As you may have realized, I have been away from Bollington over the last two Sundays, but I have not missed Church. While I was away I realised that I have been a Lay Reader for 24 years…
was played on the organ by Jennifer (and those who knew the words joined in!)
This is really quite an achievement because I remember our team Rector saying before he agreed to the start of my training at the age of 61 “Well I suppose we might get two or three years out of you!” Why have I mentioned this? Well today’s Gospel story is well known. As well as appearing in Luke, there are similar stories in both Mathew (8.28-34) and Mark (5.1-20). Yet when studying the text and the various commentaries, I learnt something new. It does not matter how old you are, or how long you have been doing something, you can always learn something new if you approach it with an open mind.
The story is set on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Tiberias. The lake is not very large, only about 13 miles long, and 8 miles wide, so I had assumed that in Jesus’ time all the people around the lake would have been Jews. This was not the case, as along the western edge of the lake was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in what is now Jordan. The Decapolis was a centre of Greek and Roman culture in a region which was otherwise populated by the Jewish people and that was the reason they were breeding pigs.
But back to the Gospel story. Jesus had chosen to cross over on to foreign soil, perhaps to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas. There was, however, to be no peace there either. This violent man, possessed, it seems, by a multitude of spirits, at once confronts him and fills the air with screaming and yelling. The disciples must have wanted to get straight back in the boat and head for home again. Jesus remains calm before this human storm, as he had before with the wind and the waves on the lake. The same quiet authority will deal with the one as with the other. The man was wild and had almost superhuman strength; today he would probably be diagnosed with melancholic mania. He was certainly in mental torment, but Jesus was stronger than his whole regiment of demons. Jesus needed some visible demonstration of his cure and when the pigs were stampeded by his cries Jesus said, ‘There go your demons’.
There’s an ironic twist in the story; because the demons ask to enter the pigs and the pigs then rushed headlong into the sea; at the time, there was a popular superstition that the sea was the abode of condemned spirits. Now the story contrasts the well-being of man with that of the pigs and their owners; but the pigs’ drowning raises some awkward questions: was it right to take the men’s livelihood away? Were the men more worried about the money than about the animals? Did the pigs matter more than the man? Is business profit and the economy more important than the well-being of animals? The townspeople asked Jesus to leave, but were they afraid of such obvious divine power, or of the threat to their businesses, or because they just didn’t want to be disturbed?
We may have our own views but we cannot be sure of all the answers. It’s very sad that the only time that he came to them they asked him to go away. Jesus is then very careful not to do anything which might antagonize the Roman Authorities in the future. But Luke’s focus in telling this story is on the man himself, and, as always, on Jesus. For Luke, what has happened to this man isn’t just a remarkable healing; it is ‘salvation’. The salvation which God promised long ago, is now becoming evident in Jesus and his mission. It has already reached many in Israel, and it is now starting to spread further afield. The man, quite understandably, wants to be allowed to stay with Jesus. Not only is he now bonded to him by the astonishing rescue he has experienced; but he may well assume that things would not be easy back in his home territory, where everyone knew the tragic tale of his recent life. There might be considerable reluctance to take him back as a member of his family or the village. He would have to stand up and take responsibility for himself; he couldn’t rely on being able, as it were, to hide behind Jesus. Luke reserves the real point of the story to the last few words. ‘Go home,’ says Jesus, ‘and tell them what God has done for you.’
Just as from Israel’s earliest experience, deliverance always precedes commandment, so this healing comes before the commission; now that he has set you free and you are in your right mind: go and tell the others. And the man goes off and tells everyone what Jesus has done for him, and in doing so he becomes the first apostle to the Gentiles. Luke is not offering us, or not yet, any formula, or carefully worked-out doctrine, of how ‘God was in Christ’. At the moment it is simply something people discover in their own experience: what Jesus does, God does. Or, to put it the other way round, if you want to tell people what God has done, tell them what Jesus has done.
The best brains in two thousand years of Christianity have struggled to find adequate words to explain how this can be; but it is a truth known to many,
at a level too deep for mere theory, from the moment they discover God’s saving power in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus will not run from any danger or turn away from anyone. Jesus showed that he was stronger than a whole regiment of demons. He waits patiently for you to come to him, waits to set you free from all that troubles you, and give you peace.
Find the peace that Jesus alone can give, and go and tell others, of what God, through Jesus, can do for them.