St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Clothed with Christ

Clothed with Christ

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Fifth Sunday after Pente­cost, 19th June 2016
Read­ings: Gala­tians 3.10–14; 23–29. Luke 8.26–39.

At first read­ing the Gos­pel pas­sage for today trans­ports us into a world that is both ali­en and dis­turb­ing to our mod­ern think­ing. The pic­ture of a deeply dis­turbed, pos­sessed man liv­ing among the tombs seems very far from our com­fort­able lives. How­ever, I want to sug­gest that this strange story may not be as for­eign to our own world as we might sup­pose.

In Luke’s nar­rat­ive this epis­ode fol­lows the account of Jesus calm­ing the storm on the lake. He and his dis­ciples have set out to cross from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the oth­er. Half away across they encounter a severe storm which whips up the waves so viol­ently that the boat is in danger of cap­siz­ing. When the ter­ri­fied dis­ciples ask Jesus to do some­thing, he responds by com­mand­ing the storm to be quiet in much the same way we would tell a dog to stop bark­ing. When we tell our dog to be quiet it usu­ally has no effect but to the aston­ish­ment of the dis­ciples when Jesus rebukes the wind and waves there is a dra­mat­ic response-the wind drops and the sea becomes calm. They con­tin­ue their voy­age and come safely to the coun­try of the Gerasenes. There is some doubt as to the exact loc­a­tion of this place but what is cer­tain is that it is Gen­tile ter­rit­ory.

Hav­ing braved the danger of a raging sea Jesus and his dis­ciples are con­fron­ted by a man who is raging, pos­sessed by many demons he is driv­en to acts of viol­ence and self ‑harm. He lives on the mar­gins of his soci­ety as an out­cast. Attempts to con­trol his beha­viour by chain­ing him have proved unsuc­cess­ful. Curi­ously, Jesus enters into dia­logue with the evil spir­its and in the words of one writer “is cour­teous and polite” and agrees to their request to let them go into the herd of pigs rather than being ban­ished into the abyss. The pigs then rush madly down the hill­side and per­ish in the sea. All that is very dra­mat­ic but it is what hap­pens next that is the most sig­ni­fic­ant part of the story.

The pig farm­ers who wit­ness this start­ling event go and tell every­one around in both town and coun­try what has happened. The res­ult is a great crowd of people who come to see for them­selves. They dis­cov­er Jesus and with him the man, formerly pos­sessed, sit­ting at his feet, clothed and in his right mind. It is a won­der­ful pic­ture that Luke paints of order and calm. You know the feel­ing – you’ve had a house full of people for a birth­day party or some oth­er cel­eb­ra­tion or you’ve minded the grand­chil­dren for a day and the house is a mess- then the party con­cludes or the grand­chil­dren go home and you can sit and enjoy the peace and calm. That’s the pic­ture Luke gives us-the man is peace­ful, ration­al and relaxed. Then comes the shock: when the crowd sees the man now made whole they are afraid. Indeed they are so afraid that they beg Jesus to leave them. Why is that?

I used to think it was because they were angry that Jesus had taken away some of their live­li­hood. In their minds a valu­able herd of pigs was more import­ant than a deranged man being restored to health. But Luke makes it clear that their response to Jesus was not anger but fear. They were afraid because here was a man who threatened the social order. Every soci­ety likes to have its scape­goats-the people we want to fear, the people who rep­res­ent evil ‘out there’. (Refugees, Muslims, Gay’s etc.) This is how the world main­tains order- the com­munity defines itself against the oth­er. Jesus makes the out­cast demon­ized man, human. He is no longer ‘oth­er’ but one of them and that is scary. The enemies of Jesus in the Gos­pels are those who under­stand that his way and his teach­ings threaten the pre­vail­ing order be it reli­gious or polit­ic­al.

The Apostle Paul, was the first lead­er in the early church to fully under­stand the rad­ic­al nature of the Gos­pel Jesus preached. Today’s epistle read­ing gives us a fine example of that mes­sage. Gala­tians 3:27,28:
“As many of you as were bap­tized into Christ have clothed your­self with Christ, with the res­ult that there 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.”

Soci­ety in the ancient world was built on three great divi­sions- race, class and gender. They defined who you were and what you did. We have heard Paul’s words so often that we for­get how rad­ic­al, how sub­vers­ive they must have been to the first hear­ers. Think for a moment how hard it was for Jew­ish Chris­ti­ans to wel­come Gen­tile believ­ers as equal broth­ers and sis­ters. If you had grown up believ­ing that you as a Jew were part of God’s chosen people, that no oth­er nation had that same priv­ileges and that to enter the house of Gen­tile would make you ritu­ally unclean, it was no easy thing to accept that in Christ those old dis­tinc­tions were sud­denly null and void. And think how lib­er­at­ing it must have been for a slave who had been a slave all his life and had little pro­spect of ever being any­thing dif­fer­ent to be wel­comed into a Chris­ti­an com­munity and to sit at a table with free men and women and to share the same cup and eat from the same loaf. And think how free­ing and per­haps a little scary it must have been for women to be wel­comed into a mixed gath­er­ing of men and women and to share in the wor­ship as equal part­ners. In the first cen­tury these things were scan­dal­ous in soci­ety. Celsus one of the early pub­lic crit­ics of the faith declared: “The Chris­ti­ans injunc­tions are like this. ‘Let no one edu­cated, no one wise, no one sens­ible draw near. For these abil­it­ies are thought by us to be evils. But as for any­one ignor­ant, any­one stu­pid, any­one uneducated, any­one who is a child let him come boldly.’ By the fact that they them­selves admit that these people are worthy of their God, they show that they want and are able to con­vince only the fool­ish, dis­hon­our­able and stu­pid, and only slaves, women and chil­dren.”

Sadly we have not always lived up to the high stand­ard set by those early Chris­ti­ans and at times in the his­tory of the church we have allowed vari­ous forms of racism and sex­ism into the Church, not to men­tion that it took us nearly eight­een cen­tur­ies before we under­stood that slavery in itself was an evil. The truth is that as human beings we are ever prone to set bound­ar­ies, make dis­tinc­tions and be exclus­ive rather than inclus­ive. That is why the Chris­ti­an Gos­pel must be con­tinu­ally reheard and allowed to freshly chal­lenge our think­ing. In the words of the apostle we need to be con­tinu­ally clothed with Christ. The cure for the pos­ses­sion of the deranged man in Luke’s Gos­pel was anoth­er form of pos­ses­sion. He was pos­sessed by the spir­it of God. His mind was restored with the mind of Christ. That is what made the dif­fer­ence. The world around us so eas­ily shapes our think­ing and we need the mind of Christ and the eyes of Christ to see the world as he sees it.

The story ends with a note of sad­ness but also of hope. The man healed is des­per­ate to go with Jesus. No won­der- he faces the pro­spect of being viewed forever with sus­pi­cion as the out­cast. He will not be restored into that com­munity eas­ily. Going with Jesus seems a much bet­ter option. But Jesus sends him back with a mis­sion: “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” Luke tells us that the man does that by telling people how much Jesus had done for him. Luke joins the dots for us. To meet Jesus and be changed by him is to encounter God him­self.

We are all charged with the same com­mis­sion giv­en to the man, made whole. In whatever way we can, how­ever insig­ni­fic­ant we might think it to be, we too share what God has done for us. May God give us the cour­age to do that wherever we can, includ­ing what may be the most dif­fi­cult place of all ‑at home.

Philip Brad­ford