Sunday 23 June 2019
Beyond our Imagining?
By Christopher Burkett
Editor, Director of Ministry, Diocese of Chester
Context: a large eucharistic congregation of regular worshippers
Aim: to ‘de-code’ the Gospel reading
My Granddad loved his radio; his ‘wireless’ as he called it. It was a large wooden-boxed object that sat in a place of honour in the corner of the room. Its primary use was news, and for closely regulated entertainment. A large wire aerial in the garden made sure the signal was good, and all was powered by glass wet cells that had to be regularly re-charged in the power shed where there was a generator. You see my granddad’s home had no mains electricity. Ultimately his wireless relied on a mass of cables and very physical effort and the presence of a diesel generator.
What would he have made of my ‘wifi’ home where phones and computers and TVs and printers are all connected wirelessly? Where I can turn on the washing machine by phone while I tweet a message to a friend thousands of miles away, who will answer immediately? Granddad’s wireless was at the end of a long and very physical set up, whereas for many of us wireless – wifi – is at the beginning of a hands-free encounter with the whole-wide-world.
Our ‘wifi’ world was beyond my granddad’s imagining. I think we must understand ‘beyond imagining’ if we’re to appreciate what this story of the demon-possessed man is about. This story is one repeated by Matthew and Mark, so our forbearers obviously thought it important. What is the ‘beyond imagining’ that we must work to appreciate – in just the way I try to understand granddad’s wireless world as against my wifi existence?
First, we must appreciate that in first-century Palestine hell and heaven were much closer, much nearer to each other and to what happens to people, than they usually are in our thinking. Life was very short, and hunger and illness never far away; there was much to threaten well-being. Hell was all too close to everyday reality. Consequently, the world of demons was close as well – those malevolent personal forces that corrupt and destroy anything that stands in their way.
The demon-possessed man makes all that very plain. He is a person who is fundamentally alienated, possession inhabits his whole personality and being – his will, his speech, his very self. It is as if his whole being is populated with images of destruction and terror. This is way beyond the things of illness and disability; this is the disordering of the fundamentals of life: Hell is being experienced there in front of them. What is normally bounded by death has broken free to invade the land of the living.
Second, Christ has power to cross the boundary between death and life, hell and heaven, in a way that frees his people from its terrors. Not to let the forces of death have free reign but so that their threat is seen for the puny reality it is. Christ enables the reality of that hellish terror to be seen; in disclosing it he overcomes the alienation – the sin – it produces. In other words, Christ brings heaven to earth in place of the all too near threat of hell.
Third, notice that there is a clear distinction between the man and the demons. The man had recognized Jesus’ authority and had taken the initiative – we’re told that as Jesus stepped out of the boat, he approached him. Somewhere deep inside this terrifying ordeal a human and humane soul is struggling to be free. This is the one on whom Jesus has compassion – but the demons must be attacked uncompromisingly.
It is no use blaming a tormented soul. It does no good to blame people for attitudes and behaviour derived from things that upbringing, environment, and social circumstance have imposed on them. Any of us may be corrupted by corporate demons that twist our minds and souls – racism and sexism immediately come to mind. A person can be forgiven; a person can be shown a better way; a person can learn and grow. Demons, to keep with the Gospel language, must be destroyed.
Horrid compulsions eat away at the human soul. We know that evil corrupts our vision and condemns whole peoples to misery. We know that old hurts go unforgiven and surface again and again to impose their violence and terror. We know that people are driven by forces they feel beyond their control to brutalism in action and outlook. The battle is real and deathly and cruel. Things indeed that we would hope are ‘beyond our imagining’ but the media remind us every day that they are all too real – these things that drive the humane out of the human soul. These things Christ tackles in the healing of the man-possessed.
Fourth, notice that Christ’s efforts with his man are costly. In the story the cost is the destruction of a large herd of pigs. The news of this destruction spreads like wildfire. No wonder they want Jesus to leave the district! ‘Get out of here,’ is their angry shout.
Of course, that costly expulsion stands in the Gospel writer’s mind for a yet more costly consequence. This struggle for one frail individual’s soul is but a glimpse of a larger, cosmic struggle. Christ carries in himself the ultimate cost of the possessed-man’s healing – he is expelled; Christ carries in himself the ultimate cost of the healing of us all – he is expelled to Golgotha. He bears the disorder himself. He takes away the sin of the world. This struggle is costly – indeed it costs all.
Here is a story told in first-century terms – a story that may seem strange and distant to us; a thing beyond our imagining. But with imagination we find within it a stirring call to face down all that is hellish; to face up to the costliness of over-turning all that corrupts the human soul; and to trust Christ in the struggle to achieve the humanity that is his intention and gift.
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