Today’s readings have a lot to say to us about identity. Who do we think we are? Who do others think we are? How do we, and they, feel about our identities?
In the first reading, Paul writes to the church in Galatia, a church which seems to have been tearing itself apart. The Galatians – Galatia is in Central Turkey – weren’t ethnically Jewish. But that hadn’t made any difference to Paul. When he had brought the Gospel to them he had been clear that God loved them as they were. But after he had moved on, they had begun to doubt that, influenced by teachers who took other views, who felt that only if they kept the Jewish laws and customs could they really be a follower of a Jewish Messiah. Some of them felt that they needed to be circumcised and keep the food laws to be acceptable to God. They are having a communal identity crisis – are they the real deal or not, properly part of the family of God? Paul writes to them to reassure them that they are. Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, and any other distinction they care to think of – it doesn’t matter. They are all one in Christ.
The identity crisis we see in the Gospel reading is even more severe and distressing. Jesus travels to Gerasa, across the sea of Galilee from his own area, into a region which had been settled by Alexander the Great, and which was mostly Gentile and Greek speaking. It was also an area in which many Roman soldiers were stationed. The area around Galilee was the breadbasket which fed the Roman army, an important base for their operations throughout this part of the Middle East. So it’s no accident that the man Jesus meets among the tombs calls himself Legion – the largest unit of the Roman Army. There are real Legions all around him. His homeland has been overrun by dangerous forces beyond his control, and that’s how he feels inside himself too, overrun by hostile spiritual forces.. He’s lost sight of who he is. His own voice has been drowned out by the voices which accuse and threaten him.
But Jesus sees the human being, unique and precious, beneath the mask of madness, and banishes the demons that have possessed him. When his friends and neighbours come to see him he is described as being “in his right mind”. He is himself again. It ought to be a cause of great rejoicing, and maybe for some of his friends it is, but overall the response of the local people is decidedly underwhelming. They beg Jesus to leave them. It seems like they’d rather keep things as they are. Why? Because his healing is even more inconvenient and unsettling than his illness was. One herd of pigs has already been lost – someone’s livelihood, and possibly intended to feed those Roman hordes. No one with any sense would want to come between a Roman soldier and his bacon butty. What effect is Jesus going to have on their local economy, and the fragile understanding that exists between them and the military? If one man has to suffer to maintain the status quo, so be it – the cost of his sanity, the herd of pigs, was too great for them. It suits them for one man to be mad and living among the tombs; he bears the demonic load on behalf of them all.
Many people today are forced into living lives distorted by fear because it suits others that they should do so, excluded, scapegoated, bearing burdens imposed on them by others. The reactions of the LGBTI community to the shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando have demonstrated that. Many spoke of the bone-deep exhaustion of living in a society where things straight couples take for granted – walking down the street holding hands, for example – can result in abuse and violence. And last week they discovered that even in a nightclub where they had always felt safe, they weren’t.
Hatred is closer to the surface and more endemic than we might realise if we don't happen usually to be on the receiving end of it. The killing of Jo Cox was another reminder of this. One man consumed with rage that someone held different views from himself, blasted away any complacency we might have had about the strength of our democracy. The bitterness around the debate about the EU referendum should give us pause for thought too – it’s all too easy for arguments about policies to become brutal character assassinations of individuals who think differently from us.
For those who are followers of Christ, diversity should be in our DNA. Jesus lived and died proclaiming the love of God for all people, breaking down the barriers that his society had erected between people and people, between people and God. Sadly, though, the church has often been among the worst of the oppressors, and that is something we can’t ignore. It is an offence which cries out for repentance. It seems to be deeply ingrained in us to fear difference, and to feel that others should be like us to be acceptable. But in Christ, says Paul, we are all one, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, gay or straight, left or right-wing, “leavers” or “remainers”, united by the identity that is deepest and truest in us, our identity as God’s children, loved by him and therefore held in one embrace.
|Thanks to Stephen for the photo|