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.