There are many instances in the Gospels of Jesus driving out demons, and the most remarkable of these is the one in Luke 8:26-39 that we read in the Liturgy this morning (Oct. 26th). It is hard for many modern people – myself included – to relate to stories of demon possession and exorcism or to even believe in such things. Furthermore, I don’t find much about demons in the Old Testament or the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time. Perhaps belief in demons and demon possession was more common among pagans. And the story that we read this morning did indeed take place in pagan country. It was the land of the Gadarenes (or Gerasenes, depending on the translation).
But is this story of the Gadarene demoniac only about demon possession and exorcism? Or is it about something more, something deeper, something that we can all relate to? I believe this miracle story is about identity. The big moment comes when Jesus asks this man for his name, and he answers, “Legion, for we are many.” It is devastating that this man has become so completely identified with what possesses him, that he has no identity. His name is not Elijah or Isaac or John or Frank – his name is Legion. He has identified himself with what has invaded him and robbed him of his joy and his health and prevented him from being a social being. He has identified with what keeps him bound and isolated.
We also, today, identify with our possessions, which very often end up possessing us. But even more tragically, we identify ourselves with our inadequacies and our failures. And there are enough people and circumstances in our lives to constantly remind us of our failures and inadequacies; they remind us that we’re not good enough, or healthy enough, or attractive enough, or successful enough. And we are bombarded every day by advertisements that play to our feelings of inadequacy and try to sell us the things that are missing in our lives: the things that will make us more attractive, more social, more popular, more successful, more fulfilled, healthier, sexier. If you take away the demons, the story we read today is about us.
Jesus came to this pagan country, this unfamiliar territory well outside of his normal travels in Judea, and it seems he had no other purpose to be there than to liberate this man from what possessed him. He transformed him from “Legion” to human being; Jesus granted him his humanity again. He gave him the freedom and the ability to start over again, free from bondage. And that’s what Jesus is still doing. His mission is still the same: to set people free. He comes to every one of us to free us from feelings of failure and inadequacy. He says to us, over and over again, that we are more, more than the sum of our failures and fears.
The story is about identity. And it’s our story too. The story of our own identity starts at baptism, regardless of whether we are baptized as infants or adults. We are washed with water and are sealed with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We are given a new start – or, a start, in the case of infants. Yes, we should always improve ourselves and there are many things out there that can help us – and advertising can sometimes inform us of things that can help us. But let’s not identify with our shortcomings. Let’s instead see our failures and shortcomings as opportunities to grow forward and upward – which is where our baptism wants us to be.
We need to guard our identity that we receive in baptism. We need to remember that our identity is IN CHRIST. Our identity is NOT in the things we have or don’t have, NOT in the things we possess or the things that possess us, NOT in messages of failure and inadequacy that bombard us daily.
But this story is not only a story of a man who had lost his identity; it’s also the story of a community. There was a community around this man, and the community had failed him tragically. And even after he was healed, the community failed him! Baptism and the liberating power of Jesus can happen in a vacuum; but there is a better way. Some people think they can be saved alone. Fine, it’s possible; everything is possible with God. But how much better it is when baptism and the new identity occur in the midst of a caring and nurturing community. And how much better it is when the community itself is freed of failed practices and indifferent attitudes and finds its identity IN CHRIST.
Real community – not community in name only – is built by people who experience the liberating power of Christ. And because of that, it is a work in progress. The community of the Gadarenes asked Jesus to leave – and he left. He saw that it was a failed community, and he could do nothing to heal it. But perhaps, after Jesus left, the man who stayed behind, the man formerly called Legion, started the healing process in the community. Perhaps the community of the Gadarenes eventually found a new wholeness and a new identity. Perhaps.
And that’s the message to us as a community. It starts with those who are here. Never mind those who are not here. They clearly have something better to do this morning. Perhaps they’ll be here next week, or next year, or when their children grow up and don’t have sports on Sunday mornings, or when they are old and need someplace to crash on a Sunday morning for an hour or two. It doesn’t matter. God works with who and what is present at any given time. At any given time those who are present make up the community, a core group that Jesus is working with. Community is always a work in progress. We invite Jesus to be with us. We do not ask him to leave, like the Gadarenes did, we ask him to stay and be with us. Jesus is calling us to be a different kind of legion: a legion of faith and trust and humble service. And that’s how community is built: from the ground up, not from above, by edict. Everything that is worthwhile is built from the ground up. And that was also God’s way, when Jesus came down to the ground, to be with us, and to build with us from the ground up.
Guard your identity! It’s precious, because it was given to you by Christ. And he now invites you to be part of this amazing construction project called COMMUNITY.