Saturday, 19 June 2010

Sermon on Legion

This passage is by far and away my favourite, the reason being is that I identify with Legion more strongly than any other character in the Bible. I relate to his demons and to the way he sits at Jesus’ feet once he has been healed. Not, I believe because he is being taught, but because he feels secure there, loved. Let us start by setting the scene.

The passage is also found in Mark and Matthew but with one having a slightly different name for the region and the other having two demon possessed men. The region is to the south east of the Sea of Galilee, in what would have once been an area with predominantly Jewish settlers but by the time of Jesus it was pretty mixed. There was a huge Roman city called Jerash in the area, and presumably the swine were to feed the Romans, in one Gospel it says that the swine numbered 2000.

The disciples would probably have been extremely reluctant to go to this place. It was outside their comfort zone, the Jewish people were pretty superstitious, becoming unclean if they touched various things like someone who had died, or pigs, or even if they touched a woman during her period. So in a country with so many foreigners it was possible that there were all sorts of horrible things to be fearful of. And in this passage there are the pigs and the demoniac.

The pigs were a sign of the intrusion of non-Jewish culture. I sometimes think of Jesus floating happily around the Galilean countryside without a care in the world and forget that it was an occupied country. This is why some of the disciples wanted Jesus to be a force to start a revolution to overcome the Romans, and why the authorities reacted so badly to Jesus, fearing he might do precisely that. For the Jews were the only people who had managed to negotiate some favourable terms with their occupiers. The Romans, when they occupied a country, would be happy for people to worship their own gods, and would tend to put up temples to a local god alongside a similar Roman god, emphasizing the similarity of their faiths. But they insisted that one day a year Caesar was worshipped. Now with the Jews this presented a problem. Yahweh was a God whose name couldn’t even be spoken, and who could have no idol fashioned to symbolize him. There was a difficulty in synergizing the faiths as the Jews had a commandment that they would worship no God but Yahweh. Furthermore, they would not bow down to Caesar, even one day of the year. Fortunately, because they were such well behaved citizens, they didn’t have to worship Caesar. But there was always the threat hanging over them. There were always the taxes to pay, and there were the signs and symbols of Roman occupation – the executions, the cruel governors and the unclean animals.

Another thing that is worth knowing is that the worldview of the Mediterranean people in the first century was that everything was caused by a person, either human or non-human. And hence anything that could not be explained was attributed to angels or demons. A person who was demon possessed was anyone who was deviant in their behaviour or who was in a series of deviant relationships. They were expelled from the community and made to live in places like the graveyard in this story. Hence exorcising the demon-possessed not only meant getting rid of the behaviour, but also bringing them back into their rightful place in the community. Some of Jesus’ behaviours even caused him to be accused of being demon possessed. His response was that he has exorcised demons and hence he couldn’t be demon possessed, as a house divided against itself would fall.

Theologians generally consider demon possession in the first century to be what we would call mental illness today. We all know people who have had their lives destroyed by their demons, by addition, or emotional disorders or disturbances of various kinds. When these things destroy lives perhaps it is more appropriate to call them demons.

Which brings us on to Legion. In the Bible, the power to use someone’s name is the power to control them. It is interesting that even in my lifetime, I don’t think I knew anyone who used my Grandmother’s Christian name, maybe there was no one. So she was Mother or Granny or Mrs Merris, no one called her Winnie. In Genesis, Adam not only names all the animals, giving him dominion over them but he also names Eve, which is controversial for feminists like me. So Jesus asks for his name, and the man gives it. Funnily enough, the control of Jesus feels like a good thing, like something that is healing and restorative.

The word Legion means six thousand soldiers. And the man is identified completely by his Legion of demons. I went on a course lead by a woman called Joanna Collicutt, and I am a great fan of hers. She relates psychology and theology so perhaps you can see why I like her so much. She runs MA courses in London so maybe one day I might do one. Anyway, she asked us who we relate to in the Bible, and my answer was Legion. Later on in the day we studied this passage and she offered her thoughts on Legion which shocked me a little. She said that schizophrenics don’t normally hear voices in their heads so suggestions that Legion was schizoid are probably untrue. But she said that he is likely to have had Multiple Personality Disorder, and this is most frequently caused by childhood sexual abuse. This is because when the child is attacked he splits in his mind and goes elsewhere because the trauma is too much to bear. Furthermore, she suggested that as he was called Legion he had probably been abused by many Roman Soldiers, and this was common in the Roman world and in occupied countries. At this point I rather regretted saying Legion was the character I most related to, I felt exposed, but also recognised the splitting that I had done in my life. I hadn’t suffered like Legion and hadn’t had Multiple Personality Disorder but I was amazed that the character I most related told me much about myself.

The other thing that Joanna noted was that Jesus was asked to leave having healed him. She said that scapegoating is something we frequently do in families, in societies, in countries. We can’t cope with, or own, the darkness in ourselves and so we put it all in one place, someone becomes the black sheep of the family, or of the community. Now that Legion was healed the townsfolk were angry. They would have to own their demons or scapegoat another person. I think this happens in work situations too. I have seen a person scapegoated and then when they have left I am amazed that a new scapegoat appears almost immediately.

I am afraid that was all by way of introduction. I wonder what questions this passage raises for you?

It has many for me many questions.

The first is whether I believe in demons, and for me the answer is no – I believe in psychological demons but not real ones. I think Jesus used the language of his day to explain things in a way that the people would understand.

Then, there is whether the pigs were there and really went over a cliff, or whether they were symbolic. For me the abyss is a strong metaphor for my journey of faith. I had to let go of a whole host of beliefs at one point, beliefs that were weighing me down. For me it felt like going over an abyss. I don’t think it really matters whether the pigs were real, but I imagine that there was quite a kerfuffle when Jesus approached the man and that may have scared the animals to this extent.

Then there are the deeper questions. Am I like Legion, do I have fears and addictions, things that I need help with? Do I need to find someone like Jesus, do I need to risk letting them go? The abyss experience can be part of the faith journey and sometimes it lasts quite a long time. It can be triggered by a traumatic event, and it can feel very lonely, like Legion alone with his madness. I very much feel that the Christian journey is one where we benefit from sharing where we really are.

So I have three questions for you:

Who do you relate to in the Bible and why?
Where are you in your faith journey?
Are you willing to explore with the risk of the abyss but the promise of healing?

If there is anything that strikes you from the passage, then what are your first steps to benefit from it?

I’m going to read a prayer from Thomas Merton, that I love because it talks about the journey that I recognise.

MY LORD GOD, We have no idea where we are going. We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do We really know ourselves, and the fact that we think that we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we are doing. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road though we may know nothing about it. Therefore we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us, and you will never leave us to face our perils alone. Amen

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