Luke’s story is full of pictures, imagery and emotion, a storm is raging and into that storm walks Jesus who brings calm and the storm is stilled. It is, in many ways, the same story that precedes this in Luke’s Gospel, the story of their short journey across Lake Galilee. Short it may have been, terrifying it undoubtedly was for those travelling with Jesus for a violent storm arose. But as with the story this morning, Jesus speaks, the storm is stilled and peace is restored.
As I was reflecting on this story from Luke, people across the world were shocked and devastated by the merciless killing of so many people by one man in a nightclub in Florida. And then during the early afternoon of Thursday we heard the shocking news of the brutal murder of Jo Cox, a remarkable young woman, a dedicated wife and mother, committed to serving the community into which she was born, as their MP and utterly committed to giving a voice to the voiceless and to making our world a better place.
It would appear that Jo, and all those who died in Orlando lost their lives as a result of the hatred and intolerance of others. Tragically, that same storm rages in varying degrees of intensity across our world devastating the lives of countless families and communities – in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; to a much lesser extent in Israel, America and yes, within our own borders.
And so in a very real sense, this morning’s gospel reading speaks powerfully to us for it feels as though a storm is raging around God’s children – a storm of hatred and intolerance that binds and dehumanises wreaking havoc and pain. In the midst of this storm, we desperately need to listen, and to catch those words of Jesus, words that bring calm, healing and peace, restoring dignity to broken humanity; catch them, hold them in our hearts and our minds, allowing them to shape us and mould us as God would have us be.
We don’t know why Jesus decided to go across to the eastern side of Lake Galilee, but cross it he does, to an area that was largely Gentile territory. Perhaps he had chosen to cross to foreign soil to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas. There was, however, to be no peace there either. Before he had hardly stepped on to dry land, Jesus is confronted by man in deep distress, whose screams and yells fill the air, and whose appearance is shocking in its chained and shackled nakedness, filthy, torn and bruised by the chains and shackles and all that binds him; a man driven in his torment to make his home among the tombs. Luke paints for us a picture of deep anguish, despair and desperation. Why was it, I wonder, that he was living among the tombs – had the people driven him away from their homes, afraid of his difference; or had he taken himself there, feeling utterly outcast because he couldn’t be as other people were? We simply don’t know. But we do know that in the time and culture in which Luke was writing, disturbing behaviour, whatever medical cause we understand today, was attributed to demons and thus opposed to God. His behaviour would give rise to fears amongst the people of his community, fears that would ultimately see him driven away – to the places where others dare not go.
But there is an irony in this story: so often, the people who saw themselves as God-fearing and faithful were the same people who were incapable of recognising the presence of God in their midst; but this man, literally stripped of everything, is left with no illusions, and knows immediately what and who he is seeing and shouts: ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God.’
Into this clamour of noise, there is the voice of calm as Jesus asks ‘What is your name?’ That simple questions says ‘I want to know you, I want to know about you, I want to know who you really are’ and it gives to the man a sense of his worth as a human being, a sense of dignity, a sense of ‘someone cares’ – something that perhaps he hasn’t felt or heard for a very long time! Did he once have a name – were there once people who loved him enough to give him a name?
‘Legion’ is the man’s reply – perhaps reflecting the enormous burden that he was carrying; for a legion was a vast unit in the Roman army of around 6,000 men. Of course, it may also have been that his condition arose out of a traumatic experience associated with the Roman occupation. But the quiet, calm authority of Jesus speaks to this human storm just as he did with the storm on the Lake. Peace is restored, and the man, no longer tormented, is found sitting at the feet of Jesus. God in Christ has return to this man his true humanity just as he will restore it to the whole of humankind.
This story begs the question: What is it we fear? How do those fears impact on the lives of others? Do those fears force others to live where we would not dare to go? What are the fears that bind us, and prevent us from bidding others welcome into our communities?
It is deeply worrying that in the current climate storms of bigotry and intolerance rage that risk demonising people simply because their sexuality, lifestyle or beliefs, their national identity or cultural heritage, their political ideology or social understanding is different from ones’ own. It is a storm that is polarizing communities with devastating consequences.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus encourages the man, now restored to health, to return to his home and community, and speak out of his own experience of what God has done – be a living sign of the healing and glory that will transform the world.
Jo Cox believed in a better world and fought for it every day of her life. She wanted us to shout from the rooftops, as she did in her maiden speech to the House of Commons, that there is much more that brings us together than drives us apart. Her husband Brendan has encouraged all of us to continue that work, to unite and counter the hatred that killed her and polarizes peoples and communities.
That better world, a world where all are called by their name, a world where all live with dignity and in peace is the world our Lord came to proclaim – the Kingdom of God!
Across the length and breadth of our country, the storm, it seems, as abated, at least for a while and in the quiet we need to hear the voice of God speaking to us in the voices of all who call us to live together in unity and love, rejoicing in the richness of diversity, remembering those words of St. Paul:
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. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.