understand just how radical and counter-cultural Jesus’ encounter with this man really is. Jesus is a Jew and we may assume that this man is a Gentile, so Jesus wouldn’t be expected to have anything to do with him. Secondly, he’s living amongst the tombs, which are completely out of bounds according to the Jewish purity code. Dead people, and by association, the tombs they were buried in, were considered defiling.
Thirdly, the man’s living near a herd of pigs, again completely taboo for Jews. Proximity to pigs and the consumption of pork were both contrary to the Jewish law. But the man recognises Jesus and Jesus recognises his need. In contrast to the man, Jesus is quite still. Jesus who stills the storm, who calms the wind, who brings peace, now brings order out of the chaos of this man’s troubled mind. The man is healed, calm, clothed and in his right mind when people come out to see Jesus. We will gloss over what happened to the pigs! However, it did have an economic cost, and maybe that, together with the fear that welcoming Jesus might incur the wrath and retribution of the Roman occupying forces, made the people of the area ask Jesus to leave. These people felt deeply insecure. So they were not praising God that a man had been healed; they were counting the cost and finding it too high, too risky.
It remains the case to this day that embracing the Good News, the Gospel of Christ, has an effect on the economy of communities and individuals. It challenges the patterns of getting and spending. It can also threaten our security, which is so often thought to be dependent on how much material wealth we have.
As individuals and as a society, we all have some element of demon possession – the demons of consumerism, elitism, racism, materialism, greed and selfishness all vie for our souls. Jesus offers us freedom from the bonds the bind us. But the freedom which Christ brings will change us, change the way we live, change the way we see God and the way we see other people. The liberating Gospel poses a threat to the status quo. It makes us take risks.
So we turn to our Epistle reading, and St. Paul is on a very similar tack. He speaks from a position of knowledge of the Jewish Law, but this knowledge leads him to the conclusion that no one can keep the law perfectly. If being accepted by God was a matter of our own achievement, then true acceptance would require flawless performance. Everyone who tries to become religious in this way finds religion to be a curse. Instead, we are made righteous, not by our own efforts, but through God’s gracious gift of salvation, which we have through faith. In faith, all are able to become God’s children, true heirs of His promise.
What results is a new order of existence where all human divisions are removed – ethnic, gender and social. We enter a new world whose ordering principle is oneness in Christ. This text provides one of the clearest statements of Paul’s vision of a new united humanity. In Paul’s own lifetime it’s the Jew-Gentile question that comes to the fore, but in other ways we begin to see some removal of gender and social distinctions in the Early Church, although only haltingly. This continues to be an unrealised vision in the Church.
Divisions in society continue to account for much of the world’s anguish, and yet Jesus was so very clear on this point. His encounters with Gentiles, with women, with children, with the mentally ill, those with disabilities and other stigmatised people, all point to the inclusive nature of His Messiahship. Paul goes even further in our Epistle reading. Whilst our nationality, gender and social status are largely determined for us, he says that God doesn’t see these divisions. We are all one; we are united in Christ; we have a single identity in Him and it is the only identity that matters.
The barriers have been broken down and that liberates us and gives us equality before God, but it also obliges us to demonstrate that equality in our relationships. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
At the Archdeacon’s Visitation last week at Gt.Yarmouth Minster, Bishop Graham launched a new Diocesan Mission Strategy. It’s a strategy that asks us to take risks in bringing God’s love to the places and people in society that are increasingly remote and disengaged from the church. But the risks we take are taken in faith. The strategy begins with a quotation from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians ~
"To God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen."