Freedom in the Spirit
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Pentecost
June 20, 2010
Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39
One of the things I most like about the Anglican Church is that, for the most part, it treats people as adults. One of the things we like to say is that, with the Anglican Church, you don’t have to check your brains at the door when you come to church. From the beginning, when our Church put the Prayer Book into the hands of the people, and then created councils called synods, as opposed to having the clergy decide and do everything, the Anglican Church has made it a policy to respect the intelligence and the integrity of its people, and to include all the people in the worship and decision-making bodies of the Church. You might call it a process of liberation from an old, patriarchal and controlling style.
Some churches and religious systems continue to operate on a very autocratic and dictatorial model, based on an assumption that people must not only be told what to do, but coerced into doing it, “for their own good.” For people who don’t think that approach is appropriate even for children, to persist in treating adults that way seems really insulting and demeaning. As we see people in our own time trapped within oppressive religious regimes which oblige women to hide themselves, require prayers at fixed times every day, force genital mutilation upon girls, and approve of honour killings, in addition to telling its subjects what and how to think, we are grateful for a much more open and broad-minded approach.
Some look with envy at the apparent discipline and commitment created by certain domineering religious and political institutions, but there is a serious consequence to all that. Maybe some people prefer being told what to do, or simply accept that those who have power have a right to dominate others. But recent revelations of the extent of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church have reminded all of us of what the old way looked like. In the Anglican Church (though we too have our faults), we believe Jesus pointed to a different way – a way of compassion, healing, and justice. Involving people, respecting people, and welcoming their ideas, expressions, hopes and dreams can be a complicated and sometimes messy process, and it may seem frustrating to some who like decisive, clear-cut action and policy, but to me it is a mature response to the paradoxes, complexities and ambiguities of real life, not life as we might idealize it or impose upon it. Anglicans have long since recognized that there needs to be a lot of allowance for difference, dissent and disagreement, and we have been humble and wise enough to recognize that the Christian Church, the Anglican Church included, has not always been very Christ-like in its policy and practice.
There are reasons why we have welcomed women into the ordained ministry, why we use inclusive language scriptures and liturgical texts, why we are determined to include homosexual persons in the full life of the Church, why we abhor racism, and why we are concerned about large-scale political and moral and ecological issues. There are very good reasons for our approach and those reasons are rooted in the New Testament.
The liberal and progressive approach by which we try to operate in the Anglican Church is not a modern invention. In today’s Epistle, St Paul talks about being imprisoned under an outmoded system of religious belief and practice, and contrasts that with the liberation and grace he experienced in the new movement of the Spirit that would eventually be called Christianity.
In the Gospel for this Sunday, we see Jesus liberating a man from some kind of evil oppression. But I think the story is a much bigger one – about liberation on a larger scale. First, he deals with a man who has been demonized and segregated from his community. So often, when we don’t know how to deal with someone, we abandon or ostracize them. Jesus restores this man to his rightful place, which could be a guide and incentive for us in dealing with the homeless and other cast-offs of our own society.
The New Testament writers were very particular about the details they put in or left out of their telling of the stories of Jesus. I think there is something deeply symbolic about the way the Gospel writer tells this story. So in this case, the fact that the demonic entity offers up its name and calls itself “Legion” is significant. It could certainly refer to the immediate situation of a man possessed by many disembodied entities. But it also happens to be a military term used to describe a unit of the Roman army.
This “Legion” had robbed the man of his home, and his proper place in the world – it had even robbed him of his clothing, self-respect, and sanity, just as the Roman legions had invaded Palestine, robbed the people there of their way of life, and enslaved them. So the Gospel, in speaking of Jesus liberating a man from evil and causing a herd of swine to go stampeding, may be saying something about the importance of confronting the much larger evil entities of life, whether military, political, or religious. Is the story a kind of parable – a larger comment about the evil of Roman occupation and domination? If so, how might the story apply in our time?
People often wonder: What about the poor pigs? Since Jewish people did not eat pork, as pigs were spiritually unclean according to scripture, a large herd of swine would be a good place for disembodied spirits, especially if they were being raised to feed the Roman invaders. But why would the Gospel writer leave such a confusing detail in the story at all?
Could it suggest God will send the Roman legions, like swine, to their ultimate demise? The legion of swine rushes headlong into the water and drowns, reminiscent of the ancient story of the Egyptian army plunging into the Red Sea and drowning. The battle belongs to God, not the oppressing tyrants of the world, as people like Pharaoh, Julius Caesar, Nero, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Idi Amin, all found out. It is a warning to all would-be oppressors, proclaiming God’s bias and blessing for the poor and the oppressed, and an encouragement to good people to stand up to such regimes of tyranny.
Jesus said at one point, in teaching people to overcome their fears, that one person is of more value than many sparrows. So in this case, Jesus’ actions may suggest something similar. One real person is more valuable than many swine. Maybe it’s a way of showing that, when people become oppressive and abusive, or downright evil, they become no better than swine.
The story ends with the man being re-clothed, returned to his right mind and rightful place, a message about how we, as followers of Christ, are to deal with those who have been run over, cast aside or banished to the wilderness by any particular circumstance or society.
Jesus is shown by Luke to be a man who stands up to the evils of the world and prevails not by force but simply by integrity of person. The story also tells us something about how to deal with the evil of being temporarily possessed by any tyrannical force in life.
St Paul said, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor. 3:17) — freedom from bullying, freedom from religious oppression, freedom from discrimination about gender or racial background, freedom from inequalities and injustices of all kinds. Paul pointed the way to a new freedom in the Spirit which allowed for slaves to see themselves as equal to the wealthy, women as equal to men, and Gentiles as equal to Jews. No longer was there to be a hierarchy of persons based on wealth, social status, gender or race. Old systems of domination and oppression were being called into question – called into the light of a new way of being revealed by the amazing person of Jesus.
For St Paul, human freedom is one of the gifts of the spirit. It meant that he, as a very orthodox and rigid Pharisee, could let go of all the rules and regulations and practices and religious obligations, and become a new person committed to a way of love as opposed to a way of punitive legalism.
Any church, indeed any institution or country, which does not operate by such principles, risks becoming as oppressive as the Roman legions, or Hitler’s Reich.
So for me, the Good News of this Gospel is that through Jesus’ actions it shows the compassion of God for those suffer and are oppressed; it shows that individuals matter; it shows God’s power to cause larger circumstances to change dramatically; it shows God’s willingness to go to the borders and beyond in order to bring redemption and healing; and it shows the church the way to be in the world but not of it.