Most Uniting Churches are named after their locality—so close by us, we have Kenmore Uniting Church, or Indooroopilly Uniting Church. Here, we’re Centenary Uniting Church because we’re located in the Centenary suburbs. And we all know that Anglican and Catholic Churches usually name themselves after saints—just down the street, we have St Catherine’s, for example.
If we decided to give ourselves a saint’s name, I’d like it to be an unusual kind of saint: I’d like us to be the Church of the Gerasene. Why the Church of the Gerasene? Why on earth call a church after the man we usually refer to as the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’? Because this is a community in which we should be ‘clothed and in our right minds’.
That’s how the man we call the Gerasene Demoniac finishes up—with his kit on and seeing things clearly. But he doesn’t start out that way, no way.
We first meet him held at arm’s length by the townspeople of Gerasa—naked, self-harming and living among the graves. Not clothed. Not in his right mind.
Why was he like this? Was he mad, bad or sad? Maybe he was a very sensitive soul.
During the week, I read about a man we’ll call ‘Jim’ (in this great sermon). Let me introduce you to him:
Jim is a young man in his early twenties diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He has been living on the street for several weeks, refusing to take his medication and becoming increasingly disassociated from reality.
It turns out that Jim had been a promising student at university, without any previous symptoms of mental illness—that is, until the events of September 11, 2001. Jim was at uni in Manhattan when the terrorists crashed the two hijacked planes into the Twin Towers. It changed his life forever. Shortly thereafter, an agonising process of mental and emotional deterioration ensued, culminating in his sure conviction that God has called him to save the world by convincing us that we all just need to get along.
Is Jim sad, mad or bad? Whatever, we can say that he had a genuine—and devastating—oversensitivity to the events of ‘9/11’.
We can also say that he has internalised the evil that happened that day. The evil of those who flew the planes into the twin towers; the evil of those who persuaded them to do it; the evil of those in the west who would react by means so violent that they are succeeding in recruiting more terrorists.
He has taken that evil into himself, and he is giving expression to that evil in his inner life and in the way he acts. We could say, if we wanted, that he is possessed by the spirit of this evil. And it is destroying him.
What are the rest of us doing? It’s business as usual for us. We’re just getting on with life. Making a buck, falling in love, listening to the latest music—and in the recession, worrying whether our finances will stretch far enough to keep our lifestyle going.
What’s this got to do with the Gerasene Demoniac?
When Jesus asks his name, what does he say? ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ A legion was a group of Roman soldiers, perhaps around 3000 to 6000 soldiers. This man was overwhelmed by something; it’s clear from his ‘name’ that it was the Roman occupying forces. When we read the Gospels, we should never forget that they tell of a time of military occupation.
Like Jim, the Gerasene Demoniac had taken the evil of the occupation of his country into himself, and he is giving expression to that evil in his inner life and in the way he acts. The Gerasene Demoniac can’t turn a blind eye. He can’t find ways to profit by it. He can’t get on with life, look after number one.
His people have been overwhelmed, and he is living that appalling reality every single day. His eyes are open to what is happening. He can’t look away. He is always fearful, tortured, crushed, beaten in spirit. His name is Legion.
The people of Gerasa tried to treat him humanely. They tried to restrain him, to stop him hurting himself, but he was too strong. He’d just break their chains. I would think that the kinder people of the town probably left food for him. But mostly, they had to ignore the poor man. Perhaps when they gave him a thought, it was just to say how it was sad, really, the way he lived.
It’s a bit like Jim, living on the streets of New York. Remember Jim? It’s sad, isn’t it, that people get so sick? Poor Jim.
Yet Jim’s sickness isn’t a purely personal problem. Jim sees something the rest of us are blind to. He sees the horror of 9/11, and he can’t put it out of his mind. Like the Gerasene Demoniac, he is continually terrified, distressed, diminished in spirit. He becomes convinced this has happened for a reason—God wants him to save the world.
Jim sees things we refuse to see, but it crushes him.
Jesus comes to the demoniac, there in the tombs. Notice what he doesn’t say? He doesn’t say, Why aren’t you like all those sensible people in the town? Why aren’t you like the good people of Centenary, getting on with life as best they can?
No, Jesus knows what has beset him and overwhelmed him. Jesus knows that this man’s eyes are always open to the horror of his people’s situation. And he can help.
Not by being like the people in town. Their way of coping was the exact opposite of the demoniac—it was to close their eyes, and just get on with life.
Jesus opened this man’s eyes to the reality of who he is. The man could now see that the Lord was there. One who was stronger than the legions of Rome. One who—let’s remember, it was Easter Sunday a few weeks ago—one who has defeated death itself.
With Jesus, we can to live with our eyes open to the difficulties and even the horrors of life, and yet be clothed and in our right minds. He has overcome.
The Demoniac reminds me of something that one of the early figures of church history said. Irenaeus was the Bishop of Lyons in what is now eastern France. He famously said, ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’
Jesus Christ is that fully-alive human being who is the glory of God, and he invites us to share his life. Like the Demoniac, he invites us to come out of the shadows, even out of the tombs. Come and be fully alive!
He also invites those who live with their eyes closed, those who appear to be doing all right, getting by, to open their eyes and be fully alive with him. These are the people most likely to refuse his invitation, and they are people like us. The people of Gerasa refused. They were afraid of someone who may open their eyes to the reality of their situation. They preferred business as usual.
Sometimes, those who are unbalanced, even mad, speak the truth the rest of us need to hear. Theirs may be the voices of prophets.
Only one ended up clothed and in his right mind that day in Gerasa. Jesus graciously withdrew from the people of Gerasa. He knew they weren’t ready for him yet.
But I’d like us to be the Church of the Gerasene. A place where we may learn what it is to be clothed, and in our right minds. A place where we can open our eyes to the realities of life and speak them, because Jesus the Lord is here among us. A place where we are human beings fully alive, to the glory of God. Amen.