Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 5:1-20 Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac
They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
This story is a little bit of an Easter story. Yes, I know that Easter was weeks ago in April. And, yes, Dana did just read us something about a man possessed by a whole bunch of demons that later go and possess a bunch of hogs. You might be thinking back to Easter and not recall very many hogs showing up except for at Easter supper. But, I’m telling you. I think that this story is a little bit of an Easter story.
Let’s do a comparison. Easter begins at a tomb. This story begins at a tomb, or near enough to the tombs that the man who lives there can find Jesus just as soon as he steps off the boat in the area. Usually, the only people at the tombs are the mourners visiting the tombs or the people who have died and are now inside the tombs. Who is this man who they say lives at the tombs?
Easter also starts with people who are without hope. If this man lives in the tombs, it probably means that his community is without hope for his healing. Notice how tormented he sounds. Night and day, he howls and harms himself on the stones. His neighbors had tried to restrain him with chains, either to protect themselves or to protect him from his own self-destructive behavior. And, why would he live among the tombs, a place often considered unclean, when he could live with his family? I learned from Dr. Bonnie Bowman Thurston that in some Jewish traditions during the era in which Jesus lived, there were four tests to see if someone has grown mentally unwell: a person that spends time in a grave, a person that tears at their clothing, a person that takes dangerous walks in the dark of night, or a person that destroys anything given to them is considered deeply unwell. This person who lives among the tombs exhibits each of these behaviors. So, his neighbors are without hope that they can help him.
Easter is a surprise, too. And, there are so many surprises in this story. First of all, did you see how Jesus’ presence calms the man who is so wild that people thought they needed to chain him up? The man saw Jesus from far away and runs right at him and bows down to worship him. The second surprise: the demons. Not that this man might be possessed. Illness and presumed demon-possession were connected in this era. So, the idea that he might be possessed would not have been surprising. What is surprising is that they say that there are so many of them. They are called Legion. Do you know how many are in a Roman legion? Four thousand to six thousand Roman soldiers. Now, it’s not clear if the demons really meant four thousand or are just using it as a handy metaphor for “a whole bunch.” But, what is surprisingly clear is that a whole bunch of something is tormenting this man.
It’s also surprising that the demons try to negotiate with Jesus. Ok, they say, we know you can get us out of this man. That’s fine. But, what if you let us stay in this area. The climate is lovely and we so enjoy the view from the tombs. Jesus seems unmoved. Then, they try another tack. Ok, the pigs. Let us go into the pigs. Just don’t destroy us. Jesus surprisingly says yes. This does not mean particularly good things for the herd of pigs. Unfortunately. The demons couldn’t help but destroy life. They tried to destroy the man. They succeeded in destroying the animals, which is a shame.
The Easter story, at least in Mark, has no small portion of fear, either. Mark’s version is the one where it says that the women who found the tomb empty were afraid and told no one. We know that they must have pushed past their fear and told someone, because we know their story. But, initially, they were afraid. The now-healed man’s community was afraid. Having grown accustomed to his torment and their hopelessness, they didn’t know how to respond when they saw him well and whole once again. Dr. Thurston, in her commentary on this story says that they might be worried about their property more than their neighbor. Some farmer just lost all those pigs! If Jesus keeps hanging around, what more might they lose? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” They must not have heard that part yet.
The man who has been saved though... his response, well, Jesus’ response, too... that’s what really makes this an Easter story. The man whose life has been restored from living death wants to follow Jesus. That is the proper response to a resurrection. But, Jesus has a different future in mind. During the Resurrection account at the end of Mark, the angelic figure tells the women to go and tell other people what they had seen. In this story, Jesus tells the man to do the same. “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” In all the rest of Mark, Jesus is hesitant to allow the people he’s healed to tell people what happens. But, not here. Here, he invites this man who has been changed to tell people how. Dr. Thurston puts it this way: Jesus delivers and Jesus sends.
This man who had lived a life we wouldn’t wish on anyone now has a plan. He will preach the good news. He will offer more grace than was offered him. And, he will live a life renewed, a foretaste of the Resurrection to come. Life restored. Faith renewed. Mission assigned. That certainly sounds a little like Easter to me. Now, I imagine your delivery might not be as dramatic as this man’s story. Or, maybe it was. The things that keep us all of this world from living into God’s kindom are Legion. But, this story shows us that we can’t be so attached to the way things are that we are afraid of the renewed Life that could be. Our stuff isn’t more important than our neighbor. The sick and tormented deserve care, not abandonment. We are here because we have met Jesus. Let’s not be afraid to tell others how we’ve been changed.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.