Thursday, July 01, 2021

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Fourth Sunday after Trinity. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 5:1-20

Last week, my podcast was about Jesus’ calming of the storm. This was a storm that threatened to cause the death of Jesus and his disciples as they crossed in a boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This week in the lectionary, our Gospel reading moves on to the healing of Jairus’ daughter and of the woman with the haemorrhage who touches Jesus wanting to be healed. These healings take place after Jesus and his disciples have returned from the other side. The lectionary passes over St Mark’s account of the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac. This took place while they were still on the other side! However, as Jesus’ exorcisms are such a feature in St Mark’s Gospel, I want in the podcast this week to look at what St Mark tells us about Jesus’ encounter with the man who is possessed and ask what we can learn from it.

After the calming of the storm, then, Jesus and his disciples arrive at the ‘other side’ of the Sea of Galilee, which St Mark identifies as the country of the ‘Gerasenes’. We are not sure exactly where this was, and there have been several suggestions. We do know, however, that it was in the geographical area of the Decapolis. (Decapolis is, literally, ‘ten cities’.) This was a region that included what is today northwest Jordan and southern Syria. The area corresponds roughly with the Old Testament region of Gilead and was thus part of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel). This is important because many commentators say that Jesus is going into Gentile territory, which is misleading. It was certainly a Hellenized region with a strong pagan presence, but, nevertheless, it was still part of the Promised Land with Jews living in it.

Commentators assume that the possessed man was a Gentile, which may be a fair interpretation, but St Mark himself does not tell us what the man’s ethnicity was. Undoubtedly, the presence of pigs indicates a strong pagan influence in the area as pigs were ‘unclean animals and Jews were forbidden to eat or keep pigs (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8; see also: Isaiah 65:4; 66:17). This was something that was taken extremely seriously by Jews in Jesus’ day on account of the horrendous suffering that Jews had experienced for refusing to eat pork at the time of the Maccabees in the second century BC.

If Jesus’ disciples had originally hoped that they were going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee for a bit of a break, they were going to be disappointed. As soon as they arrive ‘on the other side’, Jesus is confronted by a man who is seriously possessed. St Mark tells us that the man is in a desperate state. He lives amongst the tombs of the dead, uncontrollable, howling, and given to self-harm. Questioned by Jesus, the man reveals that he is possessed by a great many demons. He gives his name as ‘Legion’. A Roman legion was made up of some 6,000 soldiers. The name is being used metaphorically to describe how great is the man’s possession.

It can also be seen as symbolizing both the possession of the Land of Israel by pagan forces and also the spiritual battle that is taking place between the Kingdom of God, in the ministry and person of Jesus, and the Kingdom of Satan, the ruler of this world. Previously in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has said when accused of being in league with Satan:

‘But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.’ (Mark 3:27)

Jesus now demonstrates his strength as he confronts the amassed forces of Satan occupying this man, whose possession makes him so strong that none have been able to restrain him. The demons know that they have now met their match and bow down before Jesus, acknowledging Jesus’ power and authority. The demons beg Jesus not to send them out of the country, but to send them instead into the herd of pigs nearby. The unclean spirits beg to be sent into the unclean animals!

We need to guard against sentimentality over this. Many of us who happily eat pork get upset that the pigs rush into the Sea and are drowned. For Jews, however, this would be a vivid demonstration both that the man was delivered and of Jesus’ authority. It would also suggest that the Land of Israel was itself being cleansed. The disciples, whatever else their reaction, would have probably cheered to see the pigs being destroyed.

Those responsible for looking after the pigs rush off to tell people what has happened. Apart from anything else, the destruction of a herd of 2,000 pigs would have represented a huge economic loss. Hearing the reports of what has taken place, the locals come to see what is going on. What they see is shocking. The man who has been possessed and whom no-one was able to control is now sitting there ‘clothed and in his right mind’.

Seeing the man, the people respond in the same way the disciples had responded when Jesus calmed the storm: they are afraid. Perhaps they wonder what someone so powerful is going to do next. In their fear, they too now beg just as the demons begged. The demons begged not to be made to leave the area; now the locals beg Jesus to do precisely that.

The man who had been possessed also begs. He begs to be allowed to be with Jesus. Jesus agrees to the what the demons and the locals ask of him, but, ironically, he refuses the man’s request. Instead, Jesus tells him:

‘Go home to your family [?], and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ (Mark 5:19)

The previously possessed man wants to become one of Jesus’ disciples. St Mark uses the same words here that he used when describing Jesus’ choosing of the 12 apostles (Mark 3:14). During his ministry, Jesus did call people to follow him as his disciples in addition to the 12 who were chosen to be apostles, but he tells this man that he should go home. In Greek, Jesus tells him literally that he should go home ‘to his own’ and tell them all that God has done for him. Jesus’ words are often taken as Jesus initiating a mission to the Gentiles. ‘His own’ being understood as ‘his own people’. St Mark himself, however, does not give us this interpretation of Jesus’ words. Jesus’ words may simply mean that Jesus tells the man to go home and show his family that he has been made well in much the same way that Jesus told the leper to go and show himself to the priest (Mark 1:40-45).

St Mark tells us, however, that the man instead of going home went away and told everyone in the region of the Decapolis how much Jesus has done for him.

In our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, we have been seeing how Jesus by forgiving sins, interpreting the Law, and calming the storm has been acting as only God himself was believed to have the authority to act. Now the man makes the connection explicit. As far as he is concerned, it is indeed God who has acted, and he has done so in the person of Jesus, the One who has delivered him, and he wants to tell everyone about it. Given how terrible was his former condition, it is not surprising that everyone is amazed.

But what does such a strange story have to say to us today?

1. ‘My name is Legion; for we are many’

While we are fascinated by such stories, and although movies about exorcism continue to be good box office, we don’t take them particularly seriously. Such beliefs, we think, belong to a pre-scientific age. At best, they may be a vivid way of talking about the power of evil and the destructive forces to which humans are prone, but the idea of someone being possessed by an evil spiritual being is not one we give much credence to. Even believers who believe that demons did exist, and that Jesus cast them out in the way St Mark describes, don’t think that such things happen nowadays or, at least, very rarely. If we are honest, we find it all a bit embarrassing.

We need to get over it. For we are still engaged in a spiritual battle today. The Jews at the time of Jesus, if asked, would have seen the Roman legions occupying the Land of Israel as the enemy and have longed for the day when they would be gone. St Mark, by describing Jesus’ exorcisms in such vivid detail, points to the real enemy. Political powers and armies in this world are not the real enemy, the real enemy is the ruler of this world who is happy to hide behind them and who doesn’t much mind if we believe in him or not as long as he can get on with his destructive work of opposing the purposes of God and keeping people in his power.

St Paul writes of those outside of Christ:

‘In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:4)

We don’t give all this too much thought. Sadly, even those who do accept the reality of demonic possession don’t realize how serious the situation is. Satan’s possession and control of people in this world is not confined to isolated cases of individual possession, but extends over all people and over all human institutions and structures. St Paul again writes of just how serious this is. He writes:

‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6:12)

Interestingly, St John in his Gospel does not include any account of Jesus’ exorcisms. It is clear that he believes in the reality of the devil and of demon possession, but he does not describe individuals having demons cast out of them. A major reason why St John doesn’t include any of Jesus’ exorcisms in his Gospel is precisely because St John wants to stress how it is the whole world and everyone in it that is in darkness, opposed to God, and under the power of evil, and not just parts of it or select individuals within it.

The only hope for this world and its inhabitants, as all the New Testament writers stress, lies solely in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this is a message that, because of their subjection to the god of this world, people in this world are not able to understand or accept. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that people are all possessed in the way the man in the story was possessed, but, whether they realize it or not, people outside of Christ are all just as much under the power and control of Satan as was the possessed man. There is a very real sense in which the only way anyone can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus is by themselves being exorcised.

We all need to be freed from Satan’s control and this can only happen by a direct intervention and act of God in our lives. St Paul writes:

‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The Gospel has the power to deliver people from Satan and from the power of sin and evil that controls them and threatens to destroy them. This is what makes it so essential that we, as believers, preach the Gospel. It is also vital that we do not allow ourselves to be side-tracked from telling people about Jesus and become focused instead on other issues no matter how worthy.

The Church at the moment, for example, is much occupied about its historical involvement with slavery, and it is right that we admit and face up to our failure in the past, but we need to be careful that in so doing we fail to see the slavery that all are under in the present.

2. ‘Clothed and in his right mind’

When the locals come to see what has happened, they see the man who has been possessed ‘clothed and in his right mind’. Many have suggested that what the Gospel writers describe as demon possession was, in fact, a form of mental illness and that demon possession was just the Gospel writers’ way of describing something they did not understand. Our arrogance and ability to be patronising towards people in the past knows no bounds! What is right is that all forms of demonic control result in problems with people’s minds. Where we go wrong is in thinking that this only affects a certain category of people. On the contrary, it affects us all. Outside of Christ, all of us are not in a right mind!

The problem goes back to the beginning of the human race. St Paul describes what happened when human beings rejected their Creator. He writes:

‘ … for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21-22)

‘Claiming to be wise’ very accurately, and in just a few words, describes people in the present. We think ourselves to be so wise and so enlightened. We have freed ourselves, or so we claim, from the primitive superstitions of the past and have become masters of our own destiny. We are unlocking the secrets of life and are marching to a bright future without any worry about being accountable to anyone or anything except ourselves. We make the rules now.

No outside force could control the demon possessed man either. But, we protest, we are not howling, or self-harming, or living among the tombs. Well, as a pure matter of fact, many are self-harming. MindHK on their website describes self-harm this way:

‘Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult feelings, painful memories or overwhelming situations and experiences.’ 

In the US, one recent study suggests that as many as one in five children between 10 and 18 years old are engaging in intentional self-harm.

Others of us, though, are self-harming through drink, drugs, and various types of destructive behaviour. We may not be howling out loud, but many are howling on the inside, crying in pain that manifests itself in depression and despair. Like the possessed man we too live among the dead for outside of Christ all of us are dead in our sin, enslaved to the one who controls us. St Paul writes:

‘You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.’ (Ephesians 2:1-2)

We exist in a state that St Paul describes as ‘having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12). Like the demon possessed man, we too won’t accept any limitations or control on our behaviour. We seek to free ourselves from any societal constraints and we cast off the ‘clothes’ that inhibit our freedom. We too are not in our right mind. It is by keeping people’s minds darkened that Satan keeps us in his power. We encourage people to make their own minds up, forgetting that people’s minds are not their own to make up.

This is why St Paul, in telling the believers in Rome how they should respond to God’s mercies, begins by urging them:

‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:2)

It is only when our minds are transformed by the renewing power of the Spirit that we are able to know the will of God for our lives. Our worldview, how we think, and what we believe all matter. This is why false teaching is such a threat both to the Church and to individual believers, and why St John, for example, sees false teaching in the Church as demonic and why he so adamant that it must not be tolerated (2 John 7). By tolerating false teaching as believers, we are giving the devil a foothold in our churches. We are allowing him a place where he can get a good view of whom he may devour, as St Peter puts it (1 Peter 5:8).

The devil is strong, as he demonstrated in his possession of the demon possessed man, but Jesus is stronger. ‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world’, as St John writes (1 John 4:4). But we need to be careful and on our guard. This is why, at the end of every service, I pronounce the blessing, which is also a prayer, that the peace of God will ‘keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God’ (Philippians 4:6-7) for it is only in God that we find peace and protection.

3. ‘Tell them how much the Lord has done for you’

The man who was possessed wants to become one of Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus tells him instead to go home. The man can’t help himself, however. We don’t know how he came to be possessed or anything else about his personal history, but he has been given a new life and he wants to tell people how Jesus is the One who has given it to him. He simply has to share what has happened to him and how he has been delivered and set free.

Those of us who have come to know God in Christ have also been delivered and set free from the Kingdom of darkness. St Paul writes to the believers in Colossae:

‘He [God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:13-14)

Interestingly, St Mark is with St Paul when he writes these words (Colossians 3:10).

God has done great things for us. He has drawn us to himself in Christ and has caused the light of the Gospel of Christ to shine in our lives. We too have been forgiven and freed from the power of sin that enslaved us and held us captive. We were sin addicts, possessed by the sin we were powerless to control, and the devil used that addiction to keep us in his power.

But we are in his power no longer. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray ‘deliver us from evil’. It is only by God’s power that we can be delivered from evil, both the evil in us and the evil in the world around us.

We still sing about this in our hymns each Sunday, but it is not generally how we think or, if we are truthful, what we really believe. In our hearts we think: ‘Me, a sinner, held captive by evil forces, and part of the Kingdom of darkness? I don’t think so!’ Maybe this is why we don’t particularly feel the need to tell people how amazing what has happened to us is. Our message, such as it is, is that Jesus loves us and accepts us just as we are. If he has done anything for us, we believe, it is to help us to realize our potential and follow our dreams.

But, like the possessed man, the only potential we have is for self-harm and self-destruction. We may dream of freedom, but we are powerless to experience it. Our life is a life of darkness amongst the tombs. We cannot save ourselves for left to ourselves we are lost. This is what makes the freedom we find in Christ so amazing, and when we experience it, it is impossible to keep quiet about it.

When something amazing happens to us we generally want to share it. Nowadays, we take to social media to do it, sharing it with our family and friends. We take pictures and post descriptions of it. Understandably, we want to communicate our happiness with others.

Over the pandemic, there has been much tragedy and loss. But there have been positive stories too. People who contracted Covid and feared for their lives are overwhelmingly grateful to the doctors and nurses who looked after them and nursed them back to health. They want to share the good news and their gratitude to those who cared for them with people.

We are not afraid to share with people the most intimate details of our lives and relationships, even sharing them with people we hardly know, and yet a strange reticence comes over us when it comes to our relationship and life with Christ. We are not all called to be evangelists or to get ordained. Jesus does call some people to these roles, but not all. He does, however, tell us to go home and at least tell those who are closest to us.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the Church grew quickly. This was partly because of the faithfulness and commitment of the apostles and martyrs who ‘loved not their lives unto death’, but it was also because ordinary believers shared what had happened to them with their family and friends.

We may find it hard to articulate our faith or to put in words what has happened to us, but we can at least invite those we know to come to Church where it can be explained to them. And we can certainly let people know we are believers without being ashamed of it.

However, we cannot share what we do not have, and if we haven’t experienced what God wants to do for us and in us, the first thing that needs to happen is for us to experience it for ourselves. And if Jesus can transform the life of a man possessed with a legion of demons, he can transform our life too. When he has, we too will want to share the good news with others.

This was the experience of John Newton, a slave trader who came to Christ. He shared his experience in the well-known hymn, Amazing Grace:
‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.’

May God grant us to experience his grace and give us the desire to share it with others.


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