A Sermon by The Rev’d Adrian Stephens

Mark 5.1-20

“When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Mark 5 

Our Lord has travelled over the lake with his disciples and on the way he effectively calmed the storm that battered the little fishing boat. The disciples were terrified and they woke Jesus and demanded to know why he did not appear to care whether they survived the storm, or not. It was then that he calmed the wind and the sea, and then challenged the disciples concerning their confidence in him. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

The arrival in the village on the other side of the lake appears to be a lesson in faith for the disciples. The Gerasene Demoniac, once free of the demons that possessed him, became an example of faith for the disciples. In his distressed state he was able to respond to Jesus with belief and thanksgiving. The community had tried to contain the man. Jesus set him free.

As we think of the relationship between the people and the sick man we can be thankful that they have tried to keep him from harm. They have attempted to keep him safe from himself, fed and nurtured. They did not want harm to come to him. And yet, with the arrival of our Lord he proves to be a true recipient of healing and an example of faith. Who would have thought this possible?

Even in our age we can be surprised by the example of faith we discover in the most unlikely of people. In our mind a response of faith by this or that person seems unlikely. We are very poor judges in this area, for the reality is that we can have no accurate idea of what may be in the heart and mind of another person.

When we look to the disciples, they appear to spend a significant amount of time being confused about the identity and the role of our Lord. Time after time Jesus interprets the parables for them. At one point he shows his irritation on this very subject. Paraphrased he seems to demand of the disciples that they brighten up. If they cannot understand the matters in this life, how will they understand anything relating to the kingdom. The disciples must have found this to be very confronting. Maybe even embarrassing.

In the reading from the gospel of Mark there is much to ponder. We cannot blame the disciples for being confronted by the actions of Jesus. When the sea is calmed and the wind is stopped, thereby ensuring the safety of the disciples, they cannot perceive who this may be that even the sea and the wind obey him. As the demons, Legion, are banished from the possessed man they were amazed.

One of the perplexing events is the sacrifice of the pigs. The swineherds were caring for about 2,000 pigs. Can you imagine these poor employees returning to their employer, and how they might explain the loss of the entire herd? “Well, you see, a funny thing happened in the field today. You will never guess what happened. It was the strangest thing. You know how you used to have 2,000 pigs and a splendid income? Umm, you might like to go down and have a look in the lake. Don’t yell at us. There was this man you see, and he, well he, err”

The loss of livelihood for the owner and the employees must have been significant. The only response that we have from this is the people of the community demanding that Jesus leave them. There was no great faith response to the evident power of God to cast out demons and to heal the possessed man. Rather there appears to be fear that the loss of the pigs might only be the beginning. What will we lose if this man casts the demons out of another possessed person?

Another thing to ponder is what casting out demons might mean for us in this age. At the time of our Lord any sickness was put down to the presence of demons. I completely understand why this might be. When the people were confronted with someone with a significant mental health problem they could not comprehend it. They would then identify the sickness as a spiritual infliction.

There is little doubt that there is very little separation between the physical and the spiritual dimension. We hear stories about ghosts, haunted houses, people seeing loved ones after the loved one has died. It is as if the spiritual dimension breaks into the physical dimension, and we catch a glimpse of something that does not quite fit. To my mind this is perfectly normal.

What I do not find helpful, or normal, is the capacity of some pastors, spiritual leaders, to use the fear of the spiritual dimension to control the lives of others. Some of them seem to spend so much time describing the power of the devil that we might wonder about the power and authority of God.

It is appalling when we hear of situations where people with mental health problems are told that their illness is spiritual, and that they are in some way possessed. If they had faith, they would overcome the sickness, or in terms used in this situation, they would overcome their possession by an evil spirit.

Of course, the logical conclusion to this argument is that if the person does not get well, their faith is not strong enough. Sadly, there are many vulnerable people who find themselves in this situation. When they need God the most. They are in a very vulnerable state. Only then to be told that their faith is too weak for God to help. It is obvious that this attitude, or prejudice, or inherent stupidity, compounds the illness that the person might have. In my mind it is nothing short of spiritual abuse.

It is important for us to remember that when our Lord died on the cross, he defeated the greatest of our enemies. We are frequently taught that Jesus overcame the sting of death. We have no need to fear death now that the doorway to heaven has been opened for us. The second thing that our Lord defeated is the devil. The devil has no power over us, unless we give that power to the devil.

When a criminal claims that the crime was committed because the “devil made me do it” they are grossly mistaken. The devil does not make us do anything. The only action that the devil can take is that of temptation. Being tempted is not a sin, giving in to that temptation may well lead us into sin.

The question must be asked, “Is there such a thing as demon possession?” The short answer is yes, even though I have never experienced it. Some years ago, I read an article where the subject was that of spiritual possession. The observation was that of 100,000 people who claimed to be possessed by the devil, or an evil spirit, one might be. Emphasis on might. Far too often mental health difficulties are attributed to the involvement of evil spirits. Generally, this mental illness can be controlled by appropriate medication regimes. They are not controlled by telling people that their faith is weak.

It is far better to acknowledge that God has revealed much about our health over the years and through medicine and qualified medical practitioners we will know healing of the body.

We may ask the question, “Can God offer miracles of healing?” of course God offers gifts of healing; some of them miraculous. We have a very generous God and God responds to our prayers in a positive way. It is just that sometimes God answers prayers in a manner that surprises us.

After the Gerasene demoniac was healed by our Lord he wanted nothing more than to be with Jesus. Wherever Jesus went he wanted to follow. It must have been a surprise to every-one when our Lord told him to stay in his community and to tell of all that God had done for him. We recall that earlier in the gospel Jesus would perform the miracle of healing and then insist that the person tell no one about it. The contrast here is that the healed man was instructed to tell his community all that the Lord had done for him. He was not told to remain silent.

This is an important message for him, for the disciples, and an equally important message for us. A significant response to our faith in God is to tell others all that having faith in God has brought to us. It could be a peaceful heart when confronted by personal attack. It could be a confidence that whatever happens around us will cause us no permanent harm for we are at peace with God. It may be as simple as knowing that our prayers have been answered.

We are the disciples of Christ, and it is for us, in our generation, to teach of the peace and healing that comes with faith in God. As we live our lives in the community it would be wonderful if people looked to us and said to themselves, “I want what they have.” – and what we have is a total trust in God.