If you were here in church last week, you’ll remember that we had a wonderful, packed service of baptism for little Kate Gallagher, and we have another baptism next week – it seems to be the season for it. One of the most significant moments in the baptism for any family is the moment when, just before I scoop up the water, I say to the parents, “name this child”. Of course the baby has been named legally when the birth is registered, but this moment matters for many families just as much. It is a reminder to us that the child being baptised isn’t just any child, but a unique individual, a never-to-be-repeated gift to the world, with their own personality, their own path to tread, and ultimately their own story to tell.
Names matter, and in the story we heard from Luke’s Gospel just now, we meet a man who discovers that for himself.
He’s living in the tombs outside the town of Gerasa – perhaps rock-cut caves like the one Jesus will eventually be laid in himself – and he is described as possessed by demons. We’d diagnose him as mentally ill, but the point is the same. He’s in a desperate state, and has been for a long time. He is chained and shackled, regarded with fear – fear for him and fear of him. According to Jewish law, contact with the dead, or the tombs in which they lay, even if it was just fleeting, made you ritually unclean. This man lives here all the time. How unclean does that make him?
The whole story reeks of uncleanness, in fact, because later we find that this is an area where pigs are kept, another taboo for Jewish people. Yet here they are, and in large numbers too. Why? Who is keeping them? And who is going to buy and eat them?
The answer to those questions lies in where this story takes place. Gerasa is on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, and it was one of the ten towns known collectively as the Decapolis, which just means “ten towns” in Greek. They’d been founded hundreds of years before by the Greek ruler, Alexander the Great, and the populations were very mixed as a result. A lot of Gentiles lived there, so they could be uncomfortable places for an observant Jew at the best of times. By the time of Jesus, though, this was also an area where the Roman army, the army of occupation, had many of its strongholds and administrative bases. For the local population, although there was money to be made in supplying the army, it also meant that you were very much under their eye and at their mercy. These pigs may well have been destined to feed the Roman soldiers stationed locally, and the loss of them may have left the pig-farmer with a real problem. Hungry soldiers aren’t likely to be too impressed by some cock and bull story about demons.
To add to that, by the time the Gospel of Luke was written, probably around the 80’s AD, the violence that had always been in the air around Gerasa had finally erupted into bloodshed. The emperor Vespasian had brutally put down a rebellion there in AD 67, sacking homes, massacring the population and destroying livelihoods. The name of Gerasa had become notorious. It would have evoked in the minds of Luke’s readers the same kind of images as Helmand Province might in ours, or Lockerbie, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dunkirk, the Somme, places we associate with conflict , death and terror.
The sacking of Gerasa hadn’t yet happened at the time this story was set, but Luke’s readers knew what was coming, and even at the time of Jesus the danger would have been very obvious in this place where Roman soldiers, in large and menacing numbers, were a daily sight.
So when Jesus asks this poor man what his name is, perhaps it’s no surprise that he answers “Legion”. He uses this Roman word to point us towards a Roman threat. Legions were the largest unit of the Roman Army, around 6000 men strong. A Legion was a terrifying sight, a faceless mass in their identical uniforms, with gleaming armour, weapons bristling, a force no individual had a hope of withstanding. The root and the trigger for this man’s distress is the political situation in which he lives. This isn’t a story about one man’s mental illness – a purely personal problem that was his alone. This is a story about what it is like to live in a world gone mad, a world where fear is all around, a world where you know you can be trodden underfoot with no more thought than a person might tread on an ant. A society that lives like that for any length of time is bound to be damaged by the experience. Different people will react in different ways. Some will collude and compromise to keep the peace – keeping those forbidden pigs, for example. Some will rebel. But some will be driven to mental illness by the continual fear.
This man seems to have so internalised the terror of the Legion around him that he has become all terror, all Legion himself. Maybe that feels easier; better to have the demons inside you where you know what they are up to than outside. Maybe, too, for his community, focusing on managing the threat this one man poses is easier than acknowledging the dread of living under occupation. Perhaps he is the container for all their fears, this man who thinks his name is Legion.
As I said earlier, names matter. In the book of Revelation, amidst all the tumult of that vision of the end of the world and the second coming, there is a lovely moment when Jesus promises to all those who suffer that at the end they will be given a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name, “a name that no one knows except the one who receives it”, says the Bible. It seems to me that this is exactly what is happening in this story. Jesus comes into the mess and dirt of this graveyard and gives this man his white stone. He restores to him his true identity, his real name. And what is that name? We don’t know, but it certainly isn’t the name he calls himself, this name that embodies terror and violence. He isn’t Legion; he is a child of God, made by God in his image, known by God, loved by God. By treating him with care and compassion instead of fear, Jesus reminds him of this truth. Not long after this, Jesus will find himself in another graveyard, sealed in a tomb of his own because of his commitment to that message.
It might seem cruel to us that after his healing Jesus doesn’t let this man travel on with him Instead he sends him back to his own community. But in doing so he is telling them all that this situation was never just about one man. This is not some random affliction that has landed on him out of the blue. His problem was really a problem they all shared, the problem of trying to hold onto sanity in a mad world. And Jesus message to them was that while they might not have been able to overthrow the Romans, they could at least help each other by treating each other with love and care and justice. It wasn’t just the healing of this one man that was needed, but the healing of their society, the healing of their attitudes to one another. In our first reading, Paul reminded another community living under the threat of Rome of that truth. If the Galatian Christians were to have the strength to cope it would be because they lived “as one in Christ Jesus” respecting each other and caring for each other across the boundaries of race, social class and gender.
Mental illness is an immensely complicated subject. Sometimes it is caused by purely physical factors, biochemical problems, hormonal imbalances, in the same way that physical illnesses are caused. Medical approaches can often help. Drugs are often very effective, vital tools to help people get through tough times. But medical models don’t always tell the whole story or provide the whole answer. I listen to people in distress or difficulty regularly in my ministry. Sometimes they start off feeling puzzled by the depression or anxiety they are suffering – why are they feeling like this? But the cause is often quite obvious. They are depressed and anxious because they are battling with depressing and worrying situations. Why wouldn’t they feel like that?
Someone living with domestic abuse and violence is bound to be vulnerable to feelings of worthlessness. They aren’t worthless, of course, but if you are treated like dirt long enough, you are likely to start believing you are dirt. The root of the trouble is not the victim but the abuser. Someone struggling with financial difficulty or unemployment, especially in a time of recession, is going to be anxious. They have things to be anxious about. Discrimination, exclusion, scapegoating are all likely to take their toll if you encounter them often enough. Some studies suggest gay and transgender people seem to suffer a higher than average incidence of mental health problems. I’m not surprised. If you keep hearing people using words like “abomination” when they talk about such a basic part of your identity –apparently with impunity – there’s bound to be a risk you’ll feel abominable yourself from time to time. It doesn’t help if your loving relationships are regarded as some kind of threat to society rather than being affirmed and supported either, denying you the security and mutual care others take for granted.
Often when people feel they are going mad, it is actually the world around them that’s insane. Good mental health is as much to do with the creation of supportive, just and inclusive communities as it is about brain chemistry, and we can all do something about that.
Our post-communion prayer this week acclaims God as the one who comforts the afflicted and heals the broken, who can give each of us that white stone with our true name and identity inscribed on it when we have lost sight of who we really are, his beloved children, whatever our race, gender, sexuality or lifestory. The prayer goes on, though, to ask God to teach us “the ways of gentleness and peace”, the ways of his kingdom. If we could learn those ways, perhaps we wouldn’t be so likely to afflict and break one another in the first place.