The story of Jesus casting demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs is one of my favourite Jesus stories. It appears in three of the gospels (mostly - I talked about that qualification last week), but I like the version in Luke 8:26-39 the most.
I love this story because it’s chalk full of great things to wonder about, like healing and restoration and community. And it’s a bible study dream, with really interesting details about the location, the characters and the pigs. I like the pigs. You might say they saved that man’s bacon.
I don’t want to bible study this passage, though. I’d just like to ponder a couple of features in it that are speaking to me this week because this Sunday our congregation will be voting on whether to participate in the United Church's Affirming process.
I mentioned this a couple of weeks back. The Affirming Ministries Program describes itself as an educational and discernment process that reflects on what it means to be inclusive and evaluates our congregation’s openness to including all others in the life and work of our ministry. This means learning about and engaging a variety of areas that may be barriers to people coming to our community, including age, gender, race, ability, class, economic status and, in particular to the Affirming Ministry, sexual orientation and gender identity.
I think identity’s a big part of this story. When the “possessed” man confronts him, Jesus asks his name and he says it’s “‘Legion,’ because many demons had entered him.” But that’s not the man’s name. We never learn his name, only the name of what possesses him, the name of what Jesus frees him from. Because that’s what’s happening here. It’s not about Jesus casting demons into pigs, it’s about Jesus freeing a man to be himself, to find his own identity and live it out. And what’s more, once “in his right mind,” the man wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus tells him he must return to his home and share with others what God has done for him.
Labelled as “possessed,” Jesus frees this man. How? With what? Luke only says that the demons asked Jesus not to torment them “for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.” Here’s what I imagine happened: in those moments with him, Jesus offered the man such profound love, compassion and safety, that the man was able to find his freedom. I don’t think that detracts in any way from the “miracle” nature of this story. Far from it. It makes it a miracle story we can make happen, too, and, dear God, we must try.
I think Jesus knows it, too. That’s why he tells the man to stay behind and share his story. Because there’s another feature of this story that should speak to us. Deeply.
After all this, the people of that community wanted Jesus to leave because they were afraid. Of what? The man they had tried to lock away, the one who had been “possessed,” wasn’t “possessed” any longer. Why’s that so scary? Were they afraid of the change in the man? Were they afraid of the power that made the change happen? Were they afraid that more may now be required of them, to understand and grow from this miracle moment? Yes, yes and yes.
It is often so difficult to move us forward into growth and understanding. It is so much easier to stay where we are and hold fast to what we know - good or bad - than to embrace change and, more importantly, the power that makes it happen. Ironically, it’s the experience of that power, of that love, that moves us.
And when we experience love, embrace it and are freed by it, we might still face the hostile environment of the unchanged, the unmoved who have yet to share that experience. But then, isn’t it all the more important that we share it and, in our own ways, return to our homes and declare what God, in Jesus, has done for us?
Lin-Manuel Miranda, a poet amongst his other gifts, said this week, "We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger/ We rise and fall and light from dying embers,/ Remembrances that hope and love last longer./ And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside." Amen.