Sermon for Sunday 19 June 2022
Trinity 1: Luke 8.30. He answered Jesus, My name is Legion, he said.
The man possessed by demons turns up in three Gospels. But in our three year cycle of readings, I think the story turns up only once. Maybe this is because this is a danger zone – there are trigger warnings of madness, demons, exorcism. So we’d better make the most of it today. The man is mad. It’s almost impossible for us to get into the first century mind, to see life as Jesus and his contemporaries saw it. In those days madness was explained by possession by demons. The way to deal with madness therefore, was exorcism, getting the demons out, and into the abyss, a place of confinement. This madman used to live in the city, but now has to live in the rock tombs outside. He has that physical strength which mad people often have. We would say that he has lost his mind. But note that I have started to talk about other people. Like the crowd in the Gospel, I’ve come across mad people. But what about ourselves? To be “possessed”, to “have a demon”, in biblical language, means to be taken over by a negative identity. It’s when some negative identity or agenda has captured us, and we have internalized it, either consciously or unconsciously. So at the risk of prompting a Gadarene rush for the door, I have to tell you that the so-called demons still play their part. There are times in our own lives when we are unmanageable; the demons can take over, however respectable our exterior remains. It’s usually not as bad as that sounds, but we can find ourselves living out an agenda, maybe a double life, which deliberately excludes God. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Have you ever asked that question? The cure for negative possession is positive repossession. Jesus is always repossessing people, repossessing us for God.
No mind is so battered or lost that it is beyond the reach of the living God. God seems to seek out such people. And the man who is mad is able to recognise Jesus. He knows who he is, the Son of the Most High God. But when Jesus asks the madman for his name, he replies ‘Legion’ – that’s not multiple personalities because the demons speak with one voice, A legion was 6000 soldiers. What the madman conveys to Jesus is the sheer overwhelming force of what has taken him over. He is beyond help. But this admission, this confession if you like, begins his redemption. Nobody is beyond God’s love; for God there is no division between mad and sane, So the man possessed by demons is healed, and is found sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. Our healing begins when we uncover God’s love for us. We can heal those who are afflicted in their minds, when we understand who they are in God’s eyes. The living God meets them too.
We are supposed to be the sane ones, the ones who cope, who think things through in a rational way. Yet even we shall, at some time in our lives, spend time in that wilderness, alone, turned away, in uncharted territory. There is a low cunning in human affairs, there are parts of our lives which we like to keep hidden from God and from each other, because we believe there to be demons there. Their name is not Legion, they don’t always possess us entirely, but they are still a negative and self-destructive influence. The message of the Gospel is that God opened his life to us in the experience of Jesus, and therefore we can open our lives to him. Our lives are to be an open book. Then we find we are forgiven, and restored to the community. One of the fascinating verses in the story of the Gadarene swine is that when the man is healed, there is a sort of panic and the people ask Jesus to leave them and go away. You might have thought they would have asked him to stay, after what they had witnessed, but they don’t. We also prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. We find it hard to believe that an unclean spirit can be made clean. We don’t always want to open our lives to God; we hope he will be satisfied with an edited version of ourselves, and will therefore not pursue us into our wildernesses, our wild places, the parts of our minds we don’t understand. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
At the end of the story Jesus does not take the man away with him. He sends him home to the city where he lived before, “to declare how much God has done for you”. God tells us the same. We are to go back to our ordinary lives, confident that God can displace any demons, and that what we don’t understand about life, the corners of our lives which are dark to us, the wildernesses where we get lost, the tombs where we hide, are not where the so-called demons take control, but are where God will come to find us, to heal us, and to forgive us.
Fr. Julian Browning