All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 February 2015

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 February 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar Prebendary Alan Moses

Psalm 65; Genesis 2.4b-25; Luke 8.22-35

“They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him?’”

“The people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed in his right mind.  And they were afraid.”

Notice, that it is not just before Jesus acts that people are afraid.  We can understand why disciples in a storm-tossed boat were in fear of their lives.  We can understand too why people would be afraid of the violent, extreme and disturbed behaviour of the Gerasene demoniac.

What is less obvious is why people should be fearful when Jesus has brought calm and peace into both frightening situations.

“Let us go across to the other side of the lake,” says Jesus to the disciples at the beginning of the passage.  Even those of us never go to sea, are reminded of its awesome power when we hear news of ships and their crews lost or people swept to their deaths.  To the Jewish people, and to many others in their world, the sea was the place of supernatural as well as natural power; of untamed forces.

“Who then is this?” This passage sets out to answer the question asked by the disciples, and by others ever since:   “Who then is this?”  Who is Jesus? 

The answer is to be found in terms of the creation stories in Genesis, the second of which we heard tonight, and of the Psalmist’s God “who stilleth the raging of the sea: and the noise of his waves, and the madness of the peoples.” (Psalm 65.7 BCP). The power that Jesus exercises over the waters of the lake is the power of the Creator.  The answer to the question, “Who then is this?” is, he is God.

The second incident, the healing of the demoniac begins, with Jesus stepping ashore in the country of the Gerasenes on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.  One side of the lake is not just separated from the other by a few miles of water. It is another world; that of the Gentiles, signified by those pigs.  Here we have Luke hinting at the world mission of the Church which will be the theme of his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. Already the gospel reaches beyond the bounds of Israel.

The man possessed by evil spirits is cut off from normal human relations, one of the most dreadful consequences of the presence of evil.  He is naked and lives not in a house but among the tombs – a symbolic dwelling place for one claimed by the powers of evil.  He has been in this state for a long time, we are told. His community has tried to manage his state as best they can by restraining him, but this has failed. Communities, as much then as now, often do not know what to do when confronted with madness or evil.

When Jesus commands the unclean spirit, the man falls down before him and shouts out, but it is really the unclean spirit not the man who shouts.  What he shouts is profoundly true.  Jesus is indeed “Son of the Most High God.” It is ironic that demons can recognise and acknowledge something the disciples have yet to learn.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus Son of the Most High God?”, asks the demon. 

Jesus has something to do not just with the unclean spirit but with the man – and for his good.  Jesus always has something to do with those gripped by evil.  Ironically, the demon, which is torturing the man, begs not to be tortured by Jesus: “I beg you, do not torment me.” There is more irony: the word “beg” is one often used in the language of prayer.  Luke tells us what the spirit has done to the man. 

What the spirit does to the man is a fraudulent imitation of liberation; it breaks the shackles and apparently frees the man from his restraints.  But it also drives him away from community. Perhaps evil in our time also offers a counterfeit appearance of liberation that in the end makes human community impossible through exploitation or oppression.

Jesus, on the other hand, offers a genuine liberation seen in the second half of the story. But first,   the demons beg not to be sent to the “abyss” the netherworld, their natural dwelling-place.  Rather, they ask to be sent into a herd of pigs.  Jesus accedes.  But the movement towards death is an inevitable consequence of evil, suggested earlier by the man dwelling in the tombs, now confirmed by the destination of the pigs.  They plunge to their death in the waters below. The waters, as in Genesis, signify chaos and disorder – precisely what the spirit has imposed on the man.  The punishment fits the crime. 

(This is not perhaps a story for animal-lovers, but anyone who enjoys a bacon sandwich should perhaps not be so squeamish.)

After the swineherds have rushed off to tell the neighbours what has happened, the people find “the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” The disorder of evil, signified by nakedness, separation and disturbed behaviour, is reversed. 

Even more significantly, he is “seated at Jesus’ feet.”  This is about more than physical posture.  It describes for Luke one who learns from a rabbi, a teacher.  So, the young Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22.3), and Mary of Bethany, sat at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10.19).   The one who had been possessed is now a disciple. Not only has the possibility of relationship, destroyed by evil been restored, but the one who had been possessed is now a disciple.

Let me finish with some points from this passage about what discipleship involves for us:

1. Jesus takes us to places we would not normally expect or want to go to: outside what we now call our “comfort zones.”  That can be a disturbing, even a frightening experience.  Knowing Jesus, being his disciples, is not a guarantee of comfort and security. We are disciples of the crucified.  There is a cost to discipleship.  The intervention of God in our lives does not leave us untouched. The healing of the man costs his community – and they would rather it had not.  They beg him to leave before he does any more good works which might affect their finances.  Jesus comes to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

2. “Master, Master, we are perishing.”  The language of prayer appears in both stories. People who do not pray at any other time, will often do so in a crisis.  In a culture which values autonomy and independence, many, even some Christians, see this as a sign of weakness.  But the Gospel teaches us that dependence on God, and on one another, is where true strength and peace are to be found.  So whatever the storms which beset us in life, whether from forces without or temptations and turmoil within, we are to turn to God in prayer.  Jesus does not promise that we will be exempted from these things, but he does promise to be with us in them. In answer to our prayers amidst the storms of life, we hear him speaking words of peace.

3.  As disciples we are, like the healed demoniac, to sit at the feet of Jesus, to listen to him. That is what we do when we come to church, to this Evensong for example.  This service has a peacefulness about it from which we can draw comfort and strength.  These two forms of prayer are not mutually exclusive. They complement one another and we need them both.

  • We need the ordered round of daily prayer and worship, of word and sacrament to build us up in our Christian life.
  • We need too to turn to God in prayer when we are desperate or troubled – and we need to do it there and then – not leave it until Evensong by which time it might be too late.

The other day, I was at a meeting at Lambeth Palace. The Archbishop came to spend an hour with us. He spoke of how he coped with the management of crises which disrupt the best-laid plans.  We had a real example because his mobile phone went off and he had to go off to issue a statement because a cleric had posted something daft on Facebook.  When he returned, he spoke of how each evening after Evening Prayer, he spends time with the Chemin Neuf religious community who live at Lambeth Palace, praying before the Blessed Sacrament, as we will do shortly in Benediction, and how this is when he finds the strength and peace to deal with these things.

4. Our passage ends before the conclusion of the story. The man who has been sitting at the feet of Jesus after experiencing his healing and saving power, asks Jesus if he can go with him. But Jesus says no: he is to go home, to remain in his own community and witness there to what God has done for him.

For some of us discipleship means leaving home and following Jesus: being ordained, or a religious or a missionary. For far more of us, it will mean staying where we are, but not simply as passive , hidden figures, whose friends and neighbours do not even know that we are Christians, because they have seen no sign or heard no word of it from us.  Instead we are to be there as those who witness to what God has done in our lives, and who are willing to cross over to the other side, that is, to where people are.  And when we get there, to speak a word of peace and to make it possible for people to be disciples of Jesus with us.