Man of the tombs

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 8:26-39

“Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him.” Luke doesn’t flinch even the tiniest bit, as he writes so matter-of-factly of this man “who had demons”; for Luke, it is self-evident. I suspect that today you would get a very different diagnosis from the average psychiatrist, and that the members of the treatment team in just about any hospital psychiatric unit would be able to describe a patient who exhibited symptoms not unlike the man Jesus encountered in the country of the Gerasenes. It can be tempting to imagine that we, in the opening decades of the 21st century, have a far more sophisticated understanding of things, and so can legitimately read these cases of demonic possession and spiritual oppression as being psychiatric disorders. With the right treatment plan and proper medication, this man would have been put right.

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Yet we need to be cautious about those assumptions, in part because they betray an over-confidence in how much we think we know. It is easy to imagine that we know more about everything than any generation that has preceded us; that anyone not born in our time must be naïve or at least suffering from the limitations of a pre-modern world-view. Yet four centuries before the birth of Christ, Hippocrates argued that all diseases and disorders originated in natural causes. In his work, “The Sacred Disease,” and sounding very much like a 21st century psychiatrist, Hippocrates wrote that, “Men believe only that it is a divine disease because of their ignorance and amazement.” At the time of the Reformation, John Calvin acknowledged that in considering stories such as the one of the Gerasene demoniac, some people see “not real spirits, but only the depraved passions of men.” For Calvin this was “nonsense” held by “ungodly folk,” but my point is that ours is hardly the first age to have looked at these kinds of stories and wondered what was actually going on. Closer to our own time, in his book People of the Lie the noted author and psychiatrist Scott Peck made the case that the only way to account for at least some pathologies is in terms of spiritual oppression and even demonic presence.

The biblical scholar G.B. Caird is probably accurate when he suggests that this man showed all the signs of a “disintegrated personality” “All the symptoms described have the note of authenticity: the morbid preoccupation with graves, the abnormal strength, the insensitivity to pain, the refusal to wear clothes, and the multiple and fluctuating self. The man conceived himself to be possessed by a whole regiment of demons; like the country he lived in, he was enemy-occupied territory.”

Well, as C.S. Lewis famously wrote in the preface to his novel The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” For Lewis, skeptical under-belief and obsessed over-belief were two sides of the same coin; and both are equally problematic.

As shown in the gospels, Jesus can be accused of neither over-belief nor under-belief. When faced with a person with leprosy, he cured it; when meeting the blind man, he restored his sight; when confronted with the dangerous chaos of a storm at sea, he calmed it. And when he encountered this tormented Gerasene man, Luke tells us, Jesus “commanded the unclean spirit to come out.” In each instance, it is putting right the brokenness and confusion of the world, and enacting a picture of how things really should be. As Caird has it, “The miracles of Jesus were all ‘miracles of the kingdom,’ evidence that God’s sovereignty was breaking in, with a new effectiveness, upon the confusion of a rebellious world.”

That same “putting right” is offered to us, sometimes in ordinary ways embedded in the fabric of our day to day lives, and sometimes in ways more dramatic, even revolutionary. Sometimes, too, the ordinary can become revolutionary. This is a perspective explored by the musician Bob Bennett, in his song “Man of the Tombs.” (To hear a live version of the song, simply click here). In his comments on the song, Bob says it is “A biography that somehow managed to become autobiography as well,” and maybe that is one of the best ways to read this gospel story; as an account of what happened to one man, which is also an account of what in its own way is happening in our own selves.

The song begins with a picture of that nameless man:

Man of the tombs
He lives in a place where no one goes
And he tears at himself
And lives with a pain that no one knows
He counts himself dead among the living
He knows no mercy and no forgiving
Deep in the night he’s driven to cry out loud
Can you hear him cry out loud?

The second verse deepens the description, with lines about how he is “Possessed by an unseen enemy,” and though able to “break every chain” he just “mistakes his freedom for being free / Shame and shamelessness equally there / Like a random toss of a coin in the air.” And in then the chorus we hear the imagined voice of that man:

Underneath this thing that I’ve become
A fading memory of flesh and blood
I curse the womb, I bless the grave
I’ve lost my heart, I cannot be saved
Like those who fear me, I’m afraid
Like those I’ve hurt, I can feel pain
Naked now before my sin
And these stones that cut against my skin
Some try to touch me, but no one can
For man of the tombs I am

Against this isolation and pain a new voice sounds, and when the chorus is repeated it is the voice of Jesus singing:

No need to fear, be not afraid
This Man of sorrows knows your pain
I come to take away your sin
And bear its marks upon My skin
When no one can touch you, still I can
For Son of God I am

Touched by this compassionate Jesus, the man of the tombs can now sing a new song. Truly freed, his voice is no longer one of pain, isolation, and hopelessness. Instead, as Luke writes, he went back home, “proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

When the song’s chorus comes around a third time, it is neither the Gerasene man nor Jesus who sings, for now biography has really become autobiography:

Underneath this thing that I once was
Now I’m a man of flesh and blood
I have a life beyond the grave
I found my heart, I can now be saved
No need to fear, I am not afraid
This Man of sorrows took my pain
He comes to take away our sin
And bear its marks upon His skin
I’m telling you this story because
Man of the tombs I was

What Bob Bennett is on to here is that in different ways and for all kinds of reasons, we’ll all find ourselves at some point living among the tombs… maybe even deluding ourselves into thinking we want to be there because that is the best we deserve. Deadness of spirit or of heart; death of hopes, dreams, faith, innocence, even of love. The truth is that sheer will power and determined belief alone won’t be enough to move us from those tombs; that in that place of death what we need is an openness to being met and touched by the grace of the living Christ, as his boat touches the shore and he moves toward us.

Here’s the other thing, though. So very often that living Jesus comes to us in and through the presence of another member of the Body of Christ. And you know what that finally means? When you see someone you think has landed in that space of deadness, go to them; be with them and for them. You might not be able to do much or change much or effect much… but maybe to have company amidst the tombs—to know that someone would rather you not be dead—that in itself is powerfully good news; the first step as the living Christ gets out of the boat and approaches us in our deadness and our lostness and our brokenness.

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