Sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, June 23rd, 2019
‘Then all the people of the surrounding country … asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.’ (8:37) Well, that’s gratitude for you.
In the movie, The Life of Brian, a comedy of sometimes doubtful taste, set in Palestine in the time of Jesus, John Cleese, playing an anti-imperial, Jewish political rabble rouser, asks, “What did the Romans ever do for us?” He’s then embarrassed when his rhetorical question generates a whole host of answers that suggest that the Romans might not have as bad news as he makes out. What did the Romans ever do for us? – aqueducts and sanitation, roads and irrigation, medicine and education, wine and public baths, safe streets at night and general peace. Yes, but apart from all of that, what did the Romans ever do for us?
And what did Jesus ever do for the people in the Gerasene area; a city and surrounding countryside in gentile territory, on the other side of the lake from Jewish Galilee. Well, yes, he healed a spiritually and mentally tormented man; one whom the local people had been unable to control or care for, despite their best efforts. Now, instead of living naked among the tombs in the local cemetery this man is clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus; behaviour which Jesus commends on another occasion – when it’s Mary, the sister of Martha, who chooses to sit at his feet and learn.
So it all seems like good news, except for the pigs, of course, and the demons who had hoped to avoid death in the abyss, only to end up drowned in the abyss of deep waters. So, apart from the fate of the pigs, you would think it was all good news – gospel – for which people would be grateful. And are they? Are they, heck. They ask Jesus to leave as soon as possible.
Maybe their attitude was due to the economic catastrophe brought on by this sudden departure of pigs – Prexit, wiping out the local pork industry at a stroke, rendering swineherds redundant, and putting pig owners into administration. Or perhaps they were afraid that if word got out to authorities that they just stood by while someone destroyed something that went by the name of “legion” then the Romans would do something for them, or to them, that they very much regretted.
I wonder if we would do any better? How well do we respond with gratitude to God’s grace to us? Let’s take an example, asking not “what have the Romans ever done for us,” but, “what has God ever done for us,” and consider how we would respond.
If you had had the opportunity to ask Saint Paul what God had ever done for us he might well have replied with the words he used when writing to Christians in Galatia: ‘he sent his son, born of a woman,” (4:4) so that, ‘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.’ (3:28) In other words, through God’s action in Jesus, three of the great divisions of the ancient world were destroyed as thoroughly as had been the demon-filled pigs destroyed by Jesus. These three were the religious and social divisions between Jews and Gentiles; the division between free and not-free in the socio-economic edifice of slavery; and the differences of sex and gender, male and female.
And is humankind today grateful? Well you’d have to wonder. Jew or Gentile: two millennia since the death of Jesus (a Jew) and after centuries of hostility, culminating of the horrors of the Holocaust, largely gentile Europe is still disfigured by antisemitism, with one of our major political parties currently tying itself up in knots over the issue.
Slave and free: well, in this country, we don’t have open ownership of human beings by other human beings in our age and time. Yet there are far too many close equivalents to say that we have given up on slavery altogether. After all, ours is a nation which struggles to acknowledge the extent of human trafficking for the purposes of forced prostitution and exploitative labour. In what conditions, for what wages, and with what choice do people undertake to work at the labour-intensive car washes that dot the British landscape, or pick the crops in our fields?
Male and female: I’m probably not the one best placed to comment on the extent to which we have achieved freedom from these continuing divisions which lead to poor and unequal treatment. If anyone here thinks problems in this area have gone away I point you a video I watched only last week where male church ministers are asked to read to camera comments which have been made to women ministers, including about their appearance, their fitness for ministry, and, in one case, how forbearing the congregation was in accepting no less than TWO females among their last five ministers. The video is from an American setting but comments upon it by a number of my female URC colleagues confirm that “the cap fits” just as well for us.
Also, as well as acting in ways contrary to being one in Christ Jesus, some people are a little wary of the idea itself. They worry that in saying there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female, we get rid of distinctions that are actually very important to people, and that they form an essential part of our identity. If I told you that, as a Christian, you are no longer allowed to see yourself as a man or a woman you would probably look at me strangely and then set me right about the realities of life.
To take a personal example, a visitor who came to one of the funeral services we held last week, was under the misapprehension that the current minister of this church was a black, gay man. I was a surprise. Obviously, visibly, I’m not black, and, as it happens, neither am I gay. And without a hint of criticism of anyone for being either black or gay, I can tell you that it matters to me that I am not, just as, I’m sure, it matters to them that they are. It’s about identity. And the worry is that what Paul describes – no Jew or Greek/Gentile, no slave or free, no man or woman, destroys something essential in people’s identities.
So, it’s very important to say that being one in Christ Jesus is not about everyone being the same. Instead, it is about everyone’s primary, shared identity consisting in being connected to Christ. We continue to be a Heinz fifty-seven varieties of group and individual identities, based upon different characteristics: I am a white, male, heterosexual, Irish, fifty-something, Christian who is a child of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And me, you and others are all children of God, who also identify ourselves as Jews, Gentiles, bosses, workers, male and female, white and black, from any number of ethnicities, sexualities or social standing.
And this is what God has done for us. God has made us who and what we are, in all our wonderfully different ways. But before that, in order of priority, and as well as that, recognising the reality of diversity, we also share in one, primary identity – we are one in Christ Jesus. The things which in other circumstances might divide us are actually part of the colour, the tapestry, the added value, the diversity that comes with being different people united in Christ.
If we take that seriously, though, I must warn you that being in Christ could cause trouble, just as being with Christ caused trouble when he healed that man in today’s Gospel reading. It might cause political trouble. Our national identities, much though we might prize them, do not constitute our primary identity, and we might end up at odds with people who want to organise our world upon that basis of nationality. Taking what Paul says seriously might also cause economic problems. If I regard poorly paid or exploited workers primarily not in economic terms but in that they are in Christ Jesus alongside me, I might start asking awkward questions. And if I think that how a man or a woman should behave as, or be treated as, a man or a woman on the basis that, with me, they are at one in Christ Jesus …. well …
Faced with potential situations like that it’s tempting to ask God, to ask Jesus, just to go away and not make trouble me; to stand in solidarity with those frightened folks of the Gerasene area. Much better, surely, though, to be in our right minds, to be seated at the feet of Jesus, listening to what he has to say today, enjoying all our differences in a diverse company, safe in the knowledge that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.