By Susan Brown Snook
Today is Father’s Day, when we give thanks for the gift of fatherhood in all its forms. I’ve been blessed with two terrific fathers in my life: my own father and my husband, father of my children. On Father’s Day we can remember that Jesus prayed to God as “Father.” Not because God is male in any way — the Bible says God created human beings in God’s image, both male and female; God transcends gender categories — but because God as Father is a symbol, a way of describing God’s love for this world. And the family relationship we all establish with God at our baptism makes us all beloved, all one in the family of Jesus Christ. The symbolic fatherhood of God gives us an example of the loving care we are called as Christians to offer in this world to make this world a stronger, better place.
But the world is not always a loving, caring, good place to be, is it? Our Gospel today gives us one example of how we humans treat each other. Jesus and his disciples sail across the Sea of Galilee to the country of the Gerasenes, that is, non-Jewish people, Gentiles, outsiders. They get out of the boat in a foreign country on the other side of the sea. And they’re met by this wild man with no clothes, possessed by an unclean spirit or “demon” — which is a category we modern people often don’t understand. The idea of demon possession indicates that the person’s behavior is not his natural way of being. Some outside force has caused him to be not himself, in a way that surrounds the person with evil, makes his life unbearable.
Whatever possessed the man, it’s something that’s not his fault and he can’t control it. We can’t really say what exactly it was in modern language, but what we see in the Gospel is that the people of his town absolutely don’t know what to do with him. We can imagine that they’ve focused a lot of time and attention on him because his behavior has been so troubling — we can imagine that his status at any given time has been the talk of the town, that huge energy has gone into controlling him. They’ve tried chaining him up (an unhealthy and unloving response to a terrible situation), but he breaks all the chains. He’s gone to live among the tombs, wearing no clothes. If he’s not actually dead, he’s dead to them. They’ve written him off as the ultimate outsider.
And from the point of view of these good Jewish disciples just arriving on a boat from across the sea, he’s unclean in every possible way — if they associate with him, they will be unclean too. He is unclean because he is a Gentile, he is unclean because he is possessed by an unclean spirit, he is unclean because he is living among the dead, he is unclean because he is living near a herd of pigs. He has been driven out of town by his own people, excluded and uncared for. He is an outsider among outsiders, a horrifying person for the disciples to meet.
The evil that surrounds him is not only his demon possession, but also the reaction of his family and friends to chain him, exclude him, drive him out. They have truly demonized him, and in a lot of ways you can’t blame them. They’re at their wits’ end; they have no idea what to do with this man.
But Jesus changes all that — he drives out the unclean spirit, he brings healing to the man, restores him to his right mind and his proper place. And the people of the town are terrified and ask Jesus to leave — not because of the loss of a valuable herd of pigs, but because Jesus has come in and upset their whole society. He has set a man free from his chains, he has made it necessary for the town to welcome back the outsider as one of them. They have to think up a whole new way to live with him now. Jesus has brought healing, but he has also brought crisis. Jesus has required not just this man, but the whole town, to reconcile and begin a new way of life.
Which is what Jesus always brings: healing, restoration, reconciliation, a new way of life, as we see in our New Testament reading today: Paul’s great declaration of freedom in Christ: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” There will be no demonizing, no outsiders, no subservience in the church of Jesus Christ.
Paul is dealing with a situation in the church in Galatia, where people are pointing fingers and putting labels on each other — some people are arguing that only Jews can become Christians; others are saying that all are welcome. The argument comes down to whether the gospel depends on human categories or whether Jesus calls us to break down barriers and welcome the outsider. Paul comes down forcefully on the side that says that all are welcome, there are no requirements except that a person be loved by God — and all of us are loved by God. He says Christ did not come to accentuate divisions that already exist between people, but to break them down.
He uses the picture of what happened at ancient Christian baptisms, when a person would come out of the water and be clothed in new white clothes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” You are a new person, he says, you have come into a new birth, the old labels and allegiances no longer apply. Jew or Greek, he says — racial divisions don’t matter; slave or free — who wants to hold you in captivity doesn’t matter; male and female — the gender roles that society might want to construct around you don’t matter. We could add, gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat. These things do not define us — what defines us is our relationship to Christ.
And that relationship is based on being beloved: we are loved. That love of Christ sets us free from all labels, free from all human divisions, free to come together with people we disagree with and work to make this world a better place, free to accept a new identity in Christ. In Christ, we are set free from the divisions of this world. In Christ, we come together as one.
The Rt. Rev. Susan Brown Snook is Bishop of San Diego.