Pigs and legions

Sharing the gospel of Christ with the world is something we are commissioned to do at the end of Matthew's gospel and it is going to be costly whether it is with a world beginning at the end of our garden paths and comprising mostly our home town or a world into which we travel across continent and ocean.

We are challenged just like the Gerasene and just like Jesus in the gospel of Mark to be willing to face God's missional call on our lives despite the cost. May we hear afresh Jesus' call in God's great Commission to make disciples of all nations, but this is of all nations and that includes our own!

What we will be required to face is a willingness to travel outside our comfort zones. If God is not calling us abroad, he more often calls us to the strangers all around us – and this can still involve discomfort on our part. The challenge comes to us from Christ as to whether we are prepared to be shunned and very often misunderstood for his sake where ever his call takes us.

These two sections of Mark 5:1-20 are interesting:
They [Jesus and the disciples] came to the other side ...
As he [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man [the Gerasene] ... begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim … how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

In the story of Jesus and the Gerasene man from Mark's gospel, both the Gerasene man and Jesus enter territories, one near and the other far, to testify to God's power. Both are way out of their comfort zones and would have reason to be afraid had not Jesus had the full confidence of the Father's presence. The Gerasne man testifies to a people who have previously shunned him and bound him in chains.

Jesus' mission is across the lake by night to non-Jewish territory where a people believed in many gods and magic and superstition and the experience is costly for him with a people there wanting him to leave. Jesus, however, is prepared for this. He will reach people there through the man he has healed. The healed Gerasene man is not to leave his home and go with Jesus – this is what he would prefer - and you can't blame him. No, he must stay instead amongst his own people. They will listen to him, now one of their own, much more readily than they will listen to Jesus.

God proves faithful to the Gerasene man who proclaims the gospel to a people who are in the end “amazed”. This man serves Jesus in God's mission to the Gentiles. He becomes a walking testimony to Jesus' power. We have to trust that God will prove faithful to us too as we accept our call in his mission to the world.

When I was in India, I often forgot that I was not supposed to be sharing my faith. I realise now that I was taking for granted the freedoms that I have here to be a Christian. But God is fully trustworthy. On one occasion he demonstrated this on our trip to a Widows home. Whilst there, I was taken-over with compassion for a woman called Sumitra, who was herself overtaken with huge cancerous growths. Before I knew what I was doing, I was asking if we could pray together. I then panicked because in a country where only 3% of people are Christians, I might have just offended a Hindu or a Muslim. I searched around for some clue and noticed near her bed a small picture of Christ the shepherd. God had guided me correctly. I had heard him tell me to pray with this woman. I was very reassured. On another occasion however I had prayed and been very misunderstood – I had got it badly wrong. India was a tough learning curve for me, I could have done with more training.

A family connected to life here is about to spend time in training with a Bible school to prepare them for mission to Uganda. Jesus asks us to learn before we teach his gospel, to sit at his feet like Mary and learn from him.

Existing together in a learning community here is very important for equipping us for being sent into the world. Many of us attended teaching sessions on the creed and more teaching is planned for later this year. We are to learn and we are to pray for guidance and we are to demonstrate God's love though our lives. We have to be practising what we are preaching to be authentic. We learn about the good news by loving one another as we grow together as a learning community. We also need to look as though the Christian life is one that we love to live, despite the cost.

The mission to the world is God's and we are asked to join in. Some Bible scholars tell us that our story from Mark is a mission story rather than an exorcism story,hence my reusing to refer to him as the demoniac. The entire Bible is in fact a mission story. It is a book all about the sending and the sent. The sending of God's Son, the sending of the Spirit. And our being sent in turn.

So how do we do this thing- how do we declare the good news to strangers in a strange world?

If we are to take a lesson from the encounter between Jesus and the Gerasene man, we might hear the Gerasene's first question to Jesus and reflect on that. Some commentators believe that the Gerasene's first question to Jesus is better rendered – What do we have in common? 

When God sends us out this should be a question that we ask ourselves and a question that we are prepared to answer. We are to ask that important question in every context into which we are sent – What do we have in common? And we are to start there. We are not to focus on our differences to the people around us, on what separates us. We are to begin by focussing on our similarities.

When the Muslims in India called my room-mate and I to pray at 5:30am, singing “Allah is great” beneath our windows through megaphones, we had a desire to pray that was very much in common. The best way to start our day was in prayer as well. On their call to prayer, we would open our Bibles to read the scriptures and pray. 5:30 became 8:30 much to my relief on returning home – 5:30 is way too early. However, we at least had this desire to pray in common.

After the Gerasene's first question to Jesus 'What do we have in common?' note that after this he goes on then to recognise who Jesus is – addressing him 'Jesus, Son of the most high God.' If we begin with those around us recognising what we have in common and building relationship, it should not be too long before they also recognise Jesus as the reason for our attitude and care. They will soon recognise Jesus before them. When this happens the effect will ripple out like ripples on a pond. The story of the Gerasene man and his deliverance from the unclean spirits that have near destroyed his life, is also the story of ungodly influences being removed from an entire land.

In our story, the spirits enter the pigs who go to their deaths in those very waters over which Jesus has had the power to calm storms. Into the worlds that we are sent, often far away but more often nearby, our actions promise to achieve the same thing and send ripples through entire institutions changing their cultures and calming storms, removing ungodly attitudes from entire organisations, places and processes. 

When cultures start changing some people will be afraid, they will feel threatened, out of control and they will react like some of the people in our story, they will prefer the legions and the pigs. Other people though, like those who finally listened, will be amazed, they will be curious and they will want to join in. As they do, they too will encounter those who are afraid, it then becomes our job not to help those people escape the difficulties but to give them the encouragement that they need to stay. We can do that by being here a loving, learning community from which the sending out can happen. Jesus tells the Gerasene man to stay – Go to your people, to your home, in other words - to the world God has placed you in and announce to them how much the Lord is doing for you – continue to demonstrate the good news through your words and your actions right where you are. Jesus gets into his boat but his mission is continuing through this man. Like Jesus, of course, the time will come when we will really have to climb into our boats, leave our schools and offices and colleges and places of work, our curacies, maybe even our country as seasons in our life change but our role is to begin what can be continued by others and encourage them in turn. Some of us will be called out and away and into other worlds but only to return one day having left behind a number of people whom they have raised up to continue God's mission there.

So what can we learn from this story and God's mission to the world in which the church plays its part?

  • That we are sent into the world – God will reveal how near or far that will be for each of us. 
  • That more often than not our mission begins amongst our own people, if we are called further, we are to equip people there to share amongst their own people. We are to encourage.
  • That like Jesus, we have to prepare ourselves for being misunderstood and rejected. Like Jesus we have to be prepared to let some people go, trusting it was not the right time for them. Some will be more comfortable with keeping a destructive culture going than facing the changes that Jesus is calling them to make. 
  • But that God will have some of the people encounter Christ and be amazed and this is the hope in which we are sustained.

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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions