Second Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday 23 June, 2019
1 Kings 19.1-15a
Galatians 3.10-14, 23-29
The freedom of silence, the dignity of community ©Sue Grimmett
Across the other side of the sea, in the land of the Gentiles, there was a man possessed by demons who lived in the place of the dead.
In that one sentence is captured the most important thing we need to know about this man. This man was unclean and excluded from any human companionship or community. He was from that other side of the sea, the land of the Gentiles, in heavily Roman occupied territory. He lived in amongst the tombs, where his residence with the dead made him as unclean as the contact he had with the pigs that wandered nearby. On top of that, the text tells us he was possessed of demons that drove him to appear, naked and shouting, before all who came close, often breaking loose and running into the wilderness despite the guards watching him and the chains and shackles which bound him. It would be difficult to find a more thorough presentation of degraded humanity and social ostracism.
Into this scene comes Jesus.
Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?” which here effectively translates as, ‘What are the demons in your life?’
The answer is dramatic: ‘Legion’.
There are so many layers of meaning in this story, and, as often happens in scriptural narratives, the names carry important messages. Even to our 21st century ears, ‘legion’ calls to mind the Roman army – a legion was a company of up to 6000 of the occupying enemy from the perspective of the Jews, and a force of unparalleled domination at the time. The story is telling us we are dealing with oppressive forces using weapons of control and division which demean, disempower and dehumanize.
The demons’ choice to be driven into ‘a band of pigs’ is important and ironic since this term also refers in Greek to a group of military recruits. The greatly feared Tenth Legion was even symbolized by a pig mascot. Yet this might and power is defeated, with the pigs being swallowed up, just like Pharoah’s army, by the chaos of the sea. This, like the Exodus narrative, is a liberation story.
The wild man, with the legion departed into the pigs, is now set free. The screaming is hushed, his agitation stilled and he is clothed and in his right mind. He is sitting at the feet of Jesus.
When Jesus heals someone, the crowd normally responds with awe and joy, recognising the power in their midst and crowding around him to bring their own sick and distressed for healing.
Not this time.
This time the text tells us that these Gentiles come in to see what has happened but then are “seized with great fear”. Instead of being filled with awe and praise of God, they want Jesus out.
Now I had always been told that this was because the people had lost their livelihood in those pigs that ran off the cliff- that they were upset at Jesus because of their economic loss.
This interpretation really isn’t in the text, and I think says more about our culture’s fears and concern for material wealth than anything else.
No, the text tells us these are people who have come in from the city and the surrounding areas- people who know this tormented man of the tombs and his uncontrolled, violent and inhuman behaviour. These are people who are familiar with their outcast- the one who seems to them monstrous, living among the dead and running naked through the wilds.
Everyone got to feel better about themselves while he was around, because he could be their scapegoat.
Communities often define themselves over and against someone else-some “other”. In order to feel good about ourselves we need someone who is in some way bad or wrong with whom to compare ourselves.
While this wild, unclean man was there, he could be a repository for their own darkness. He was the ‘other’ on to whom they could project all their fear and violence, anger and guilt. When their scapegoat is seen sitting clothed and healed at the feet of Jesus, the crowds are left facing their own demons.
Now, there is no one to persecute, no one to exclude, no one to blame. Sometimes it is a fearful thing to be left owning our own darkness.
In a strange way, this savage from the place of the dead had been a source of unity the people did not want to lose: so much so that they had guarded him day and night, returning him to his chains when he escaped. What they feared to see in themselves they could project on to him.
Eric Symes Abbott wrote about the need we have to maintain our horror of the “other”;
How can I love my neighbour as myself
when I need him as my enemy –
when I see in him the self I fear to own
and cannot love?
How can there be peace on earth
while our hostilities are our most
cherished possessions –
defining our identity, confirming
What if we did not need to use another to be able to justify our own innocence?
What if we allowed God to confirm our innocence instead of needing to seek it over and against another’s impurity or failure?
What if we allowed “the self we fear to own” to be seen by the One who came promising that he came not to condemn us but to save us, and naming us the beloved?
The alternative, sadly, is so often a frightened, lonely and disconnected humanity. Even in the church, we allow those same old patterns of the negative unity created by scapegoating and judging others to be our only source of unity- we who should know better because we have been shown the way of a positive unity where the dignity of our humanity is restored to one another.
There are really two forms of possession. Negative possession, where we are possessed by the spirits of fear, domination and competition, dividing us into tribes as we demean and scapegoat the other, and positive possession, where we are possessed by the Spirit of Christ, setting us free to love ourselves and one another. Maybe we need to recover some forms of collective exorcism! Then, like the man set free from his occupying legion and restored, clothed and in his right mind, we can be clothed in Christ, and set free to live into the new community of the kingdom of God where there are no more scapegoats and divisions; where we are neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all one in Christ Jesus. It is hard to overstate the enormity of the vision of St Paul in these words.
And what are we saying when we say we will be one? We are saying that our worth and place in the family is not determined by our productivity, our appearance, our age, our gender, our health, our wealth, our history or any other category or external measure of achievement. We are saying that we all are in need of the mercy of God. And we are saying that as we are clothed in Christ we are changed, set free to love one another because we are loved as we are and no longer need to hide.
People and communities are transformed by love. Without love, and the courage to face our own demons, we will always have the crazies lurking at the edge of our consciousness… a hint of maniacal screaming on the outskirts of our gatherings…. the hysteria of fear erupting and projecting on to others all our own hidden, destructive impulses. Love is the only way that we can be together with no need of shame or blame. In the quiet presence of Jesus, we are invited to sit and rest from our noise and fury, laying down our harsh metrics of judgement and exclusion, and begin to explore together the endless, creative possibilities of being a community that loves one another.