I’m sure that you have all heard this morning’s Gospel reading before. It’s one of those well-known stories of Jesus which fixes in our imaginations very well. We can all see the mad-man, haunting the graveyard, filled with a legion of demons. We can all see the pigs, now filled with the demons, plunging off the cliff into the sea. But I wonder what reactions the story produces in you.
For example, what do we think about demons? Clearly, the belief in time of Jesus was that demons were to blame for what we today would call medical conditions. But in the ancient world, such knowledge was not available. Demons were believed to roam the earth, looking for any sinner who, because of his sin, would let them dwell within him. Crucially, for this story, it was believed that demons could only live inside a human, or in the dry desert places. For some reason, it was believed that they could not survive in water…which is why the demons at the beginning of the story beg Jesus not to throw them into the abyss (which was a word for a deep body of water). Even today, in some cultures, houses are painted blue…the colour of the sea…as a protection against demons. That’s something I’ve seen for myself in Ghana, where fear of demons is still very much alive.
I wonder what you think about the pigs in the story. I’m sure you are all well aware that Jews don’t eat pork…so why is there a herd of pigs in the story? Well, that’s because this is the one recorded incident of Jesus visiting a non-Jewish area of his country, and of preaching to non-Jews. The ‘Country of the Gadarenes’ or sometimes the ‘Gerasenes’ comes from an ancient word Gergesenes – which is believed to refer to those who had fled from persecution or fighting…in other words, refugees. This story, effectively, takes place in a refugee camp.
This then, is a story about how Jesus, the Jew, makes a particular and special effort to spread the news of God’s Kingdom to people who are on the very edge of society. These were refugees; Gentiles, strangers in a strange land. And that’s not all. By seeking out the man called Legion, Jesus heads for a man who is on the edge of the edge of society. Not just a refugee, but a man whose mind is disturbed, and who has been cast out by his own refugee community, to live among the graves.
There’s something else as well. Did you notice what happened to the man called Legion, after Jesus had healed him? He first begged to be allowed to come with Jesus and his disciples. But Jesus refused, and instead gave him a very specific commission. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” In other words, Jesus sent the man out to be an evangelist…to be someone who told others about the good news…the Evangelion…of what God was doing for the poor, the sick and the outcast.
What you may not know, is that this sending of a non-Jew, a Gentile, who had also been a mad-man, happened before Jesus began sending out his own disciples. This man, this previously-outcast Gentile, is the first significant evangelist of the Gospel of Luke!
Now, I realise that the word ‘evangelism’ is a pretty scary word for many of us. I know that it can conjure up some pretty graphic images in our minds of TV Evangelists who con lonely people out of their savings.
On the other hand it might remind you of the story about a drunk who stumbles into a baptismal service on Sunday afternoon down by the river. He proceeds to walk into the water and stand next to the preacher. The minister notices the old drunk and says, "Mister, are you ready to find Jesus?" The drunk looks back and says, "Yes, preacher, I sure am." The minister dunks the fellow under the water and pulls him right back up. "Have you found Jesus?" the preacher asks. "Nooo, I have not, Reverend."
The preacher, in disgust, holds the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brings him out of the water, and says in a harsh tone, "My man, have you found Jesus yet?" The old drunk wipes his eyes and says to the preacher, "Are you sure this is where he fell in?"
After this service, as indeed I did last week, I will be conducting a baptism. Baptism, is of course, all about water. As the baptism service reminds us, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation. God led the people of Israel through water out of slavery of Egypt. Water is a constant theme of scripture. Just before the story of Legion, Jesus calms the storm on Lake Galilee. And then, in today’s reading, the demon-filled pigs threw themselves into the same lake.
Baptism, recalls all of these kinds of stories. Demons cannot live in water, by tradition. Immersion into water is therefore a way of cleansing us, symbolically and spiritually from all demonic power. For example, in the baptism service itself, the question is asked “Do you reject the Devil and all rebellion against God?”. Baptism, holy, symbolic washing, is all about purification, and, as with the Man called Legion whose demons were plunged into water, it’s about a commission…the giving of a new life and new purpose, to all who have been baptised.
Next Saturday, we will gather at Portsmouth Cathedral (at midday, by the way!) to participate in the ordination of Damon Draisey as a deacon and full-time minister. That’s going to be a wonderful moment for him…an important step along his journey of faith.
But he, like all of us, has already been ordained at an earlier point in our journey. Our baptism is a form of ordination. Baptism is the seal of God’s favour, given to every believer. It is the mark of Christ on our lives. It is our primary calling. Baptism singles out the children of God, and sets each of us on a path to fully discover God’s calling on our lives. And, baptism comes with a commission for each one of us. At the end of the baptism service, this commission from God is given: “You have received the light of Christ. Walk in this light all the days of your life. Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the father”
So, let me leave you with this thought. Jesus called a man who was found on the edge of the edge of his society. Jesus called him and ordained him to a new ministry of evangelism, despite his past. Jesus sent him to shine a light into his own Gentile community.
Does he not also call us? Me and You? Let me ask each one of us to spend a moment in reflection as I finish this sermon. And here is the question I invite you to pose: how have you shone the light of Christ during this last week? And how will you shine it in the week to come? The question is for you alone…for you to ponder, and for you to respond to. You and I are each called, ordained by Christ, to the sacred task of being evangelists, through our words, and our deeds. We, who have been freed, like Legion, from the madness of sin and self, are called to be mad with desire to share the Good News with everyone…in our homes, in our schools, in our community. It needs doing with tact, and diplomacy. It needs doing carefully and patiently. It needs doing respectfully and sincerely. But it needs doing. Take a moment now, as I will also do, to ask yourself those questions I just posed…
How have you shone the light of Christ during this last week? And how will you shine it in the week to come?