Sermon, 19 June 2022 – Returning to our right minds – how Jesus brings spiritual healing: Tessa Lang

From Galatians 3:26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ
Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have
put on Christ.

From St Luke 8:39 Return to thine own house and shew how great
things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way and published
throughout the whole city how great things Jesus has done unto him.”

Please be seated and wish me luck. It seems to be my brief at St
Mark’s to work with children and animals (whether live or biblical). And
so it is today, when pigs briefly fly and a special infant is named and
welcomed.

We meet today on first Sunday after Trinity, which this year includes the
holy baptism of Blake Adu-Nti. As his family and our congregation
participate in this sacrament of new life and admission to the Christian
community, we enter a long series of “Sundays after” – one of the two
periods known as Ordinary Time that form part of the Roman Rite
liturgical year. Today begins the stretch between Easter season and
Advent. Not ‘ordinary’ as in ‘without distinction’ but from the Latin
word for ordinal numerals that indicate sequence, not quantity (primus,
secundus, tertias and so forth). Named with a term for the type of
counting that emphasises relationship, it is a fit season to build on the
basics: to believe in God’s Word so lavishly shared over the great
feasts; to keep his commandments; to build up the common life of the
Church by spreading the good news. Today’s gospel and baptism
service remind us it is also foundational to denounce the devil. Your
spiritual health depends upon it. Your ability to navigate a chaotic,
violent, and uncertain world with any degree of sanity and equanimity
relies on it. It may feel to some like an outdated, quaint, possibly overdramatic
element of the service, so I hope to share some scripture that
may ramp up your enthusiasm when you are called to reply.

I must confess that the statement above lands me in an uncomfortable
place, for I come neither to deny nor to promote the demonic. Perhaps
the expression of possession in the Bible doesn’t align with modern
experience and world view other than that represented as fictional in
the arts and film; that said, the incidence in the Old Testament is also
rare – you can count its report on one hand. In the New Testament
numbers increase, but are far outstripped by reports of healing and
raising from the dead. Then, as now, most illness arises within the
physical and can be treated medically, as our gospel-writer and
physician Luke well knew.

On the other hand, if we believe that Jesus is the Son of God who
breaks into earth time and space to redeem our sins and bring
salvation, we are operating in spiritual realms as well as in our fallen
world. So neither too much, nor too little can be made of devils. They
are neither cause nor resolution yet must be taken into account. As
C.S. Lewis notes in “The Screwtape Letters”, “There are two equal and
opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to
disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an
excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally
pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the
same delight”.

One who decidedly did not cause them delight was Jesus. That could
be why the incidence of possession and casting out of unclean spirits
or demons peak in the Gospels, when Jesus walked the earth, acting as
a rain-maker for co-habiting evil spirits. At the start of his gospel, Luke
tells of Mary Magdalene’s release from 7 demons and there are several
others, such as the possessed man we meet today. Every time, the
tormenters recognised Jesus in the flesh and feared their ultimate doom
at his hand.

Luke tells us that for some time the Gadarene man had been possessed
by such forces; separated from home, family, city, his own mind, even
his clothes; he stayed in the tombs outside the city or was driven into
the wilderness; he was unnaturally violent and strong, uncontainable by
any physical forces of law, custom or restraint. The resident demons
were fully in charge, “Legion” in number and in name, relentless and
aggressive in driving the man to self-destruction – until Jesus landed on
the shore with his disciples and commanded the unclean spirit to leave
the man. Note how they recognised Jesus immediately as the Son of
the most high God, the one with authority to cast them into “the deep”
or abyss, a boundless pit and prison reserved for Satan and his hordes.
Note how they appear to defer to him, asking consent to enter a large
herd of swine as a preferable alternative…though the beasts
immediately launch themselves into a watery grave at the bottom of the
Sea of Galilee. Every last one. The swineherds charged with minding
the livestock valuable as food for the Gentiles and perhaps for some
less observant of Mosaic law’s ban on pork as unclean, take off in fear
and dread to report the loss. No doubt they pointed the finger of blame
at Jesus for destroying their livelihood and their masters’ property.
What in the world was he even doing on this side of the sea? Why
couldn’t he have stayed where he belonged? What will they do without
their pigs? They would certainly vote for eviction of Jesus from their
land before he does any more damage. Best take care, though, this is
a matter for the proper authorities to handle because there is something
scary going on here.

Meanwhile, the demoniac from the tombs is transformed. He sits at the
feet of Jesus – washed, dressed, restored in mind, speaking with his
own voice.

When the delegation returned from the city to the scene of the incident
to make their enquiries, they saw that the possessed man who had
terrorised the community for years, costing time and money in failed
attempts to control him, had been healed by Jesus in one brief
encounter. They were minus a considerable number of valuable swine;
they were plus one reformed character. It didn’t seem a good bargain;
there was no rejoicing reported…no whisking away of Jesus to heal and
preach and help others in suffering and trouble. Instead, we hear from
Luke that they were afraid. After all, isn’t it was normal to fear further
loss of power and possessions? To resist a different reality, fear a
future different than the one they expected? For it is difficult to
imagine any way to live other than the familiar. Better the herd of pigs
you know, no matter how devil-ridden. The delegation requests that he
take his leave, and Jesus re-boards his ship and returns from whence
he had sailed. For his plan to bring salvation to the Gadarenes was
already in place and God’s work could continue amongst the Gentiles.

How can that be?

The exorcised Gadarene wants to be with Jesus, expressed in Luke’s
biblical Greek as asking to be bound to Jesus, echoing the same word
as his would-be jailers earlier in the passage. Through the power of
God, a person restored to spiritual health is freed to live a better life and
counteract the swirling craziness of those around them. Even someone
once possessed by demons and demonised by society can answer the
call as disciple. His wish is granted in spirit, if not precisely the way
requested at the time. He is “in recovery”, and Jesus realises that
returning to full spiritual health means returning to dignity, voice and
crucially, agency. Only someone in their right mind can act freely,
without bedevilment, because divine love empowers without restraint.
God made us in his image and sees that reflected divinity within us, no
matter how obscured by demons like fear, greed, pride, addiction,
despair, and so on. All these dysfunctions are designed to separate us
from communion with God, disconnect us from spiritual health and
power, and exile us from the abundant life that awaits every moment.

Jesus reconnects the circuit by sending the healed man back to his
own house, his own people, charged with spreading these glad tidings.
Luke tells us that the new disciple did so, fulsomely, throughout the
whole city. I like to imagine that heaven has a good stock of Gadarene
Christians who heard it first from a man who overcame his devils
through the grace and authority of Jesus Christ, and the love and power
of God: a divine prescription in action. (And for those who fret over
different spellings or multiple possible locations, a chance to resolve the
matter – you know who you are…). In return, he fulfilled his
responsibility to bear witness. Here is Christian CBT in action, designed
to free a suffering sinner from repetitive irrational behaviour and deeply rooted
wrong-doing. In this way, we too can “put on Christ” and learn
to live in our “right mind” – or at least to be mindful of when our spiritual
health begins to suffer.

This is the precious legacy of Jesus’ outreach of healing and teaching
by vivid example in a Gentile territory, where he seeks out unfriendly
and unclean locales to appoint a former demoniac as his missionary.
This man had lived a truly miserable and debased life. Yet Jesus
sought him out, valued him, loved him specifically and personally. Not
only is the message one of inclusivity, but it is also one of boundless
hope. We honour our responsibility for this gift by coming together to
hear the Word, break bread and share the cup, wash Blake in the living
water of baptism whilst renewing our own vows. In this way, we “put
on Christ and learn to live in our “right mind”. And denounce the devil!
Thanks be to God for his spiritual healing. Amen.

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