No matter how great and powerful the forces of evil are, the power of God in Christ is stronger.
Luke teaches this in a humorous way. Did you catch that? There is a naked man who is living in the cemetery; tombs, chains and shackles; demons that talk back; pigs that throw themselves over cliffs; and a near riot among the freaked out gentile locals. All the action takes place in a foreign land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, where no sensible Jew would be visiting.
In addition to the slapstick, today’s gospel contains some political satire also. The demons are called Legion – a thinly-veiled reference to the Roman imperial powers that controlled Judea – and they are destroyed in a herd of pigs – transformed into a drowned pile of deviled ham, so to speak – which to Jewish ears was a suitably undignified end for their enemies.
Clearly Luke is having some fun with this story. But its point is not about what happens to the demons and pigs. It is about what happens to the first character, the man living in the cemetery. Through Jesus’ actions with that nameless man, who probably suffers from mental illness, God is up to something different in the world. This story is a prelude to a question that Jesus asks in the next chapter: Who do you say that I am? This story is evidence about Jesus’ identity. In Jesus, God chooses to operate in the world on behalf of the weak and marginalized. There is no member of the Body of Christ who is diminishable.
Today is Juneteenth. It is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston TX with the news that the Civil War had ended and that the quarter million enslaved people in Texas were officially freed. (Apparently the news of the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan 1, 1863, had not been shared). This has long been celebrated as a day of jubilee for African Americans. This is, however, a holiday for all to celebrate, because when any one of us is not free, all of us are diminished.
Today’s gospel story is all about power. Which power is the strongest? The Enemy’s power of destruction, violence, and oppression? Or God’s power of restoration, healing, and liberation?
We all live in a world filled with powers that work against us: disease both physical and mental, natural disasters, economic uncertainty, violence and war, prejudice. It is easy to feel as if we live a hellish existence: isolated, abandoned, and defeated. It is tempting to demonize people unlike ourselves. Jesus is willing to step into our story and change that.
The way Jesus uses his power is good news: he uses power to break chains that bind and to set free. Jesus restores a man to wholeness, to his family and to his place in society. The powers that separate the man from the rest of the world fall down before Jesus. It can be the same way for us, and this is the most powerful exorcism most of us will ever experience. God is willing to love the hell out of our lives. I am quite certain that God is not interested in threatening anyone with hell in order to enforce conformity.
This is part of what Paul is talking about when he insists that, in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Paul is saying that the powers that separate people from each other – the distinctions we are tempted to make according to social, racial, economic, or political lines – these power do not reflect the way that God operates in Christ. It is so important to regularly speak this prophetic word to the world. In Christ we are connected, and what oppresses or liberates our neighbor oppresses or liberates us also.
Be reminded, Jesus’ love is a love that breaks every chain! Our increasing openness to God will bring true freedom, expulsion of demons, relief of torment and healing for self – destroying all that ultimately harms all of us. From what demonic forces shall we ask God to release us, in order to be liberated?
We are tempted to think that our power is negligible. That is not true in a secular context – people have enormous social and political power when they work together – and it is not true theologically. By the grace of God, by the power of the resurrection, destruction, violence, and evil will not have the last word. This is because the love that Jesus is, and the love that Jesus offers, is stronger than anything, even the worst, the very worst, that the world can throw at us. God asks us to be witnesses to who Jesus really is, by the way we live and love our neighbors. By our baptism we are one in Christ. We have the power of God on our side. We must choose to use it. Love and justice will prevail.