21 June 2009 – Mark 4:35 – 5:20
Who Is This?
Jesus had been teaching in parables from the back of a boat. He spoke of the hidden yet present and growing nature of God’s divine reign of mercy, justice, healing and hope for all people. He has been teaching among his people in Israel. Now he sets out for the other side of the sea: Gentile territory. He is tired from a full day of teaching. He falls asleep in the rear of the boat – perhaps recalling the parable of the farmer who sows the seeds, yet, knows not how they grow. The seeds grow even while he sleeps. There are other boats “with him.” The words “with him” in Mark is a technical phrase meaning discipleship. That is, we can enter the story by placing ourselves in one of these “other boats.” The ceiling of this church recalls the hull of a boat, so it is called the Nave from the same root that we get navy. When we are in church we are in the boat with Jesus. Let’s see what happens!
We know the scene all too well. There is a sudden storm, the boat is threatened, the disciples wake up Jesus in a panic. They beg him to stop the wind! Jesus says, “Shalom, Be still.” The wind stops, and the sea becomes dead calm. Jesus chides them for a lack of faith. Had they not heard, the power of God is at work even when the sower of the seed is asleep? Then they ask the question we all ask ourselves, “Who then is he?”
The first verse of Mark’s gospel identifies him as “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” A few verses later a voice from heaven announces, “You are my Son, my Beloved.” A few verses after this an unclean spirit declares, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God…Have you come to destroy us?” But these are mere declarations – descriptions. It is a very different thing altogether to see the subject of the declarations at work – taming the powers of watery chaos just as God had ordered the watery chaos in the beginning to set the earth right. Jesus, the Son of God, the Beloved, the Holy One of God demonstrates the same kind of power to overturn our expectations when we least expect it. The disciples had heard about who he is, now they have seen for themselves.
Oh, yes, and be careful what you pray for. There is now a dead calm. No wind for the sails means the disciples and the rest of us in the other boats now need to get to work and row to the other side. If we thought it was scary on the stormy sea, a metaphor for life in the church with Jesus who saves through and beyond death, but not necessarily from it, the real scary stuff is on the other side: unclean Gentiles, unclean pigs, and an unclean man possessed by unclean spirits who lives in the unclean tombs! Beware of going over to the other side!
Just try to imagine how you might feel after this night sea journey with Jesus: after a long day of teaching in enigmatic parables, setting out for Gentile territory, encountering rough seas and high winds, being chastised by the Son of God, left wondering just who is this guy and why did I sign up for this journey in the first place?
So what is the first thing to happen as you step out of the boat? This crazy man possessed by an unclean spirit races out of the tombs down to the shore to greet them! He had been chained and shackled, but possessed by the spirit he has the strength to wrench them apart! No one, we are told, had the power to subdue him! If you are in one of those other boats, do you think, “Maybe it is time to go home now!”
The man falls at Jesus’ feet and begs “Jesus the Son of the Most High” not to torment him. To let them be. Them, because it turns out that the spirit’s name is Legion because there are many of them. This man has lots of problems. We know what that’s like. Jesus calls them out. They negotiate: please do not send us out of the country – send us into the pigs, they cry. Willing to oblige Legion’s request, into the pigs they go, and into the sea go 2,000 pigs to their death by drowning. This recalls, perhaps, the chariots of Pharaoh at the Red Sea as they were suddenly unable to tread water. Jesus has the power to command a new Exodus, a new liberation, available even to individuals like this poor man who had been chained in the tombs for all these years. Or, perhaps this episode is a reminder of how we die with Christ in our Baptism only to be Reborn by the Holy Spirit into newness of life. So now Jesus demonstrates the power of creation and the power of the Exodus/Passover!
When the townspeople and swineheards saw what happened to the pigs, and saw Jesus and the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, did anyone say, “Thank you” or “Great Job” or “Wow! Fantastic!” No, they were afraid and asked him to leave. We know how they must feel. We get used to consigning certain people to the “tombs.” We get used to keeping certain people at a distance, chained up, locked away. It is disturbing to our status quo to allow these people of whom we are used to being afraid suddenly become more like us. We hate to admit that perhaps if we had only approached them like Jesus approaches this demoniac that perhaps we could have helped them return to their right mind. It begins to dawn on us that perhaps this is why Jesus invites us to get into the boat with him in the first place.
Jesus is again willing to oblige, and as he gets in the boat to leave the man runs to him again and begs to go with him. Really. Who wants to stay with the fearful people who chained him up in the tombs in the first place? Jesus says, no, go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you. And he went through ten of the Gentile towns and told people, and they were amazed. Having restored the man’s sense of self and his place among others, Jesus now gives him a voice and a vocation: to spread the Good News about just who Jesus is!
Jesus seeks not his own advancement, but rather he seeks to empower others. All others. Even the most unlikely others we can imagine. Three things from this: If the demoniac can do God’s work, so can we; we are meant to see how the power of God is at work in others, even the most unlikely others we can imagine; and if Jesus can set the demoniac free from the isolation and patterns of behavior that kept him bound in chains in a tomb, Jesus can free us from whatever keeps us from becoming the person God wants us to be – God’s own Beloved. New life may be hidden, but it is alive and growing even while Jesus seems to be asleep, even in the most unlikely of places like the other side of the sea. Even in us! Amen.