20 June 2010 - Trinity 3, Proper 7 Year C

Isa 65.1-9; Gal 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39

Freedom of the Kingdom

In the second of this year’s Reith Lectures Professor Martin Rees talked about “surviving the century” and discussed such things as the extraordinarily rapid rise in world population (mostly in the developing world), global warming and extinction. Of the latter he said, “There have been five great extinctions in the geological past. Human actions are causing a sixth. The current extinction rate is a hundred, even a thousand times higher than normal. We’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it.” That final, very striking, sentence seems to me to find echoes in the lections of this Mass.

The polyphony of scripture is one of its joys - the fact that it is always rich, offering layers of meaning, rather than being flat and direct. We know this from the experience of returning to a familiar passage - only to discover that what seemed so important to us once has disappeared and something newly important strikes us. It happens too with the juxtaposition of texts and today’s collect, with the Mattins reading from Isaiah and the two Mass lections, make a heady mix.

The Gospel is the familiar story of the poor Gerasene man and the unfortunate pigs. Surely the first audiences would have laughed at the man’s response when Jesus asked him his name, “Legion” (for many demons had entered him) because that would immediately have conjured up the legions of the occupying Roman army. The fact that the demons were dispatched into a herd of pigs would have caused still more laughter, for the Roman diet was notoriously pork heavy. However, the point of the story is more elusive. Of course, we recall that this is in the middle of Chapter 8 where we have already had Jesus calming the storm on the way across the lake and that in Chapter 9 the disciples face the question, “Who do you say that I am?” This suggests that the encounter with the demoniac is telling us something about who Jesus is. That would be true but it by no means exhausts what the story is about. One of the very striking features is the role of fear. The man himself is afraid, “I beg you, do not torment me!” he says to Jesus. The crowd are terrified. When they see the man clothed and in his right mind, we are told, they were afraid. Yet they go off and tell the people round about and they then ask Jesus to go away, “For they were seized with great fear.” Now, should they not have been rejoicing?

Before we take that further, we should look at St Paul writing to the Galatians. Before faith came, says Paul, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law. We tend to read that (as we were intended to) recognising that this describes a less than ideal situation. However, the new world that Paul goes on to reveal is, in its own way, even more unsettling: there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. How should we know what to do? How should we know how to respond to one another? The clear, set patterns of prison life are gone and in their place is this new unity and equality that appears to offer no guidelines, no shape, no order.

Let’s ask again, shouldn’t those who witnessed Jesus’ healing of the possessed man have been rejoicing? Yes: we can see that they should have been. It doesn’t take much reflection, though (even less with the aid of the Galatians passage) to realise that we should, in all probability, have been right there with the crowd begging Jesus to go away. The world that they knew, albeit a world full of wanton destruction and brutality, was, in its own way, familiar and safe. Suddenly that familiarity and safety were blown apart. Indeed, you can’t help wondering how the poor man did fare. Did his family accept him once again or were they too afraid in the presence of the boundless freedom that is characteristic of the Spirit of God?

With rare felicity, today’s collect speaks directly to this dilemma: ‘you have broken the tyranny of sin ... give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service that we ... may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God’. Now the picture becomes a little clearer. We do prefer our own imprisonment, we do prefer the ordered ways of manipulation and destruction, we do feel safer in the competitive world of power struggles and ecclesiastical tangles, we do feel more secure simply looking after our own interests because this is what we know. Even when we glimpse the grace of freedom we are suspicious that something is lurking within it, waiting to bite us. So, like our first parents in that garden, we try to hide away from the challenge of life and freedom. As the prophet conveyed the mind of the Lord in our Mattins reading, “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call on my name.”

In the meanwhile ‘we are destroying the book of life before we’ve read it’ as Martin Rees has it. Today, then, we are invited to risk opening ourselves to the new freedom of the kingdom that Jesus offers to us. It is a liberty which is understood by those who are beginning to be able to welcome others without precondition, without requiring that they fit a mould. It is a liberty which can begin to take hold when we are ready to abandon the futile struggle to control our own life and destiny and say, “Not my will but yours be done.” It is a liberty we shall understand, pray God, when we find ourselves truly free in the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, knowing for the first time what unity really means.

Peter Allan CR