Jesus decides it is time to bring his ministry beyond his own Jewish people. He wants to sail across the lake to Gentile territory, and start preaching and healing there too. So they all get into a boat and start on their way. Exhausted, Jesus finds a comfortable spot and takes a nap.
A storm brews up. The wind increases, the waves swell. It gets so bad that even the accomplished sailors in the group – Peter, James, John, and Andrew – have so much trouble that the boat is in danger of sinking. They’re probably embarrassed to ask Jesus for help, they are professionals and experts, while Jesus knows about as much about boats as he knows about motorcycles. In any case, Jesus sleeps through the whole thing. They have to wake him up, with the deck of the boat being thrown around like a Tilt-a-Whirl.
Jesus wakes up, looks around at the chaos and terror, and simply calls out to the storm, “Chill!” or something to that effect in Aramaic. He rebukes the storm, as if it were demonically inspired. He casts the storm demon out of the elements, and the sea and the atmosphere return to normal.
Then he turns and rebukes the disciples. “Where is your faith?” he asks. “What, you can’t handle a second-rate weather-demon? Do you really think this whole thing is going to end in a shipwreck? You have to show a little more trust in what we are doing here. Jeesh.”
The effect of this on the disciples is that they are more afraid now than they were during the storm. “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him?” Jesus goes back to his nap, while the disciples cower at the other end of the boat wondering what just happened.
There is a wonderful little story about the Russian Orthodox monk, Seraphim Rose. Father Seraphim and a companion established a monastery in the mountains of northern California in the 1970’s. It was challenging work, beset with all kinds of difficulties. But every time they met with some obstacle, like a flat tire on the truck, or even opposition from someone in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, they figured they must be doing something right if the demons thought them worthy to have these annoying inconveniences thrown at them. So instead of getting angry or despondent when things didn’t go well, they took heart. They interpreted it as an indication that they were on the right track. They rejoiced even, and enthusiastically changed the tire and got back to their mission.
That’s what faith looks like. When the going gets tough it is a sign that you’re making progress. The Evil One does not pay attention to ineffective ministries. Those he leaves alone to thrive unmolested. It is the ministries with great potential that he starts dropping obstacles in front of.
Jesus is saying that, when the storm blew up on the lake that day, what the disciples should have said was, “Cool! We must be doing something right or the devil wouldn’t be throwing a storm at us! God must really be with us! We can’t possibly fail now! We’re on a mission to bring Jesus across this lake. Who can stop us? Certainly not this pathetic excuse for a storm!”
The church is in a terrible storm right now. The swells are high; the wind is at gale force. Our particular denomination lost 100,000 members last year, which I think is a new record. Once large churches are now medium sized. Once healthy churches are now struggling. Once small churches are now closed. Full-time ministries are suddenly part-time. Presbyteries can’t afford the staffs they used to. The fastest growing religious demographic in America is “none.”
We turned the boat over to the experienced professionals, with advanced degrees, and long resumes, and still we founder. We dissolve into blaming each other. We moan in debilitating nostalgia about when the sailing was easy and the boat was full.
Maybe the sailing was easy and the boat was full back then; but maybe as well it wasn’t going anywhere. And maybe because it wasn’t going anywhere, the Evil One left us alone, fat and happy with our bulging numbers, our political clout, our economic stability. Maybe a boat that stays in a risk-free existence in the harbor would do really well... but that is not what Jesus calls us to do.
Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum and let people come to him. If he had we never would have heard about him, because it is the people in the countless towns in Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Syria, and the Decapolis, whose lives are dramatically affected by his ministry, whose memories and experiences of him form the groundwork for the spread of the Way after his resurrection.
It is because they do go, they set sail on the lake, that they become a target. God wants a church on the move. Jesus does not appear to have stayed very long in any one place. But being on the move is risky. It gets the attention of the Enemy.
I suspect that the Enemy wants God’s people anchored to real estate, crippled by debt, spending money on fuel bills rather than on mission. How many Presbyterian churches are really just mausoleum maintenance societies? (I read the Minutes of church sessions; I know whereof I speak.)
Nothing is less useful to God, or more congenial to the Adversary, than a church content to go nowhere, take no risks, and stay safe and satisfied with its worldly “success.”
Eventually the boat carrying Jesus and the disciples makes it to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. They pull the boat onto the beach, and they are immediately met by a naked madman who had escaped from being chained up in the asylum in the city. Now he lives there among the tombs, for they have apparently landed at a lakeside cemetery.
The party is clambering out of the boat, when this crazy guy runs up to them. Jesus orders the demon to come out of the man, who then throws himself on the ground and starts screaming at the top of his lungs: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.”
I can just see the disciples exchanging knowing glances with each other: “Gentiles. I knew we shouldn’t have come over here.”
Jesus is trying to have a conversation with the naked man writhing in the sand. “What is your name?” he asks.
“Legion,” says the man, or rather the army of demons possessing him. The demons refer to themselves as “legion.” It is the name of the main unit of Roman infantry, made up of 6,000 drafted soldiers.
If he wanted to make the point that he was possessed by many demons, he could have said his name was “mob,” or “throng,” or “multitude,” or any number of words signifying a lot of people. But he doesn’t. He very pointedly says “Legion.” He doesn’t even use something generic like, “army.” He says, Legion. He might as well have said which Legion and give the General’s name.
Everyone would have gotten it. Here is an individual possessed by a legion of demons; everyone watching him lives in a country possessed by imperial legions. The parallel would not have been lost on anyone. “This man,” they would have thought, “is just like us; his individual situation is our situation as a country: possessed and tormented by a legion.” When he says his name is “Legion,” the general response would have been, “Seriously. I hear ya, dude. We’ve all been there.”
Jesus knows this is now a special case, there is symbolism involved. It suddenly get political. The demons beg Jesus not to cast them into the abyss. He doesn’t usually negotiate with demons; but looking around, Jesus sees, next to the cemetery, a pasture. Some herders are overseeing a herd of pigs, but right now they are distracted, entertaining themselves by watching at a distance to see how these strangers handle the lunatic. Jesus sees an opportunity to make a point. He permits the demons to enter into the herd of pigs, which they do. The pigs then go crazy, and stampede en masse down the embankment and into the lake, where they all drown.
Then the man wakes up. He is free! He is in his right mind! They get him cleaned up and into some decent clothes. He sits down with Jesus and they have an actual conversation.
The horrified pig herders, though, run into the nearby town to explain the loss of the pigs and that it wasn’t their fault. The leaders of the town show up. And here’s the kicker. They see the man, now liberated and healed. But they don’t care about him. They do not welcome him, receive him, praise God for his healing, none of that. What they do care about is the economic loss of a herd of pigs.
They were afraid of what it was going to cost them to be free. If it took a whole herd of pigs to free one man from his legion of demons, how much would be demanded of all of Gerasa to be free of their legions? Jesus is upsetting the system. He is threatening the economy. So where the man is free, the nation is content to stay possessed. Freedom is too expensive.
So they basically, no doubt politely, request that Jesus go back to where he came from. He is upsetting the social order, and he is undermining the economic system. He has to go.
So Jesus shrugs. Any people who are more concerned about a herd of pigs than a human being is hopeless. Any people who would rather stay possessed than be free, is not going to receive Jesus. So he and his entourage start climbing back into the boat. The liberated man wants to come too. But Jesus sends him back to the town as a witness to what God has done for him. He goes and tells everyone about Jesus.
By standard measurements, this foray into Gentile territory is a failure. The whole group has risked life and limb, gone to the trouble and great expense of a voyage across the lake. Not to mention that they can expect to hear from the pig-owner’s lawyer at any time. And all they have to show for it is one convert, and an invitation never to return. The mood on the trip back is probably not very good.
What will happen when the Personnel Committee or the Board of Trustees gets wind of this debacle? Well, Jesus’ “Board of Trustees” is that group of wealthy women Luke tells us about earlier in the chapter. And the thing about this group is that every one of them can relate personally to that demoniac on the beach whom Jesus saves. And everyone in Jesus’ entourage would acutely understand the significance of casting out a demon named “Legion.” Because that is what they all hoped and prayed would happen to their own country.
There is no guarantee that if we follow Jesus we will achieve “success” according to our goals and objectives. Jesus appears to think that liberating one broken, tormented soul is success enough to justify this whole sailing-across-the-lake project.
And maybe, a few years later, when perhaps some of the people in that very boat that day come back to Gerasa with the message of Jesus’ resurrection, they will find that folks over there already know about Jesus, because there was this one guy who couldn’t shut up about how some Jew named Jesus had sailed over from the other side of the lake and liberated him from having been possessed by a legion of demons.
God can take even our failures and turn them into triumphs because of the seeds we faithfully planted. God can make our failures even more fruitful than some of the things we think are great accomplishments. Maybe the future is not with the big, rich, successful institutions; maybe the future is really being born today in the marginal churches, the churches in crisis, the churches experiencing profound losses, the churches that have to take risks, try new things, and endure repeated failure.
These are trying times for a lot of churches, this one included. We’re all going though the same storm. So we can relate to the situation of the disciples in that boat. They feared for their lives, they had a reasonable chance of drowning. But the main thing that’s troubling us is a human-made illusion called money.
In fact, I wonder if the preoccupation with money and finance in our culture isn’t the invasive, extractive “legion” that has a grip on us, leaving us vulnerable and anxious, fearful and out of control, making us dwell alone in the land of the dead. It is what got us into this long Recession. Paul says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. When we value our pigs more than our freedom, we are in deep trouble. When Capital has more rights than people, something is very wrong. Jesus does not stay in that kind of environment. It is very toxic soil for the Word.
We are with Jesus Christ when we are ready to obey his Word and go where he sends us, when we realize that our challenges and even our failures are validating our mission and making us stronger, when we do not let the stress corrode our love for each other, when we view success in terms of faithfulness alone, and when we are not afraid but thrilled by this adventure of bringing people home to God’s Kingdom, realized here and now, among us, in this community of disciples.