First Sunday after Trinity, 19 June 2022, St Anne’s Lewes
Isaiah 65.1-9; Galatians 3.23-end; Luke 8.26-39
The story we have just heard, in our reading from Luke, is perhaps one of the strangest and least accessible in the Gospels. Everything about it seems so extreme – the plight of the possessed man, living on the edge in every sense, and Jesus's response to that plight, involving as it does the destruction of a herd of innocent pigs, which just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you look up the country of the Gerasenes on a map, things get even odder. Gerasa was a city in the Decapolis, the Gentile territory across the Jordan River from Galilee, which devout Jews were not permitted to enter. And yet this story appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, so it must have had significance for the early Church. How should we understand it?
Everything begins to fall into place once we know that in the year 67 AD Gerasa was the centre of a famous revolt by Jewish rebels against the occupying Roman power. The revolt was cruelly put down by the Emperor Vespasian's troops, who killed 1000 rebels besieged in the city and then razed it to the ground.
These events would have been fresh in the minds of the first readers of the Gospels, and so this story would have had a powerful, if coded, meaning for them. They would not have missed the allusion to a person trapped in Gerasa by demonic forces whose name is Legion – a Legion being a unit of the Roman Army. They would probably have taken a secret delight in the idea of the legion being banished into a herd of pigs, which were ritually unclean animals in Jewish law. And for these Christians under persecution, the meaning in the miracle would have been clear – that even the power of Rome would ultimately be no match for the liberating power of God in Christ.
And what might this story say to us? Simply, I think, we can take it as an invitation to acknowledge our own deepest fears, even those fears which isolate us because we cannot bear to share them with others, and to name those fears in the presence of Christ and let him banish them. Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah paints a vivid picture of people who are too proud to accept their weakness and vulnerability, who say 'Go away, for I am too holy for you', while God holds out his hands to them day after day, crying 'Here I am, here I am'. How different from the prayer of the Psalmist, 'Be not far from me, O Lord; you are my strength; hasten to help me.'
We are not promised that the things we fear will not happen, but we are promised that if we trust in God he will be our strength and that his love is stronger than death itself. The possessed man was released from his demons and sent out to tell others what Jesus had done for him. So I pray that, in the words of today's lovely post-Communion prayer, our communion this morning may strengthen us in faith, build us up in hope and make us grow in love, and that we may carry that faith, hope and love into our lives this coming week.
Canon Judith Egar