Gospel stories about demon possession and exorcism are hard to get your head around. They’re difficult to preach about, mostly because we don’t experience demons today the way they’re described in the Bible. Many modern bible interpreters believe that the people who were possessed by demons in the gospels suffered from mental illness of some kind: schizophrenia or paranoia. . .
But if we define demons as “forces that take hold of us and prevent us from becoming what God intends us to be”, we can begin to see that we are surrounded by demons. Our demons may take the form of any kind of addiction or obsession . . . any kind of self-destructive habit.
All the demons that Jesus confronts in the Gospel stories have three things in common:
- First: Demons cause self-destructive behavior in their victim.
- Second: The victim feels like he’s trapped – trapped in his life situation.
- And third: The demons keep the victim from living a normal, happy life in his family or community – the demons separate the victim from family and community.
Does this sound familiar? Have you ever felt like the life you are living is not the life you want to live . . . that somehow your life is not your own . . . or maybe you feel like you’re a prisoner of your own life? Maybe you know someone who has gone through this – or is living it now. Either way – if you’ve lived or know some else who has you know the Gerasene demoniac, the man in today’s gospel.
This man used to live in a home in the city . . . now he lives outside the city – in a cemetery, in caves that serve as tombs. This man used to be free . . . but now he spends time bound up in chains and shackles. He used to relate to family and friends . . . now he has only a guard. He used to dress and act like other people . . . but for a long time now, he hasn’t even worm clothes.
We don’t know how all this came about: why this man is living among the tombs – what keeps him chained to the dead – how he has been left exposed and vulnerable – naked. We don’t know the whole story of his life.
But we can reflect on the story . . . and maybe remember a time when we felt more dead than alive . . . when we felt exposed and vulnerable. Many of us know what it’s like to be a prisoner of our own lives . . . when life seems to weigh us down very heavily on us. And we can remember times when we missed out on the security of being in a community of family and friends, a time when we felt lonely – like an outsider. In these times, we just are not ourselves. Our lives become possessed by something outside . . . by another person, or by an event, or by some overwhelming material desire.
The reasons for this are many, the gospel reading today calls them legion – many causes, many demons. It might be the pain of a divorce or a broken relationship with a child or a parent. It might be grief and sorrow when someone close to us dies – or the exhaustion and isolation of working too many hours – or disappointment in ourselves or someone we are depending on. It may be guilt that will not let us accept forgiveness – or our own refusal to forgive. It might be anger – fear – addiction – indifference, apathy. . .
We can become so attached to all of these ways of thinking and ways of behaving that they seem to take on a life of their own. They possess us – and our life is no longer our own. They take on power of their own, power so strong it’s beyond our ability to control it or get rid of it.
The good news of today’s gospel is that there is a “power greater than ourselves that can restore us to sanity.” The healing power of the Holy Spirit – through Jesus Christ – is greater than the greatest multitude of demons . . . greater than any sin . . .greater than death itself . . .
In the gospel story, the demons themselves testify to the power of God.; they are powerless against the One who is Light and Life.
The good news is that there is nothing that we can encounter in life – no sin committed . . . no life situation . . . no pain or suffering inside of us – nothing that Jesus cannot heal, nothing that Jesus cannot transform into spiritual rebirth.
The spiritual healing process comes to us in three stages: 1) Confrontation, 2) restoration and 3) integration. I want to say a brief word about each of these three stages . . .
First confrontation: Healing requires confrontation and honest truth telling to bring the demon to the light. If you can’t name the disease – the demon – the sin – how can you ask for forgiveness? And then how can you even accept the cure? And for us the first step in Jesus healing comes through prayer and self-examination, a kind of self-confrontation . . . taking a close honest look at things we might prefer to avoid. In the gospel story, Jesus asks the demons to name themselves. Likewise, Jesus asks us to name and acknowledge our demons . . .
The next step is restoration – restoration that comes in God’s time, in God’s power – lifting us up and out of darkness to the light. In the gospel story, when the people from the city came out to see what had happened, they found the restored demoniac sitting peacefully at Jesus’ feet – clothed and in his right mind. Likewise for us, Jesus restores our capacity for serenity and joy and God’s peace.
And then integration: the final step in the return to spiritual health.
Jesus’ mission in the world is to take the healing and liberating love of God to the broken and the desolute, to people who are bound by demonic forces they can’t control.
In the final verses of today’s gospel story, as Jesus and the disciples are getting in the boat to return to the other side of the lake, the man who was healed of demonic possession begged Jesus to let him go with them. But Jesus refused; he told him, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And the man did just that! He went back to family and community to share the good news. This action actually brought him full circle, bringing his healing to wholeness and completion.
As Jesus’ followers, we are restored and redeemed through his love. When this happens, Jesus mission becomes our mission as well. We are called to take the healing and liberating love of God to the broken and the desolute of the world. And living into this mission is what keeps us in right relationship – with ourselves, with others and with God.
It isn’t simply a story of one man’s, one-time healing . . . it’s a story of our vocation, a story of our calling . . . As they say in twelve-step programs, “You gotta share it to keep it!”