Vacation Bible School is always a great time, and sometimes it helps me look at familiar Bible texts in new ways! I love the story of the Gerasene demoniac, found in Luke 8, but this year’s VBS theme made me see it with fresh eyes.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We just wrapped up another fantastic and exciting week of Vacation Bible School: this year we had eighty kids and over thirty different youth and adult helpers go To Mars and Beyond! A little behind the scenes info: choosing a VBS theme is always a balance of which programs manage to pair the coolest themes with good Bible stories and lessons for the kids. I was drawn to Mars and Beyond because it seemed like a really neat theme—but I did wonder what Bible stories possibly had anything to do with outer space.
It turns out our Bible stories didn’t have anything to do with outer space, but instead they had everything to do with going beyond. We went beyond what we thought was possible with God’s help. We went beyond with faith with Daniel in the lion’s den. We went beyond with boldness with Queen Esther speaking up for her people. We went beyond with kindness with the Good Samaritan. We went beyond with thankfulness with the healing of ten lepers. And we went beyond with hope on the road to Emmaus.
God’s power at work within us let us go beyond what we thought was possible. As I looked at our Bible readings for this morning, I realized that they too are all about going beyond. Going beyond the labels that are given to us. Going beyond the things that limit us, with God’s power.
First we have the demon-possessed man in Gerasene. If we’re honest, I think we sometimes don’t know what to do with stories like this one in the Bible. Stories of demon possession and evil spirits. We conceptualize things so much differently than people did in Jesus’ time. We don’t think of illness, or mental illness, the same way. We don’t think of demons as physical things able to speak and answer questions. So these stories don’t always resonate the way I think they did with their first hearers.
But, for all the things that are weird about them, all of the demons that Jesus confronts have three things in common. First, they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim. Second, the victim feels trapped in his or her condition. And third, they separate the victim from normal life with their family and community. Although they might look different on the surface, when we dig deeper, these demons in the Bible start to sound painfully familiar. Don’t many of us suffer from the same kind of snares and burdens? Addiction, depression, mental illness, self-doubt, anxiety. These are real things that plague us, that try to control us, even if we might not name them demons.
Perhaps the most painful similarity is that when Jesus asks this demon-possessed man his name, the response comes from the demons: Legion, for we are many. This man, who must have had another name, although we never learn it, this man who wanders the tombs, cries out, cannot be restrained, this man has no identity left besides what ails him. He has come to be completely defined by his illness.
It’s the most hurtful thing about him, this thing that has robbed him of his life, his family, his joy. This thing has become his name. It’s devastating. And yet we do it all the time, to ourselves and to others. Homeless. Addict. Drunk. Crazy. Handicapped. Sick. Depressed. Failure.
The things that we struggle with, the things that we’re embarrassed about, the things wish we could change—these things have a way of defining us. And we often define others in the same way.
And even when this man’s demons are gone—he’s still defined by them. Did you notice? Even after Jesus has healed him, he still referred to as “the man who had the demons…the man who had been healed.” He’s still defined by those around him by what his situation used to be, even though it has changed. His demons are gone, but it’s unclear who he is without them. It’s unclear how he fits in.
The people are terrified…they want Jesus to leave. They’ve gotten comfortable with the dysfunction. They’ve gotten comfortable with the man being possessed and tormented. He might have been suffering, but at least everyone understood their role. This man was dangerous and lived out in the tombs, among the dead. Through healing him, Jesus has done a dangerous thing. Because now the people have to figure out where he belongs. Who is he, now that he is no longer crazy demon guy?
He begs Jesus to be able to go with him and the disciples. But Jesus says no. He must stay, return to the village that cast him out and let everyone know what Jesus has done. With his very life, he is to testify to what God can do. God sees beyond the broken systems to the people searching for wholeness and healing. God sees beyond the names we give ourselves and others.
That is what our reading from Galatians is all about. It’s about God seeing beyond labels, seeing beyond what other people see when they look at us. Even seeing beyond what we see in ourselves. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, Paul writes, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Those were the most important categories in Paul’s time, but if we wanted to update this a little bit: there is no longer male or female, there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer cis or trans, there is no longer immigrant and native-born, there is no longer white or black, there is no longer handicapped or able-bodied. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Being one in Christ doesn’t mean that what’s unique about us goes away. It doesn’t mean that we cease to be any of those things. All of those things are part of the beautiful diversity of God’s creation. They are part of who God made us to be, and they should be celebrated. Being one in Christ means all of these identities are secondary to our identity in Christ. For in Christ Jesus, we are all children of God. In the midst of our wonderful diversity, we all share a common identity.
God goes beyond labels, God goes beyond the surface, to see and know us as we truly are. To love us as we truly are. What is your name? Jesus asked the demon-afflicted man. What is your name? God doesn’t call us by our pain, by our hurt, by our past mistakes or insecurities. God sees beyond those labels and invites us to see beyond them, too. God calls us by our own names and loves us as children of God. This week, let’s go beyond…let’s see beyond with God to see ourselves and each other as we truly are: God’s children. Amen.