SERMON PREACHED AT St BARTHOLOMEW’S, Mt GRAVATT
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (20th June) 2004
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (20th June) 2004
1 Kings 19.1-15a
Gal. 3.10-14, 23-29
Gal. 3.10-14, 23-29
Being a faith community well trained by its leaders, you will be aware of the critical importance not only of reading the scriptures but of reading with a quizzical mind. “Why is this story being told?” Scholars call this a “hermeneutics of suspicion” – readiness to challenge the scriptures so that we might be challenged and transformed by them. The second part of that equation, often perhaps forgotten in the processes of theological scholarship, is the basis on which our faith will grow. We must be challenged by the scriptures. But the challenge they and their authors offer us will be heightened if we do them the decency of taking them seriously.
In particular we need to work with these questions as we read Matthew, Mark and Luke. Why does Luke tell us this story? Why does he tell it to us in a different way – a different location, for example, with a different number of demoniacs, to Matthew? Does he make any changes to the way in which Mark tells the story? Why does Luke add the detail, not supplied by Mark, that the man is naked? Is this no more than a prurient interest, or is there literary or even theological purpose here?
Likewise we should read a passage such as this exorcism story noting what it is that remains the same between the telling of Matthew, Mark & Luke. At one level we can simply say, “well, that’s the way it happened.” But often these three gospel writers do change the order or location of events. Why here then does sequence remain the same? Why is it important that this story is told after the events of the stilling of a storm, severed from our reading here by the demands of lectionary-based worship?
The manuscripts of the Greek differ as to where Jesus actually was, and Matthew gives a different location altogether, but in Luke’s hands, this is the deepest incursion Jesus makes into gentile territory – for Luke omits the story of the Syrophoenecian woman told by Mark and Matthew. The storm scene has told us that no territory is beyond the reach of the Christ. As if to emphasize that, Jesus is now with his followers in deepest foreign territory. This is not only gentile territory, but serious gentile territory. This is the territory of swineherds, abhorrent to the Jew. This is the territory to which only a prodigal son might venture, a Far Country. This is the nadir, the low-point of the Incarnation – or it is so at until the depths of Good Friday are plumbed and the Son reaches the Farthest Country Of All. This though is the Far Country, unclean country, perhaps even, dare I say it (for Luke does) our country.
This is the country in which still greater depths of the compassion of Jesus can be exposed. A week ago we saw the desperation of a so-called “sinful woman,” despised and yet used by society, recognizing in Jesus the compassion and justice and healing that society would never give her. Here Jesus encounters something beyond our comprehension. The demons that torment this man are “legion,” a word borrowed from the Latin to describe a company of 4-6,000 soldiers. Here we are in the company of serious evil: here we are in Abu Ghraib, piling naked bodies in a tortured heap. Here we are in the plotting cells of Al Qaeda, plotting death and destruction. Here we are in the depths of a paedophile racket, wantonly and selfishly destroying lives perhaps even in the name of the Church. Here we are in the furthest country of uncleanness and possession.
Jesus has in the stilling of the storm demonstrated power over the darknesses of creation, speaking resurrection victory into that great terror of the Hebrews, death by drowning. Now he is to reach yet further, further than the demons guess. As they flee into the swine the swine flee into this same sea that Jesus has mastered. They are destroyed, not merely with the temporary restraint of the terrifying abyss of which they had been afraid, but with the total destruction that befalls those that seek to play games with God.
Luke’s purpose in presenting this entire block of material is revealed at 9.1. Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure disease. Here the actions of Jesus foreshadow the ministry the disciples themselves are going to receive. And the empowerment of the disciples is no more than a precursor to the empowerment that we, the Pentecostal People of God, are to receive.
We read this particularly in Luke’s second volume, the Acts. In Acts 16.16-34, we find Paul driving demons from a slave girl who has a spirit of divination – fortune telling. Her owners are furious and have Paul imprisoned for his destruction of their livelihood. But there is a warning, too, in Acts. In Acts 19 “seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva,” imitating Paul, attempt to drive out demons in the name of Jesus despite not knowing the risen Lord. “We know Jesus and Paul,” say the demons, “But we don’t know you.” Phoniness is exposed, and the impostors are overpowered by the demons. There is no room for game-playing in the purposes of God, and the authority and power of God is to be used, Luke wants us to see, only by those who walk on the costly Way of the Cross.
There is no social thanksgiving for the exorcism of demons. On the contrary, both the Gerasene community of our story and the Macedonian community where Silas and Paul exorcise the slave girl, are livid. They would rather remain entrapped in the demonic than experience the delivering love of Christ. In our story this is despite the economic hardship that the demoniac brings to the region. Economic loss, Luke suggests, is the price some will pay in order not to be challenged by the goodness of God.
There is here no attempt at a prosperity gospel, no suggestion of “come to Jesus and your pockets will be filled,” for the opposite was often the experience of the early Christians. Paul at Ephesus and Philippi sees communities of faith brought into economic isolation and hardship by their choice to follow Jesus: such may sometimes be the cost of following the one who had nowhere to lay his head. The challenge of living a life answerable to the demands of God great, sometimes too great, and we would prefer to live in a world crippled by its ugly underbellies of racial intolerance, chemical addiction and throwaway relationships than receive the freedom of deliverance by Christ.
We as a contemporary community of faith can expect no thanks for our proclamation. Where we betray the gospel and our Lord, taking God’s name in vain by perpetrating abuse in the name of the Church, or failing to deal adequately with those who have done so, we will rightly be pilloried. But where we offer a compassionate challenge to society, living lives of credibility and daring to speak uncomfortable words of reconciliation or forgiveness or grace, we will receive no greater thanks than when we fail. The way of Jesus is not the way of adulation but the Way of the Cross.
Nevertheless, like our demoniac, we receive the touch of Christ and, as the hymnist put it, Jesus “reclothe[s] us in our rightful mind.” That is why Luke corrects Mark’s omission of the detail of nakedness at the beginning of the story: he wants us to see that this is a story of reclothing with the mind of Christ. But the demoniac lives in a society which wants no cycle-breaking words of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. His society wants to keep its demons. In Mark’s version this healed demoniac is one of the few in the gospel story who successfully proclaims the good news: “and all people marvelled” (Mk.5.20). We are called, like the now healed demoniac, “Go … tell.”