|Published by Steven Rawlings on Sun, 30 Jun 2019 14:32|
The Gerasene Demoniac
I have no doubt that some people here are familiar with the experience of being bullied. Persecuted. Treated as an outsider when surrounded by people who think they are insiders. Back at school, or in the workplace, or in our society. Perhaps you are experiencing our current political mess as making you feel more of an outsider, especially if you do not have a British passport and are living here.
The pain of being bullied, the loneliness of feeling that you are not one of the crowed, not part of the herd… It can damage you for life.
The story of the Gerasene Demoniac is all about insiders and outsiders. The demoniac is the quintessential outsider, bound and chained, naked, living the tombs among the dead people. And we all know people like him – indeed, we had someone at the 9 o’clock last week who was an outsider and who disrupted our service in quite a serious way.
If you are defined as an outsider you are not part of the crowd. You are not part of the herd. And one important thing about that is that it is those who are in the crowd who make the definitions. It is the powerful who decide who is to be excluded from power, the influential who decide who is to be excluded from influence. And, in many ways, the powerful need the powerless, the influential need the weak – not just so they have an arena in which to act, but also to help them define themselves.
We are THIS, we are NOT THAT! The rise in nationalism and populism is, to a large extent, about people wanting to be able to define themselves over and against others – notably, foreigners – and the groups at school who picked on the people they identified as weak are very similar. The classic expression of that is the way lesbian and gay people have been treated through the centuries – as outsiders, to be vilified, so that the insiders can be comfortable in their own self-definition as straight people.
So this story is a crucial story, right at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Right at the heart of the Gospel. The demoniac is literally imprisoned, pushed out to the edge of the town, excluded, and the townspeople are very clear that they are in and he is out.
But Jesus changes everything.
What do you think is the fulcrum of the story? Where does it change? When the demons go into the pigs? When Jesus commands the unclean spirit to go out of the man?
For me, the moment at which the story turns is when Jesus asks the man a question – a simple question –
What is your name?
In nearly all the healing miracles, he asks a question – what do you want? But in this case he does something different. He asks, what is your name?
The effect of that is to give the demoniac an identity. It’s, immediately, a weird identity – my name is Legion – referring to the Roman legions who were occupying Palestine at the time, perhaps, and more generally referring to the princedoms and powers which keep the man in bondage – the things which make him an outsider, his voices, but also his inability to participate in society – capitalism, maybe, now, or consumerism… There is a whole nother sermon on the meaning of Legion. But for today, the point is that Jesus treats the demoniac as a person, and, crucially, gives him respect, by asking his name.
So we reach the kernel: for Jesus respects the demoniac, and in respecting him he lifts him up, and in lifting up he heals him. He is made whole, so that he able to go back to the town and be with the others, who Jesus now describes as his friends. It is a huge transformation – those who excluded him are suddenly bringing him in, and he becomes a part of their life.
There is another huge sermon about why the pigs all had to die… I’m going to save that for another time as well, but in brief, the death of the pigs symbolises the end of the structures which had kept the man in bondage – it is a revolutionary act, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, clothed in a story which in some ways is quite funny.
Be that as it may: Jesus gives the man respect. And, coincidentally, I have had the word Respect in my head all week – not just the word but also the song. RESPECT
R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out what it means to me R-E-S-P-E-C-T Take care, TCB
You all know the song. In fact the lyrics are quite sad – it’s about someone seeking respect from their partner
I got to have (just a little bit) A little respect (just a little bit)
But which of us hasn’t shared that emotion too – perhaps especially when we are being bullied? And the demoniac gets the respect he needs, and as a result, he is healed. He can go back to the town and proclaim what Jesus has done. He is fully human.
There is a rider to this story, though. What is the reaction of the friends? That, too, is really surprising.
37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.
Why should they be seized with great fear? Perhaps partly because all those pigs have died- but is it not also because their behaviour has caught up with them, and they are about to be shamed by the way they treated the man, and it will be incumbent on them to welcome him back into their society which may mean that many of the things they hold dear are to be undermined? Isn’t that, too, what happens to bullies when they are confronted with the consequences of their actions: either they are defensive or they are ashamed?
So this story is really revolutionary: it is about a complete change in the balance of power and how people see themselves and each other. It is about the respect which is at the heart of Christianity: and it is about the beautiful diversity which is at the heart of our existence, expressed through the shared bonds of respect and love.
Which brings me to my final point, which is about the famous passage from the letter to the Galatians which we have just heard.
28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
This is often misunderstood, as a collapsing of difference – there is no longer male or female, no longer straight or gay… But in fact it is an acknowledgement, a celebration of difference (leaving aside its implicit acceptance of slavery) – the differences between us are things we can all celebrate for we are all caught up in the love, the respect, the generosity of God.
So we don’t need to be divided, we can be united. We can be one because we are many. We can sing in harmony because of our difference. No one is chained, and shackled, and left naked among the tombs. All are here, gathered around the altar.
Today we reach the end of the Festival, and what a fantastic festival it has been. There have been so many highlights… and for me, perhaps, the Ceilidh has to come near the top: everyone dancing, including Kate, including Peggy, including everyone. Everyone smiling. Everyone having fun. So, next time you’re feeling bullied, or threatened, or like an outsider, or near breaking, remember these words of Isaiah:
Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you your name. You are mine.