First there is shock, and then there is anger. These are deep-seated emotions, an ancient part of human reaction, but they are as real to us today as they were to those pig farmers on the steep slopes of Gerasa, in the foothills of the Golan Heights. We are shocked and angry at the senseless murder of Jo Cox, a politician who said it as it is, and whose heart was given over to the poor and the needy. They were shocked and angry that in the healing of the crazy man of their region, their livelihood had been lost.
We really need to get to grips with this. We have seen political debate descend into the worst forms of shouting and divisiveness that I have known in years, unleashed by a referendum that did not need to take place. Now we have murder as part of that scenario, and I hope that those who have called for this referendum are deeply examining their consciences. Legion, this poor psychotic figure, was everything that his fellow countrymen did not want, could not control. But, when he is cured, restored, returned to them sane and reasonable, they become unreasonable, and seek to cast out the one who had cast out the demons. Truly there is a perversity within the human spirit which is hard to fathom.
Another fact, or probability. Legion was probably not Jewish, but a Gentile settler, in one of the many Roman new towns that had sprung up on the eastern side of Lake Galilee. That, at least, would explain the presence of the pigs. Oh, this gets ever more relevant as we go along. I could make parallels with claims about EU migrants and the health service, but I will desist. Legion is also an outcast, cut off from hearth and home by his illness, by his otherness – we could call him a refugee, if we wanted, so that throws another group of people into this morning’s mix.
And at that point we stop and look at Jesus. What is he doing? He is on holiday, trying to find some rest and relaxation with his disciples after the ardours of teaching and feeding the five thousand. They think that they have found a nice secluded beach, with a good ice cream shop and some buckets and spades, when they are confronted with a screaming, desperately ill man. What does Jesus do? His immediate response is to remove the source of madness, to calm the wild spirit of this wretched man, to restore him to wholeness, to sit him down and get him some clothes. It is a love response, the response of the creator of the universe, who loves this man in the same way that he loves each one of us here today, and wants peace and serenity for him, as he does for us. And that is wonderful.
And here is where it gets even harder. We, as disciples of Christ, children of the living God, are called to do the same. We, the redeemed, the baptised, are called to bring God’s wholeness and peace to the chaos around us. And that includes those who are creating the chaos, the pain, the heartache, the division at the centre of the referendum debate.
Our Bishop has sent out a letter which I will read at the end of today’s service. It will also be posted on the noticeboard and on the website. It is partly about the murder of Jo Cox, and partly about the referendum campaign and the need for us to vote. One sentence stands out, so I will quote it now: “My prayer is that we would strive to speak well of one another, both during the campaign and after.” That is a hard prayer for us to answer, sometimes, when some views are expressed that we find particularly insulting, petty or just downright wrong. But we, the people of God, are called to be peacemakers and unifiers within our nation, for if we cannot do that, then nobody else will.
The radical reading of today’s Gospel is to say that the modern day Legion is the person in the referendum debate we most despise, the one we would like to cast out forcibly, and it is to that person or to that group of people that we are called to take the love of Christ, the healing love of God, the peace and unity of the Godhead. That is massively difficult, and I have great fears for the future of our country as this process grinds on – fears for the Union, fears for the future of Europe as a peacebroker if we come out, fears for violent dissent if we stay in – and we must be at the heart of every healing process, for that is where Christ positioned himself.
However, a cheering story to finish.
The other day, I was in Kings Street Hammersmith, walking along behind some young roofers, name of their company emblazoned on their tee shirts, a swagger in their step. It was the end of the working day, they needed food, and one shouted, “Oi Steve, we gonna eat Macdonalds?” To which Steve replied, “Nah mate, we’re gonna have sushi”. If such attitudinal and cultural shifts can happen in white, working class twentysomethings in West London, then I think we will be all right.