Galatians 3:23-29 (online here); Luke 8:26-39 (online here)
Back in Jesus’ time, if you found yourself pulled apart by forces beyond anybody’s control, you might call those forces demons and turn to an exorcist for treatment. Nowadays, we call these forces moods and feelings, and we turn to Dr. Phil or we find a good therapist or we go on Prozac. Some people would say that’s because we know a lot more about these forces than people back then, but I really wonder if our success rate is any better. Just ask yourself if your life feels more complicated or less than it used to. Or ask if you feel more in control of your life these days or less. Every time I ask people those questions, most answer the same way: life feels more complicated every day, and less in control. It’s really hard these days not to feel pulled apart.
So when Jesus steps off that boat and meets this man who calls himself Legion, we’re more than a little invested in how this story turns out. Here’s somebody who knows what it’s like to be torn apart. He’s so conflicted on the inside that he can’t live with himself and so out of control on the outside that he can’t live with his own people: divided on the inside, alone on the outside. And with no clothes he’s totally exposed to the worst the world can do to him. He’s just where we never want to be, but sometimes we wonder if we’re headed there too.
It’s like walking around downtown and seeing some guy mumbling to himself, somebody who hasn’t looked in a mirror for a long time. And you wonder how he started out. Did he come from a home like yours or mine? Could be. Did he have a promising career at first? That’s been known to happen too. Could this happen to me? Could it happen to somebody I love? We’d rather not dwell on that for long.
So how does Jesus respond?—with compassion and sympathy, of course, but also with respect. He gives the man some dignity by asking his name. But more amazingly, he shows respect not just for this man but even for the destructive powers that consume him. He lets them speak, and he listens to their plea for mercy. He finally lets them choose their own destiny—it’s a destiny that leads to their hosts’ destruction, but that was their choice.
Now it’s only natural to wonder why he would let these twisted powers speak at all. Why give them a voice? Why show them any respect? Well, the respect that moves Jesus isn’t as limited as ours. He’s living out of God’s respect for the world God called forth, and God’s respect has depths we’ll never fathom. God loves all of Creation. And these conflicting powers are part of that Creation. They’re like a distorted mirror of the rich, diverse community that God yearns for creation to be, and even at their most twisted God can still glimpse the original beauty they were summoned to reflect.
So living out of God’s love and respect for the whole world, Jesus lets these powers move on, and suddenly this man called Legion finds himself at peace. We don’t hear any details about how it happened, but by the time a crowd shows up they find him fully clothed and in his right mind. And for some reason that frightens them. Maybe they’re just afraid of being around that much power, but we’re not told. The only person who isn’t afraid is this man formerly known as Legion. As far as he’s concerned, he could spend the rest of his life in Jesus’ limelight, but instead he’s sent to spread the news of God’s love and respect for the whole world. Just like us.
Now we’re people who live after Jesus’ resurrection, a long time after, so we don’t meet him stepping off a boat, or off a plane. But we do meet him when we hear his good news and share in a common meal and share what he’s done with our neighbors. And we also meet him in the waters of Baptism.
The way Paul describes it to the churches in what’s now a part of Turkey, apart from God’s love and respect made flesh in Christ we’re not that different from Legion. We’re imprisoned by demands we can’t meet, he says, enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world (Gal. 4:3). And we’re definitely torn apart. Paul hints at divisions between ethnic groups and traditions, between those who own everything, even other people’s lives, and those whose lives are totally in other people’s hands, between men and women with the different roles their culture tries to force on them.
But Baptism undoes all those divisions. Listen to Paul’s words again: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In Baptism we’re all one. That doesn’t mean our differences don’t matter. God loves diversity—that’s why God calls forth a world. But our differences don’t separate us any more. And now we’re clothed with Christ.
In the early centuries of the Church, when people got baptized they made quite a drama out of it. They preferred to be completely immersed, though you could pour or sprinkle water if there wasn’t enough handy. And at least in some places they would take off everything, get rubbed all over with scented oil, and when they came out of the water they were given a new white robe to put on. They just might have been doing something like that even in Paul’s day. It certainly sounds that way.
So now we’ve got these overlapping images from two of our lessons. We picture a homeless man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” And we picture the newly baptized in an earlier time, wrapped in white robes, clothed with Christ. Maybe it’s the same picture from different angles.
We look inside us and all around us, and we still see lives and relationships and whole communities torn apart, the beauty of God’s creation twisted into ugliness and violence. But Paul says, “Remember your Baptism: even in all of this mess, you’re clothed with Christ.” And Jesus says, “Go out and share what God has done for you. Share what God is doing for the whole world.”
Maybe it sounds a bit foolish, like holding up a candle in the face of a hurricane. We’ve had nearly 2,000 years to spread this good news, and the world isn’t any more peaceful. But look at it this way: for nearly 2,000 years the twisted powers around us and within us have kept raging—and we’re still here, clothed with Christ, and in our right minds—more or less. Even when the Church itself covered over the good news with its own pointless power plays, God has always called out people to bring us back to the astounding news that we are all reconciled in Christ.
So maybe it’s not so foolish. Remember your Baptism. You are clothed in Christ. Go out and share what God is doing for the whole world.