I have a confession to make (I haven’t publicly made one in a while)…I have seen almost every movie that deals with exorcism. I am fascinated by the idea that a person can be possessed by some evil spirit, contort their body into various positions, levitate, speak in foreign tongues, and then when all hope seems lost, be saved by the prayers of a devout priest yelled into the darkness and chaos… “the power of Christ compels you”. I find it terrifying and mysterious. And since becoming a priest, I have been asked many times (mainly by students when I used to teach in the classroom) if I believed in exorcism or had ever performed an exorcism. I always laugh, but this question troubles me. Do I believe in exorcism? Not the way it’s played out on tv or in movies. But I do believe that sometimes we are possessed and have to be liberated. Have I ever performed an exorcism? No…and I wouldn’t want to if it is anything like what we see in the movies.
But I’m not telling you all this so we can spend the morning thinking about all the movies we’ve seen (or avoided seeing), I’m sharing this with you so that we can acknowledge that there is something terrifying and mysterious happening in this Gospel text from Luke, but then move toward the more interesting and empowering events of liberation and healing.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus has traveled by boat to the opposite shore from Galilee…he’s in Gentile territory. And as soon as he steps out of the boat, he is face to face with a man. Now this man is not the head of the hospitality committee, he’s not well dressed or offering Jesus a place to rest. No, this man is violent, naked, and lives among the dead…in every respect, he is “unclean” by Jewish law and tradition. And according to what he tells Jesus, he is possessed by evil spirits.
Jesus does not ignore this man, but rather, he engages him and asks him who he is. “Legion” is his response. He doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t have an identity of his own. Instead, he identifies as that which possesses him… a “legion” of all his problems.
This got me thinking about how we identify ourselves. Are we also “legion”…identified by our jobs, our social status, our age, our health, our relationships. Sometimes our identity as “legion” helps us to feel complete, that we’ve achieved something in life. But these identifiers can also be what possess us…our problems at work, financial pressures, broken relationships, bad health. The “legion” by which we are identified vie for our attention, eat away at our resources, and strip us of our true identity. The “legion” is very real.
But here is the moment of healing in the story, both for this possessed man and for us. Jesus liberates this man, exorcises his demons…all those things that have possessed him and made him unclean, and then he sends him home to tell others about his experience. His identity as a child of God is restored. As one theologian stated it, “The grace of God reached beyond every barrier that sin had built”.
When we come before Jesus will our “legion” and ask for help, we too are healed and restored to our true identity as children of God. The healing that Jesus offers us is holistic…the “legion” of problems in our body, mind, spirit and relationships can be exorcised.
And what happens when we have been healed and restored? Like the man possessed, we return home to tell others. We become evangelists of the good news of the salvific healing, love and grace of God.
While I’m not always a fan of the Apostle Paul’s theology, I think the pairing of the reading from Galatians with today’s gospel is an important one because it reminds us that even when we are possessed by our own “legions”, when we turn to God in faith, we are no longer separated or different from others, but rather, we are all identified as children of God.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.