It is the beginning of many a story: A brave few boarding a ship to sail for conquest, exploration, and glory in hostile territory. The idea brings to mind characters like Erik the Red, Odysseus, and Magellan. While in each of these stories the lines between good and bad or hero and enemy can be muddy, in today’s gospel we see the stage of a battle for conquest set in which the lines between good and bad are quite clear, as Jesus sets out to address the forces of evil at work in the world.
The land of the Gerasenes, we are told, was opposite Galilee and we are meant to hear that as more than a geographical description. It was a place opposite also in character, at least from Jewish eyes. It was Gentile land, and so was considered a haunted place of lawlessness and fear. Elsewhere we hear that to even step foot on Gentile ground rendered a person unclean. But Jesus doesn’t avoid the country as so many might. He goes there on purpose, to make the point that it is not he who will be affected by his surroundings. It is not he who will come away diminished by his experiences there. Instead, because he is who he says he is, the influence will work in the other direction. He will bring cleanness to an unclean place and order to a disordered place.
Jesus steps off the boat and is met by the man forever after known as the Gerasene demoniac. He is possessed by so many demons that he calls himself Legion, the name for a Roman military detachment of 5,000 men. He is naked, and often driven into the wilderness by his demons, both signs of his lack of civilization, that he has been diminished by evil to a state closer to animal than that of man. He sleeps among dead bodies, and is surrounded by pigs. The dead and pigs were both considered unclean things to be avoided. Jesus, in a haunted, lawless, filthy place of tombs and swine, is met by a demon possessed, naked, gentile. We are meant to understand this from a Jewish perspective as a worst-case scenario, the most awful situation one could imagine.
And we unfortunately do not need to go very far back in our memories, only one week ago today, to find other worst-case scenarios. Pointless death. Hate, in the name of radical fundamentalism. Lives cut short for nothing, in a nation that prides itself on freedom and individuality. Terror in the midst of everyday life. As the disciples would have looked with dread and morning upon their situation in the land of the Gerasenes, so we are tempted by events such as the Orlando shootings to think that there is no hope. To see the world outside our windows and doors as haunted and lawless and to allow that vision of things to close us off from life as God intended.
This particular atrocity, it seems, calls us to a few convictions. C.S. Lewis, in writing about his view of salvation, wrote that according to his belief there are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion that are in agreement with Christianity. He wrote this out of his conviction—a conviction echoed time and again in scripture and by today’s scripture—that God does not exclude, ignore, or condemn those outside of the faith. The Holy Spirit of God is at work to bring salvation and life to all people no matter what name they call God, or whether they call out to God not at all. It simply seems good and right to think that our sisters and brothers of different faiths or no faith at all are still children of the same God and are being led in their sprits to the same virtues to which we and all humankind haltingly aspire: peace, love, and justice.
The same is attested to in the book of Acts where it is written, I truly understand that God shows no partiality, says Peter in the house of Cornelius, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. I would be so bold as to nuance Lewis’s statement. If it is true that there are people in other religions who are being led to concentrate on those parts of their religion that truly matter the most, then should we not say that the same can and should be true of Christians? And does not an event such as the one we have just witnessed in Orlando urge us to such a project? Should we not be empowered by the Spirit to make decisions about what is central and what is most important for us to be about as the Church? Should we not be emboldened to leave some things behind that don’t make sense for our current mission, and to take up new things? In the face of hate and murder in the name of faith, we are obligated to offer a witness to the contrary by highlighting in our lives the parts of our Christianity that make the most difference in this time and this place, and not those that draw lines between people, exclude some and elevate others, and set the stage for discrimination.
Donna Simon, the former clergy dean of our area, posted after the attacks: if your Church is still on the fence about full welcome for LGBTQ persons, you are contributing to the sense that we are somehow lesser human beings; please do better, people are dying. And may I say it is far past time to get off not only that fence, but all of them. When it came to people, Jesus didn’t have any fences, and the people in our world suffering today can ill afford un-Christlike Christianity any longer.
Past every barrier that made any difference to anyone, into the most hostile, foreign, and threatening of territories from which any God fearing man should run screaming in terror, he goes but…this is Jesus. The demons know who he is and recognize his authority over them. The demons kill the herd of pigs in one last destructive action and the sign is complete; Jesus has exorcised the haunted Gentile world. The bible said that the demoniac had been chained in order to limit the destruction he could wreak on himself and others, but Jesus brings order and salvation even to him; and though in this story those blessings are given to just one man, we are meant to see in this one man the representation of all of us chained and diminished by sin. If even this person, in the sad state that he was in, was met by Jesus and lifted up, then surely no person is outside the scope of Jesus’ healing love. If even in this place Jesus’ authority holds sway, then surely there is no place where it does not.
Even into the places of lawlessness and fear that exist for us today. Places that seem hopeless, outside the scope of any help that makes any sense. To our churches and our cities, Jesus brings cleanness and order with him. As Jesus lifted one man up out of his chains and up out of his animalistic state until he sat clothed and in his right mind praising God, so God is lifting all his children out of the mire of tribalism, judgment, and sin to give the abundant life that he came down from heaven to offer, to those who call out to him under any name or not at all. And as the body of Christ on earth, it is far past time for us to claim the authority to heal that Jesus exercised. To not let the stupidest and most hateful voices to be the loudest. To not allow the influence of evil to paralyze our vision, but to boldly board with Christ on his mission of renewal which knew and knows absolutely no boundary. To not allow hate to decide our view of the world, but to see—even in the midst of tragedy—the stage upon which God’s love will win the final battle, and to celebrate that God has set us in a place to make a difference. Amen