Monday, June 24, 2019

More Than Our Flair

'Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and 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 were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 

Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.'
--Luke 8: 26-39

Have you ever noticed the pieces of flair that a lot of table servers wear at chain restaurants?  A lot of us first saw them in the movie Office Space back in the 90s, and since then it seems that they’re just about everywhere.  The pieces of flair—usually pins or buttons on their uniform—often times tell a story about the table server, perhaps a reflection of their interests or places they've visited. We may not wear outward pieces of flair (most of us, anyway), but we all do carry labels that say something about who we are.  Some of my flair includes:  husband, son, brother, former ballplayer and actor, lover of history, dogs, Transformers, and the Lord Jesus Christ (not in that order!).  I wonder what are some of your labels, some of your flair.

What happens, though, when they become our defining characteristic, when someone can’t see past our labels, including we ourselves? Take, for example, the story from the Gospel of Luke about a man possessed by demons who calls himself Legion—both a reflection of the huge number of demons that held him captive, as well as a reference to the huge Roman legions that held Jesus’ people captive.  What are this man's pieces of flair, and what do they say about him?  The first noticable piece of flair he wears is outsider. We know that he is a Gentile—the fact that he lives in the land of the Garasenes, and the appearance of free-ranging pigs in this country tells us that this is not Jewish territory. For those Jewish folks hearing this story immediately the man would be seen as someone outside the story of God's grace. The second label he bears is that of sufferer. We know that he has been suffering for a long time, so much so that the townspeople keep him bound in chains and shackles and force him to live in the tombs.  Maybe modern medicine would diagnose the man’s suffering as paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but for this time and place such language did not exist, and he is labeled a demoniac, one possessed by demons.  His flair, his labels, become his defining characteristics. 

Jesus, though, doesn’t see it this way. He looks past the man’s labels, even past the demons that beset him. He is unhindered by the fact that the man is a Gentile, instead stepping outside of his own social norms and healing one of the most common divisions of his time—a theme that Luke carries throughout his Gospel and continues in the Acts of the Apostles.  Upon being exercised of his demons the man puts on clothes, appears in his right mind, and even sits at Jesus’ feet to learn more from him.  This is a beautifully powerful transformation from terror to wholeness.

But the townspeoeple don’t see it that way.  Luke says that, even after they see the man in his right mind, they’re afraid.  This man has been besieged by his demons for so long, that the people can’t see past them.  Demoniac is his defining characteristic.  They are so filled with fear that they ask Jesus to leave.  Think of that.  They’re not amazed at what he did.  They’re not moved to welcome this man back into their community, no, they are afraid.  They’re afraid of this man whom they have only known as being filled with demons, and they are afraid of this other man, this Jesus, who is bold enough to love him, and who comes into their town and disrupts their whole order of living.  They can’t with this.  Perhaps this is why Jesus does not let the man continue to follow him, but instead has him stay in his own town, with the hope that he will somehow soften the hearts of those who are unable to look past the labels and the fear that they instill and the divisions that they create. 

Jesus casts out the demons, as the townspeople look on (Theo's Possessed by Love).

So much of Jesus’ ministry is spent healing divisions and calling people to see one another as brothers and sisters, and we would like to think that his witness changed everyone’s minds.  Nope!  The Gerasenes are a perfect example of that, and a couple decades later the writings of Saint Paul will reflect the very same issues of division and pain that come when people are defined by labels.  

'Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and 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.'
--Galatians 3: 23-29

The church in Galatia, like other churches to which Paul wrote, was a diverse group, made up of men, women, Gentiles, Jews, freed people and servants, Greek-speaking folks, Latin-speaking folks, and who knows what else.  It was a menagerie, not unlike most modern churches.  It was beautiful, but it also was wrought with division—earlier in chapter 3 of his letter Paul even calls them, ‘you foolish Galatians,’ which is probably a really kind way of saying what he actually thinks of them.  They can’t see past the divisions.  They can’t see past the labels, and they think that their experience is the only one that really exists—a phenomenon called solipsism, which still occurs today whenever we believe that our own opinions, our own experiences are the only ones that have any legitimacy. Nevertheless, Paul offers a counter-argument to their focus on individual labels:  all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3: 28 may be the most radical sentence in the entire New Testament and the most signficant line of Christian Scripture outside of the Gospels themselves.  In this one sentence, Paul declares that the pieces of flair that everyone wears, the labels they carry, are not their defining characteristics.  He uses three particular examples that were common in his own time, three fundamental anthropological divisions that everyone understood:  “Jew or Greek” identified the world along ethnic-religious lines, dividing those who were within the circle from the outsiders; “slave or free” identified the world along socioeconomic lines, dividing those who possessed a measure of freedom from those who possessed little or none; “male and female” identified and divided the world along gender lines determined solely by one's birth.  These three identifications and divisions, maybe the most powerful known in the ancient world, have, according to Paul, ceased to exist, ceased to be the defining characteristic, because of the single identity of being in Christ Jesus.  As Carolyn Osiak describes in her essay on Galatians in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Paul’s statement—especially the “male and female” piece—is a reflection of  the mind of God, wherein the tension of human opposites is non-existent, and for which we hope, work, and pray to come on earth, as it is in heaven.  This new humanity in Christ is "an egalitarian social vision," according to Marcus Borg in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.  This new vision subverts and negates the social boundaries that mark conventional human existence.  In other words, we need no longer be defined by our indivudual labels, no matter how much society compels us to do so, and we must no longer bound one another with the shackles of division, leaving brothers and sisters to battle their demons alone and succumbing to our own demons, like the solipsism of the Galatians, for the only meaningful lable we carry is that of Jesus Christ!

We need to hear these words again, brothers and sisters.  We need to know that Jesus frees us from our demons, and we need to hear Paul remind us that we are all one in Christ Jesus, especially now.  Last Sunday morning, as most of Randolph County, North Carolina gathered for worship, two young men were gunned down in what local authorities are calling an act of gang violence in the EastSide of our town of Asheboro. It is believed that the second young man's killing was a retaliation by the gang with which he associated toward the gang with which the first young man associated.  In this last week there’s been a lot of talk about divisions—Bloods and Crips, black and white, rich and poor, East Side and the rest of Asheboro.  If Paul were preaching today perhaps he would tell our local congregations to remember that these divisions are not our defining characteristics; there is no Blood or Crip, no black or white, no rich or poor, no East Side or rest of Asheboro, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  However, in a town as segregated as Asheboro, far too many of us have forgotten that fact. We retreat to our respective sides of town, and the divisions between us just get worse and worse. These divisions fester and grow into demons that want nothing more than to separate the people of God from one another and from the light and love of God that is very much alive in all of the children of God, if we only have eyes to see. 

Here’s the thing about demons:  they thrive on division.  They love nothing more than for people to be splintered, filled with anger and fear. Maybe that’s why Legion hung around for so long, because of the anger and fear the Garasenes had toward the demoniac. Maybe if they had shown him some compassion Legion would have left a lot sooner. Still, just as Jesus got the demons to say their name we too must name the demons that divide us—the demons that would have us at odds with one another, that would tell us that the dream of God's beloved community is a fool’s dream—we must name them and exorcise them.  And we do that when we come together in the loving, liberating, and life-giving name of Jesus to say, "No more!"  No more to divisions based on race, economics, gender, sexuality, and every other piece of flair and label to which we cling.  No more to the false Gospel that we are defined by those labels.  No more to divisions, for we are all one in Christ Jesus!

The questions is this: will we live our lives believing that that is true?  Will we see past the labels, as Jesus did when he loved the demoniac enough to heal him?  Will we call others to remember that they are more than their own labels, their own experiences, as Paul did? Truly, we are all so much more, brothers and sisters, than labels, flair, and divisions.  For we are all truly one.  We need only act as if we believe that, as if we believe, in the words of that great spiritual, "in Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth."