A sermon on Luke 8:26-39 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 6/19/22. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video.
At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus stood up in the front of a synagogue and read from the book of Isaiah, telling the people,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Over the last few weeks, our worship team has been following the lectionary to choose each week’s guiding text. Starting with Pastor Julie’s invigorating sermon on Pentecost Sunday, we realized these texts were leading us into a series of sermons about the Holy Spirit. Today, we’re giving that series a name: “Our Counselor, Our Friend.” We’re investigating who the Holy Spirit is and what it means for the Holy Spirit to dwell among us. And we’re imagining where the Holy Spirit might be leading us, here at LaSalle Street Church, as we look ahead to our future together.
This week the lectionary leads us with Jesus to a remarkable encounter with a man possessed by many demons. It’s a crucial stop on our journey together into a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work among us.
At its heart, this is a story about a pariah, someone who represents everything that the people are afraid of. And this is a story about what happens when the pariah has an encounter with the living God.
A brief summary: Jesus meets a man possessed by many demons. The man lives outside the community in a state of suffering and shame. Jesus drives out the demons, leaving the man “clothed and in his right mind.” When all the man’s neighbors learn what has happened, they beg Jesus to leave. Jesus complies with their request, and when the healed man asks to come with Jesus, Jesus tells him to stay there and tell the story of God’s work in his life.
I want to highlight three specific movements in the story. The first is the movement of Jesus toward the man who is possessed. The description of this man is full of evocative details. Maybe you caught some of them. From the perspective of the Jewish law, this man is unclean in every imaginable way: he is possessed by unclean spirits. He lives in a graveyard with the uncleanliness of death all around him. And he lives in a civilization whose major export seems to be pork, an unclean animal.
So if we didn’t know better, we might expect that Jesus—a Jew who loved the Jewish law—might want to keep some distance from this man who is possessed. And that’s not even to mention all the other ways that this man is living a hard life as a result of his condition: He doesn’t have a home. For one reason or another, he doesn’t wear clothing. What he does wear are shackles, which others have placed on him out of fear of what he might do to them. When Jesus arrives on shore, he looks past all the reasons he might have had to try and keep distance, and instead he sees this man through the eyes of compassion, as a fellow human.
This is one of many moments in the Gospel of Luke in which we see that Jesus is indeed anointed with the very Spirit of God. Because, as Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, the work of the Spirit is to release captives. The work of the Spirit is to let the oppressed go free. Jesus is face-to-face with someone who is held captive by demons, and Jesus confronts those demons to set the man free.
The second movement I want to highlight is the Legion of demons, who depart from the man and enter a nearby herd of pigs. You might know that “Legion” isn’t really a name—it’s actually an ancient military term, referring to an army unit of several thousand troops. It surprised me to learn that in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the word “legion” to describe an army of angels. When men come to arrest Jesus, and he asks them, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)
I don’t think you have to be an expert on military terminology or the taxonomy of spiritual beings to understand what happens next in the story. It’s a really disturbing scene. Try picturing it with me: There’s a herd of pigs, probably grazing or relaxing in the mud. And then all of a sudden, they stand up and start to move together with one mind, as if an invisible shepherd is leading them. Nothing can stop them. They run headfirst into the water, drowning themselves. Three different gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—include different variations on a story in which exorcised demons possess a herd of pigs, causing them to drown themselves. I think the image is playing a vital role in the story.
There’s Irish writer and poet called Pádraig Ó Tuama who wrote a moving memoir called In the Shelter about his journey with faith and sexual identity and national identity. He writes about this story, and I think he captures exactly what’s happening in this awful, chaotic moment with the pigs:
The man who hitherto had held such chaos within him was now seeing his chaos externalized. He had survived with all that destruction within him.
Imagine that. This nightmarish scene of God’s creatures drowning themselves, the thrashing water, the squeals, all this pain and rage. And for years, this man was holding all of that pain and rage, all by himself. So when the demons depart from the man, their true nature is finally revealed: All they want is to destroy and kill. The fact that the man has made it this long, with all of that taking residence with him, is miraculous.
As we know, the story does not end here. Because it turns out that it wasn’t only the demons that were holding the man captive.
So let’s turn to the third movement, the movement of the crowd toward the man to investigate what is happening. When the people come upon the scene, they aren’t delighted or even relieved. No, they feel afraid. Notice what provokes their fear, in v. 35: “When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened.” Why does the sight of this man’s newfound wholeness and stability frighten them?
It could be that it’s Jesus they are afraid of. For years they have witnessed the power of the demons who possessed this man, and now they are doing the math: If Jesus is more powerful than those demons, than Jesus is powerful indeed. You might not want someone like that wandering into your town, doing whatever he thinks is best. Just before this story, Jesus was riding in a boat with his disciples, and they came upon a great storm. With just a few words, Jesus miraculously calmed the storm, and it frightened the disciples. They looked at each other, asking, “Who is this?”
I’m sure that’s part of what’s happening here, but I don’t think it’s the whole picture. The text is straightforward. I’ll read it again: “They found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened.” What’s going on here?
For many years, this community has treated this man as a problem to be solved, keeping him bound with chains and shackles. And somewhere along the way, I think they lost the ability to see him as a fellow human. He became something else to them, a pariah. They pushed him out, literally to the margins of their community, leaving him to make a home in the graveyard. They perceived him to be a monster, so they treated him like a monster.
I suspect that everyone in that community had a different relationship to this man and his condition. Some of them probably felt a lot of pity. I don’t know much about the religious beliefs of this region, but maybe some of them prayed for him to be saved from his possession. Some of them probably made tasteless jokes at his expense, and I bet they told scary stories about him. Evidently some of them were genuinely afraid of him, believing the only reasonable option was to put him in a cage, for the good of everyone else.
And now, here is the very same man, sitting here “clothed and in his right mind.” That very image alone completely upends their perception of the man and of themselves. Because it turns out that after everything, he’s a human being, just like them. If that’s true, then from where they’re standing, that is a scary revelation. It’s scary because all their justifications for the ways they have treated him all these years suddenly seem a lot less humane. If that’s true, then they’re just as vulnerable as he is—it’s really only a matter of chance that the demons happened to choose him instead of any one of them.
Here’s the most important piece: If it’s true that this man is human just like all of them are, then all the ways they have convinced themselves that they are good and righteous and pure by defining him as bad and ugly and unclean—well, suddenly all those distinctions no longer hold. The categories they have constructed to try and define who is in or out, who is superior or inferior, who is good or bad—if this man is sitting here “clothed and in his right mind,” then they no longer have a pariah. They can no longer assure themselves that they’re simply doing their best with a monster in their midst. Now, they’re all in this together with him.
In short: Jesus has set this captive free. But it seems like the community might have preferred it when he was in chains.
All of us come to the stories of Scripture from a variety of experiences and identities, and I think those give us different entry points to find ourselves in the story. For example: I have not experienced marginalization related to my racial identity or gender identity or my abilities or the shape of my body, and that experience helps me to imagine what might be playing out in the minds of these people. They’re suddenly coming to terms with all the ways they benefitted from and contributed to this man’s status as a pariah. They might be coming to realize how much of their identity and security has been defined by seeing the world as a hierarchy in which some people are superior to others. And they might be starting to realize that if they found themselves in his circumstances—if the demons had chosen to move in with them—they would hope for better treatment from the community than what this man received.
Well, that’s all too much for them to deal with in the moment, and so rather than face it, they ask Jesus to leave. They have no imagination for the possibility that this man’s liberation could be good news for them, too. I think the people in this story are so wrapped up in their self-perception as people who are good and whole that none of them even thinks to ask Jesus to help them with the wounds and hurts they carry.
In fact, vs. 37 says they were “seized with great fear.” This man, who was held captive by demons and bound with chains, is now free. And the people, who might have imagined themselves to be free, are now shown to be held captive by a great fear.
One scholar describes how sometimes we “prefer the troubles we know to changes we do not know.” Another says, “We often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not.” Which of these locals in the Gerasenes missed out on the chance to be healed by Jesus that day because they were unable to perceive themselves as people in need of healing? Sit with that—of all the places in the world that Jesus could visit, he comes to your village, and you politely ask him to leave. May the same never be said of us.
I also come to this story as someone who has experienced marginalization in Christian spaces in light of my identity as a gay man. That experience makes the ending of this story so poignant to me. When the people ask Jesus to leave, he complies with their request. The formerly possessed man asks to go with Jesus, and I really think he would have followed Jesus anywhere, even given his life for him. But Jesus gently tells him, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
So much of my understanding of what Jesus says here, and really my understanding of this entire story, was shaped by James Alison, a Catholic theologian. His book Faith Beyond Resentment includes a powerful essay reflecting on this story in the context of Alison’s own experience coming of age as a gay man in a religious and cultural climate in which homosexuality was stigmatized. In the essay he describes how he learned to identify with the demon-possessed man in this story—not because Alison had a demon that needed to be exorcised, but because he knew how it felt to be treated like a pariah. For Alison, healing took the form of liberation from all the homophobia that he had internalized over the course of his life. All those ways he had been stigmatized lost their power against him, allowing him to integrate his sexual identity with his deep faith in God. Here’s how Alison describes Jesus’ command that the man should stay in the Gerasenes:
The man’s witness to the living God will be most powerfully given by sitting, clothed and in his right mind, at home, among friends. The fully unsettling nature of the Gospel, the strangeness and exuberant vivacity of God, will be shown in all its force simply by being a former scapegoat in a gentile society which must learn to live without the benefit of this necessary crutch.
I love that, the “strangeness and exuberant vivacity of God.” Simply by living among his neighbors, this man bears witness to the way God upends our oppressive structures. Being relieved of his status as a pariah—a status that the community assigned to him—that’s good news, for him and for his community. His newfound freedom isn’t a threat to anyone else; it is only a threat to a system that depends on keeping him captive.
Some people describe this man as the first missionary to the Gentiles. He has been completely transformed by his encounter with the living God. Think of him as a seed that has been planted in his community.
Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit, and this story is just one example of the ways he carried out the work of the Holy Spirit. Fast forward a few books in the Bible, and that takes you to Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the earliest Christians, empowering them to preach good news to all the people who were gathered around them.
Fast forward a couple thousand more years to today, right here. The Holy Spirit who anointed Jesus, the same Holy Spirit who anointed these earliest Christians, I believe that same Holy Spirit is still here, among us, today.
Today our church gathers together in the context of two celebrations of freedom. The first occasion is Juneteenth, now a federal holiday, commemorating the end of enslavement of African Americans in the United States. It celebrates one major step in our nation’s long journey toward the dream of a society that truly embodies the ideal that all people are created equal. You probably know the story, but it bears repeating. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that all enslaved people in the Confederate States were legally free. But it took time for that freedom to be enforced in the Confederate States, particularly in Texas. Two and a half years after the Proclamation was issued, Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, and on June 19, 1865, they announced this new freedom for enslaved people in Texas. Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate freedom. And it is a chance to examine the systems and structures that continue to keep people from living in freedom.
The second occasion is Pride Month. Next week, Chicago will host its annual Pride parade, part of a month of celebrations here and around the world commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and more broadly commemorating the history of the movement for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. You might also know this history. In the 1960s, laws across the country punished public expressions of LGBTQ identity, things like same-sex affection and wearing attire that didn’t conform to one’s assigned gender. In New York, police raids of bars that catered to the LGBTQ community were common, and on June 28, 1969, a police raid of the Stonewall Inn led to a riot, which led to many days of rioting, which became a major catalyst for the growing movement for LGBTQ rights. The next year in June, 1970, Pride celebrations commemorated those riots in many major cities, including Chicago. Those celebrations have continued every June since.
I hope it goes without saying that these two occasions represent very different but intersecting movements in our nation’s march toward freedom.
Here at LaSalle Street Church, both of these occasions are important to us. That’s because here in this community, I believe we’re doing something really remarkable. Together, we are trying to embody the reality that every single one of us bears the image of God. As we describe in our doctrinal statements, “We see in humanity the image of God. We believe that all persons are beloved creations of God and worthy of our love and respect.”
Inside our walls, that means we take it seriously when we identify places in which our community life inhibits the full, wholehearted participation of anyone. Ask anyone who has been here a while, and they can tell you about all these specific turning points in our history—even our recent history—when the church identified a barrier and took specific steps to tear that barrier down. The fact that I am here today, preaching as a member of our church staff, represents a barrier the church formally removed about a decade ago, long before I was here.
Outside our walls, our beliefs mean we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit with our feet on the ground in our neighborhood, and our city, and our nation, and our world. And if you want to know what kinds of things the Holy Spirit is up to, you don’t need to look any further than what Jesus told the people at the very beginning of his ministry. He told them the entire plan right from the beginning.
The Spirit brings good news to the poor.
The Spirit proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.
The Spirit lets the oppressed go free,
And the Spirit proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.
The Spirit of the Lord sets us free, and that is good news! …Unless:
Unless we are complicit in systems that benefit you or me by keeping other people oppressed. This is good news unless the way I reassure myself that I am good and valuable is by convincing myself that some other group out there is bad and worthless. This is good news unless my freedom depends on someone else remaining in chains.
As long as anyone is on the side of captivity, whether that’s their own captivity or the captivity of anyone else, then the work of God in our midst is going to leave them feeling the same way the Gerasene crowd felt: Afraid. In fact, they’ll be seized by a great fear. They might find themselves asking Jesus to stir that trouble up somewhere else. But that is not who we are.
In Luke chapter 8, when Jesus looked at the man who was possessed by demons, Jesus knew he was standing face-to-face with his enemy, but make no mistake: The enemy of Jesus was the Legion of unclean spirits that held this man in captivity. The enemy of Jesus was all the forces of respectability and scapegoating and hostility that kept this man in chains. Jesus saw that whole picture, and he was able to see through all of it right to the heart of things, to see a person, someone who was no less human than Jesus was. Jesus knew this man was not his enemy.
I believe the Spirit of God is present to us today, urging us forward, calling us to proclaim release to the captives, empowering us to let the oppressed go free. Following the Spirit puts us up against powerful enemies, but let us make no mistake about who our enemies are: “For our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
The Spirit of God is present to us today, and that means we have work to do inside these walls, and we have work to do outside these walls. But we do not need to be afraid, because Jesus has come to set us free.
Thanks be to God.