Feast Day: Second Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
“Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’”
I am fascinated by the encounter in our gospel reading this morning between the Gerasene Demoniac and Jesus. Here is a man tormented by demons and living naked among the dead. He is, quite literally, out of his mind captive as he is to the forces of wickedness. But by the end of the story he is a totally different man: clothed, in his right mind, and given a new vocation. His identity has changed drastically. How? What happened? Jesus came near. And when Jesus comes near he tells you who you really are.
Commentators rightly note that having crossed over the Sea of Galilee Jesus and his disciples have entered Gentile territory. The country of the Gerasenes is not only “opposite Galilee” geographically but religiously as well. “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” the disciples must have thought.
As if that weren’t enough no sooner had Jesus set foot on land then he is approached by a man who is spiritually unclean: naked, living amongst the tombs, filled with demons. St Ambrose comments saying that all of these little details have the cumulative effect of demonstrating that this man is the epitome of the Gentiles who are doomed to death insofar as they are caught up in the futility of pagan worship.
So tormented was this man by demons that, as St Luke tells us, “he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles.” But the bonds could not contain him and he would break free and be driven by the demon out into the wild. You get the sense here that the man has lost any agency he once had and is enslaved by this power, so much so that his whole identity is now determined by his condition: “What is your name?” Jesus asks him. “Legion,” he said, “for many demons had entered him.”
There is a lot that we could say here but for the sake of time let me simply suggest that whatever else is going on here this speaks to the power of sin to warp and disfigure us. For example, in our reading from Isaiah we heard how though God sought out and called Israel into relationship with himself they chose instead to walk in their own way. Israel rebelled and substituted the worship of the one true God for the false gods of the nations. Israel forgot who they were because they forgot whose they were: What is your name? Like the demoniac, Israel themselves had become a tormented and twisted shadow of who they once were.
Sin disfigures and deforms therefore it needs to be contained. This, says St Paul in Galatians, is in part why God gave the law: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law…Therefore the law was our disciplinarian,” (3:23-24). As the demoniac was “kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles,” (Lk 8:29) so one of the purposes of God’s law—at least according to classic Reformed theology—is to restrain sin through fear of punishment, to keep us in check.
The problem is that just as the chains and shackles were unable to bind the demoniac so too the law is unable to bind our sinful nature. Our sinful nature breaks free of the shackles of the law and we are driven into the wild. Say there is some sin by which you are bound, that you continue to struggle with. Greed, envy, rage, lust—take your pick. Try as you might you will discover that are utterly helpless at overcoming this. The problem in overcoming sin is not a lack of willpower on your end. The problem is that sin itself is a power that enslaves, that takes us out of our right mind, that drags us down into death. To put it in the words of today’s Collect from the Prayer Book: “Through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace.” What the demoniac needs, what Israel needs, what we ultimately need is not to have our sinful nature restrained but to have it healed. We don’t need to be improved upon, we need to be made new.
Sin disfigures but Jesus transfigures. Let’s look again at our gospel reading. The demoniac was out of his mind, naked, living among the dead when Jesus steps onto the land and into his life. Then the next thing we know there is the same man only healed, clothed, and sitting at the feet of Jesus in the posture of a disciple.
Now that Jesus has come near, this man has been given a new identity and there is no longer any need for chains. So too when Jesus comes near to you, and takes away your sin, and gives you a new identity there is no longer a need for anything but faith in him. There is nothing you can contribute but love, to come and sit at his feet and allow him to tell you who you are, not Legion but child and heir. This is what it means to be free.
Suddenly our text from Galatians comes alive: “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
All you who are baptized into Christ, you are now no longer who you were before. You are now not who other people say you are. You are now not who you say you are. You are now not the sum of your failures or of your accomplishments. You are now who Jesus says you are: a child of God through faith. What is your name?
As a Christian the single most important thing about you in terms of your identity—what defines who you are—is not some property that belongs to you but rather something that is yours by grace, that you are child of God. This is not to ignore the other ways that we identify—sex, race, political ideology, and so on—but rather to say that all of these other things must be understood proportionately in relation to who Jesus says you are now.
That’s why St Paul at the end of our reading from Galatians says what? “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,” (3:28). Not because we have ceased to be Jew or Greek or male or female but because these ways of identifying ourselves now give way to our primary identity as children of God by faith in Christ.
Finally, notice what happens at the end of our gospel reading. The man from whom the demons had gone begged Jesus to stay with him but what did Jesus do? He sent him away saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Another way of putting this might be to say that Jesus won’t just let you be a Christian on Sunday mornings.
We tend to compartmentalize things. I have my work life, my social life, my financial life, my romantic life, and so on and so on and over here is my spiritual life. But Jesus wants it all. As a drop of dye permeates the whole glass of water so Jesus refuses to leave any corner of your life untouched. He won’t be confined to Sunday morning. That’s why he kicks you out at the end of liturgy and says go. Go into your families, go into your neighbourhoods, go into your schools, go into your jobs, go and tell somebody what I have done for you. So, if you’re here this morning and you want the truth to set you free then you’ve got to let the Lord tell you who you are, and then go and tell somebody about that. Because that’s who Jesus is, that’s what Jesus is doing, and that’s what Jesus is inviting us to be part of.