Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Good Swine of Gerasa and a City so Faithless even the Demons Wanted Out: Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12 November 2017

Some of what has been written about today’s Gospel (Luke 8.26-39), seems to miss the mark. St Augustine believed that Jesus’ allowing the demons to enter the herd of swine meant that Christians are absolved from any moral duty to the animal creation. In modern times, some think it can be explained as an unsuspecting miracle of healing mental health, although it plainly goes deeper than this into spiritual malaise and spiritual hope. Others say that the pigs symbolise the hated pagan Roman army; but they are not the bad guys in the story – that accolade is bestowed on the local population who work themselves up into a frenzy and reject Jesus’s presence: “Away with you,” they say; just like the crowd outside Pontius Pilate’s palace would later say, “Away with him. Let him be crucified.” Even the demons wanted out of Gerasa. Perhaps it was people from Gerasa, up for the Festival in Jerusalem, who led the clamour for Christ’s execution. So already, speculating about a healing miracle and a story of a new-found faith has taken us straight to the foot of the Cross for the key to its meaning. It is to be expected that everything points to the Passion and the Resurrection, and the Cross and the Tomb point to everything back. But how did we get here so fast?

First, let us ask about the man in chains. St Peter, who would deny Christ and then be the foremost witness of His resurrection, would also be chained up. St Paul, too; and none other than the Lord Himself was tied up on His committal to Pilate. The man in chains we first meet consumed by a host of demons, but in a few short minutes he is transformed into a man of faith, bearing out in his life all that God has wonderfully done in him.

Second, we have the demons, who had caused the wild man in chains to live among the dead. Where did they come from? St Luke tells us that they came from the abyss, the depths of created existence, and did not want to go back. Since they were causing the man to burst his chains and escape from the city of Gerasa, perhaps Gerasa is the pit to which they did not wish to return.

We will come back to the demons after we have considered, third, the pigs. Instantly we think, “Ah, these are unclean animals in the Bible. No wonder the demons flocked to them in their torrent of self-destruction into the lake. But, if you think about it a little more, the pigs are innocent bystanders, foraging on the hillside. The swine are not the people who reject Christ in the city, or the demons who want to escape from them. Then we remember that the Prodigal Son found refuge and a livelihood among the pigs as a swineherd. From being the lowest of the low, the only way was up on his journey to reconciliation with his father. So we begin to see the pigs in a new light, as witnesses to the miracle of repentance and instruments of the faith bringing light into a renewed human being.  So much for “unclean”;  indeed, in other religious cultures of the time pigs are not forbidden because they are unclean, but because they are sacred and sacrificed to the purposes of God. So, contrast how the two swineherds from Gerasa run off to their city to denounce Jesus; and yet the Prodigal swineherd proceeds to rebirth in Christ’s resurrection, “I will arise and go to my father and I will say to him, Father I have sinned heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be your son; just hire me as your servant.” In the same way, at Gerasa, thanks to the swine fulfilling the saving purposes of Christ, a man returns home and declares how much God in Christ has done.

What, then, happens to the swine? Some translations of the Gospel say that, driven by the demons into the lake, the herd drowned. But the word that St Luke uses means they choked. It is the same word St Matthew uses to describe the tares and weeds that choke off the good seed of the Sower. The demons kept escaping the city that rejected Christ, and it was their voice the recognised Him as Son of the Most High God. Their distorted confession of faith in Christ, by the operation of mercy and inexhaustible love, went from the perversion of a man’s mind to his conversion by an underlying hope in Christ all along. So do the demons plead: “Do not send us back to unfaith, we beg You. Confide us to the swine that people scorn, that this bad seed may be choked, and free our spirits in death.”

So this brings us to the fourth character in the Lord’s enactment of His drama of salvation at Gerasa: the water of the lake. It was in the same waters, when they reach the Jordan, that Jesus left the land of Israel to be baptised and re-enter it as He Who Saves - hailed by St John Baptist as the Lamb of God come to take away the sins of the world, and shown by the descent of the Dove and the divine Voice to be the Son in Whom the Father is well pleased. These waters, then, are the place where an old life dies and a new life begins. As always, St Paul sees this, as he tells it in today’s epistle (Ephesians 2.4-10): “We were dead through our trespasses. Now we are alive in Christ.” There, with the baptising waters in sight, the Lord recalls the great inaugural moment of His public ministry, and before the eyes of the man who has been surprised by grace, there go the swine taking the demons into death, and out emerges a people of faith who are so alive that they describe themselves as already “raised up and seated in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus.” This is what the Lord means when he says to the man, “Return to your home”: he means, “Return to the house of the Father, enter into the Kingdom, your true home.”  It is the same situation for us, just as St Paul confronts us with it (Romans 6.3-4): “Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him … in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

In a few short minutes, then, Christ has taken us from His baptism, to our repentance in the wilderness of our living, to liberation from the oppression of all kinds of influences and forces by His mercy and compassion, to salvation by unexpected means from belief without hope, to faith in what God does within us, to the Cross where the Kingdom at work is seen in its most arresting power. It is as though Christ says to the man who was once in chains, “Return to your home. Declare how much God has done for you. And, so that everyone may see what you have seen this day, now let Me be crucified. Let the work of the Kingdom that has redeemed you - the poor in spirit, the thirsty for righteousness - now be shown upon the Cross.”

In the 17th century, the great Quaker spiritual leader, William Penn was imprisoned (like many Catholics were) in the Tower of London. There he wrote his spiritual testament, with its striking title: No Cross, No Crown. The profound lesson of our existence as Christians is, as St Paul tells us today, that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good, which He prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our way of life is the path of the Cross, taking us by the lakeshore, to the unbelieving city, to the wilderness and the valley of the shadow of death, and this is how we know that in the depths we are more accurately realising that “we are seated in heavenly places” and that this is the gift of God – we can share His crown if we share His Cross. And this is what we recognise when we sing today, “The Giver of Life, raised us the dead from the murky abyss and bestowed resurrection upon humanity: Saviour, the Resurrection, the Life, the God of all. “ Glory be to You! (Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 6).

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