A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Pen Selwood on the 1st Sunday after Trinity, 19 June 2022.
Readings: Isaiah 651-9; Luke 826-39
The Gospel passage sounds familiar – at least to me – and yet it’s a reading used only once every three years. Going back 20 years and more, it was never used in the Alternative Service Book Gospels. Perhaps its familiarity is because of its strangeness.
The first thing is to put it in context. The passage that preceded it in Luke’s Gospel is the miracle of the Stilling of the Storm. Jesus and his disciples were in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee, when a storm arose. Jesus spoke and the storm subsided. He spoke and his disciples became calm.
They arrived on the other side of the Sea of Galilee – at a place which Luke (following Mark) calls ‘the country of the Gerasenes’ – or the ‘Gadarenes’ in the King James Bible. No one seems to know exactly where that was – except that it was on the east bank and therefore not traditional Jewish land, but a pagan area. A strange man approached Jesus and his disciples. He was possessed by many demons. So, here instead of a storm at sea was a mental storm – someone beside himself with delusions and wretchedness. Jesus immediately tries to cast out the demons – but, as is often the case, the man possessed, having long known no other form of life, beseeched him not to.
Jesus then asks the man’s name, but instead the man replies with a description of his disease. ‘He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.’ A Legion at that time would have been ‘a body of front line soldiers in the Roman army, generally 6000 strong, and often with the same number of auxiliaries attached.’ [C F Evans, Saint Luke, p.386.] In other words, the man had so many problems and issues, that they were countless. And up to then he’d never been able to be free of them; they’d imprisoned and shackled him; he was totally possessed by them.
Being pagan and not Jewish territory, ‘there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding’ – in other words, pigs. Goodness knows why they asked it, but ‘the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these’. Their entry into the swine so upset the herd, that it panicked and rushed over the cliff edge and fell into the Lake – there to be extinguished.
I’m not quite sure what we are to make of this Gospel story. In some ways it seems so foreign to our modern experience of life. And yet, there are various forms of mental illness that can be likened to possession. Perhaps, also, it’s not too far from the kind of mass hysteria stirred up by fanatical and totalitarian leaders. Or perhaps it’s not too far from the extremes that seem to possess conspiracy theorists, or some of the anti-everything-brigade in social media, or some of the exclusive and secretive modern sects. We may use different language, but there are still individual and social extremes that can be said to have captured and mentally imprisoned some human beings.
The end of the story is rather drawn out, but describes the people of the locality wanting Jesus and his disciples to leave them in peace. But, on the other hand, the man who had been freed wanted to go with Jesus. But he was told by Jesus, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ And the man translated that into ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’
So, perhaps, there are some hints and pointers we may take from this strange story. Not to try and get rid of Jesus, nor take our Faith too lightly, so that we may go back to our old ways. To accept healing which liberates us, even in small ways – and not to try and hang on to the shackles. And above all, to be aware of what God in Jesus has done for others – and for us – and sensitively to tell others around us of that. Thanks be to God for this Gospel miracle – and for all that Jesus has done. Amen.