Leave it to the gospel to alert us when things are not okay, when there’s something we’re called to notice and maybe even wrestle with. Surely your ears perked up when we’re told a man with demons met Jesus, a naked man at that, one who lives in the tombs. As if that weren’t “interesting” enough, the demon(s) speak to Jesus, naming him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” and begging not to be tormented, which results in Jesus casting out Legion into a herd of swine that then rushes off to drown in a lake. This is our Holy Scripture. This is one of many stories that can give us pause as we wonder, “But what does it mean? What is God saying to God’s people?” As we reaffirm nearly every time we engage in scriptural study, the Word of God can mean many things to different people in various contexts. An important question to ask–and faithfully discern–is where does this holy story intersect with our lives? Before we can match anything up, we have to look closely at what we’re given from as many angles as possible. I’m not going to get to all of them, but there are three in particular that offer a greater depth of understanding.
The spiritual aspect of this story takes main stage, for the focus here is on an exorcism. We don’t talk a lot about exorcisms in The Episcopal Church, but we, too, have exorcists, and the bishops know who their diocesan go-to person is. (It’s not me!) Even though the disciples grapple with understanding who Jesus is, this man possessed by Legion knows right away who Jesus is. (A Roman legion was about 5,000-6,000 men.) The demon knows the command Jesus has over the realm of spirit, which exceeds any physical power as neither chains nor shackles could contain the man before. The demons must also know something of the compassion Jesus has, appealing to the Son of God not to torment them, leaving the demons to their inherent destruction even to the point of self-destruction, for even though they begged not to be ordered to go back into the abyss, when the swine drowned, the demons ended up in the abyss anyway.
The personal or individual aspect of this story is inherently spiritual, too, but in a different way. Focus for a moment on one man possessed but then exorcised and healed by Jesus. We’re told that he sits “at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” This man, in his right mind, speaking for himself and not for the demons, begs of Jesus to let him go with him basically to become another one of his disciples following him on his way. But Jesus sends him away, to return to his home. In his home he is to “declare how much God has done for (him).” Jesus will give the demons what they want but not the man who’s been restored? Yes. It’s not hard to imagine his disappointment, as we’ve all had prayers that were, at least to us, unanswered (we didn’t get what we said we wanted). And yet. . . The man went to his home and proclaimed what Jesus had done for him and became, along with the disciples, a prominent voice for the Gospel among the Gentiles. This man was himself a Gentile. This man had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus, and what is more powerful than hearing about the transformation of someone who is like you? Transformation is a powerful thing.
Which brings me to the third aspect of understanding this story: the corporate or collective level. What happen with the masses? The swineherds saw what happened and ran off and told everyone in the city and the country. All the people who could came to see for themselves and saw one of their own–whom they had cast out, remember, whom they had chained and shackled and left naked and in the tombs–healed (in his right mind), clothed, and sitting at the feet of Jesus. Did they rejoice in the man’s healing? Did they now beg of Jesus as the demons and then the man had? They did not rejoice; in fact, we’re told they were afraid. They didn’t beg, but we are told they asked Jesus to leave “for they were seized with great fear.” It’s actually after the people ask Jesus to leave that the healed man begs to go with Jesus, and I don’t blame him one bit. The man knows what these people are capable of, and now he sees them afraid. When people are scared, it generally doesn’t make them act any better. I overheard one son ask the other what he would do first in the case of a zombie apocalypse, and after his brother’s response he said that the first thing he would do is try to calm down because he would be freaking out and would need to calm down to think clearly. Our former demoniac is thinking clearly; he’s in his right mind. And he wants to go with Jesus and his crew, not stay with these people who are afraid of staying in the presence of the power and mystery of Jesus, Son of the Most High God.
As I see it, it is just as scary now as it was then to live within the realm of Jesus Christ. It’s a place where power as we understand it can be overturned, where life as we know it can be changed forever, and where resistance in the form of fear battles forces of supreme love. If we’ve been in that battle ground and emerged transformed, with greater understanding, we want to stay in that place. Yet so often that’s not where we’re called to be. God may send us back to the battleground to proclaim how much God has done for us, to share our transformation story with others. We may, like Elijah, be sent back to the wilderness, to carry on until our work is truly done. We may, like Paul, be sent ever outward, travelling as far and wide as we can to proclaim the Good News that through faith in Jesus Christ we are children of God, wholly and inclusively.
It may be hard, but the healing we know from our deepest wounds reveals the power of God in ways that only wisdom of experience can convey. It’s why outreach workers in the Oxford Houses are supposed to be people who have been through the Oxford House model themselves. It’s why the best counselors have done the personal work themselves. It’s why the voices of those living in poverty are the most powerful testimonies to why we need to advocate for change. It’s why those who have immigrated and those who have fled their countries of origin as refugees are the only ones who can help people in power understand how to fix what is fundamentally missing or broken in our current systems and institutions.
Faced with Truth, we understand real, liberated, restored power, and for those of us functioning with temporal, materialistic power, we realize our weakness, our lack of understanding, and some of the depths of what is unknown. Only when we’ve swam in those depths and came ashore with a tale to tale do we have any idea of te power at play, the grandeur and greatness of God. Evan Garner, the rector at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville contributed to the “Reflections on the Lectionary” in Christian Century on this passage from Luke (June 5, 2019, p. 21). He very astutely writes,
“Sometimes the terror we know is more tolerable than the peace we cannot imagine.”
Our demons are still legion. Addiction of all kinds, mental health issues, poverty, racism, fear, and hatred . . . there are many. And when we get closer to knowing the peace, love, and liberation through Christ, it can seem like if not be that we are confronted with our own demonic cocktail, made specifically for us to chain and shackle us in the tombs. But I don’t think this is where we’re left in our understanding of this story.
The question becomes, “What are we begging for?” What are we asking for that will truly satiate us? What are we asking God of that no matter how it gets answered, when we hear the voice of God in the silence, we’re willing to go where God leads? Most often the spiritual journey doesn’t take us any farther than our own home but takes us to great depths in spiritual maturity.
Vulnerable, shackled by all the societal norms that surround us, with the freedom from the tombs of death promised by our faith in Jesus Christ, what is it that we beg for to experience true liberation? In our Noon Bible Study, we’re reading Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. She writes about Jacob wrestling with the angel until he gets what he asks for, even if his encounter leaves him with a limp. In the reading guide provide on the website, we’re invited to consider what we would be willing to wrestle God about through the Bible. What is it that we long for? What would we be willing to beg of God, or are we too afraid of what God can do? Eternal life in God through Christ or destruction empowered by our limited self? The life lived in Christ is not an easy one, but our joy and gladness are inextricably tied to the light and truth of God. Therein lies our ultimate liberation, something worth begging for.