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Sermon Archive

Sunday sermon, 19th June 2016

Sunday 20 September

Yesterday morning in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, a 52 year-old man charged with the murder of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox was asked a single simple question: “What is your name?” To which he gave the answer, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

In our Gospel reading this morning (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus asks a violent man, “What is your name?” To which he receives the answer, “Legion”, and Luke comments “for many demons had entered him.”

In both cases, the question “What is your name?” reveals a disturbed and fractured personality, where normal understandings of identity have broken down.

In both cases, it would be easy to say that these are isolated individuals who are not typical of their communities and who can therefore be dismissed as aberrations, whose stories offer no insight into the issues faced by the rest of us. But I think that would be a mistake.

In the Gospels, whenever Jesus asks a question, it’s worth paying particular attention, because his questions often throw an issue into relief, so that it can be identified and addressed. This question is an important one: “What is your name?” Names are important symbols of identity, in the ancient world even more than today. Asking someone for their name is like asking, “Who are you?”

The answer of the demon-possessed man revealed an identity that was profoundly disordered. All of us have multiple dimensions to our identity. I can be a priest, a husband and a father all at once, and it’s not necessarily a sign of madness, however much it may sometimes feel like it. I can also be English, British and European – they don’t have to cancel each other out, despite some of the more far-fetched rhetoric in the EU Referendum Campaign. Identity is a highly complex thing, and in a healthy personality the different aspects of our identity can be integrated and can co-exist in a harmonious whole, so that we experience ourselves as one person and not as many.

But where a personality is disordered, different identities can come into conflict, generating tension and self-hatred, sometimes with violent consequences. There seems to be some preliminary evidence that Omar Mateen, the gunman responsible for the shootings in the gay bar in Orlando last weekend, was himself a conflicted homosexual whose hatred of himself was turned outwards on to other people. This man Legion hated himself and was at war with himself. He wore no clothes and lived among the tombs. Clearly people were afraid of him and tried to restrain him, perhaps for his own safety as much as theirs, but he kept breaking his bonds. In Mark’s account of the same events, it’s clear that the man was not only neglecting himself but was self-harming. Everything in this man’s life is out of kilter and at odds with itself, and the result is the generation of enormous self-destructive energy.

But in the context of Luke’s Gospel, this man’s pitiful condition is a symptom of something deeper. The passage immediately before this story tells how Jesus commanded the waves to be still when a storm threatened the boat as he and his disciples were crossing the lake. The sea in the Bible is always a symbol of chaos, and of the forces opposed to God which threaten to overwhelm the harmony of God’s good creation. So that story demonstrates Jesus’ authority over the destructive forces of chaos in the natural world, and his ability to reassert order and calm in the teeth of the storm. Then Luke moves on to tell the story of Legion, another example of Jesus’ authority over chaotic and destructive forces, this time showing themselves through a disturbed human personality. Luke presents this as a spiritual conflict. It’s not just a story about someone with mental health problems. The reference to Legion evokes the disturbing power of Rome. This poor man’s mind was occupied territory, occupied by hostile satanic forces in the same way that Judaea itself was enemy-occupied territory, taken over and exploited by the Roman legions and suffering a terrible loss of identity as a result. When Jesus commands the legion of demons to come out of the man and go into the herd of pigs, which then rush down the slope into the Sea of Galilee to be drowned, there would have been some onlookers who hoped that he would do something similar to the Roman legions.

So you can read this story politically, as being about a people whose communities and whose land is contested, and who long to be free from enemy occupation, and who under the iron rod of oppression fragment and turn upon one another, splitting into different factions with mutually incompatible and hostile agendas – Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots – it was a mix that was volatile and violent and ultimately self-destructive when it burst into revolt in AD 70 and led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the legions.

Jesus’ whole ministry was one of asking his own people, lovingly, “What is your name? Who are you, really? Won’t you decide what your core identity really is? Are you slaves of the Romans, surrendering your true identity and being swallowed up into the Empire as Caesar’s chattels? Are you a proud and independent people convinced that as God’s chosen people you are superior to everyone else and that you must above all maintain that distinctiveness by standing aloof from other peoples and putting up barriers to protect your privileges? Are you determined to be a powerful nation, modeling yourself on the great empires, shaping your identity in terms of conquered territory and force of arms? Or are you really the children of God: people who are willing to commit yourselves to following God’s Messiah, to being a light to lighten the gentiles, who will model for the benefit of other nations God’s way of being human – the way of generosity, of grace, of self-giving love arising from humble trust in the one who saved you from slavery in Egypt and gave you the Promised Land to enjoy? Who are you, really?”

Which brings me to Thursday’s Referendum.

The Church of England, of course, has form on this. It arose from the last time we rejected European authority in the 16th century under Henry VIII – yet we’ve managed to hold on to a multiple identity: Catholic and universal, yet distinctively English – part of something bigger, yet with opt-out clauses on Papal authority.

It seems to me that the debate about Europe has been framed in the wrong way. All the argument is about which option would be best for us: on the one hand, if we stay in we’ll keep our access to the single market; on the other hand, if we come out we’ll be able to reassert our national sovereignty. The arguments on both sides are not arguments based purely on reason; they are, by and large, arguments based on self-interest: which option is best for us.

But beneath all the arguments about what might be best for us, it’s really a question of identity. How do we see ourselves? Proud, independent, free, and in control of our own destiny? Or responsible and engaged citizens not just of the UK but of the world?

Questions of identity go deep. And our inability to harmonise our multiple identities in relation to Europe is leading us into all kinds of self-destructive behaviour – extreme rhetoric, personal abuse, downright dishonesty in some of the claims being made, the Conservative Party tearing itself apart, and all of this coming to a head with the murder of Jo Cox on Thursday.

Yet most people aren’t normally that interested in Europe. So why is this Referendum generating such passion? I think it’s because it’s touching on much deeper and more sensitive questions concerning our identity, and identities are often fragile and insecure, which is why when they are questioned there is so much fear and so much loathing. As a nation, we have become a kind of Legion, possessed by contradictory voices that hate each other, driving us to self-harming and destructive behaviour. We have become anxious and fearful that underneath the badges and slogans and myths of tribal identity, we don’t really know who we are.

Jesus puts a question to us. He asks us collectively, and he asks you and he asks me, “What is your name? Who are you, really?” That question of identity is a difficult one. It’s not easy for us to discover who we truly are.

In the Book of Revelation, there is a promise from the risen Lord to those of his people who remain faithful to the end, that he will give them a white stone, “and on the white stone is written a new name that no-one knows except the one who receives it.” Our true identity is found not in our political and national allegiances, but in Christ.

We don’t know the name of the man in the Gospel story possessed by demons. We can be pretty sure that his Mum didn’t call him “Legion” when he was little. And after Jesus had cast out the demons, presumably he was called by a new name. Certainly his identity was different. The naked, self-harming madman raving amongst the tombs is discovered by his neighbours sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. At Jesus’ feet, the disordered aspects of this man’s identity find their proper balance and come back into harmony as an integrated whole.

So how will you decide how to vote on Thursday? Will you be driven by the voices of Legion, according to what you think is in our best self-interest, or perhaps according to your gut instinct without examining too closely what impulses might be driving you?

Or will you vote prayerfully, out of your core identity as a loved and redeemed child of God? If we know that we belong to Christ; if we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God; if we know that our true identity is hidden in Christ, and is secure in him; then we can be set free to cast our votes without fear and anxiety; without self-interest; without concern for the various images we may harbour about ourselves or our country or about Europe.

Instead, we can focus our thoughts entirely on which alternative will make the kingdom of God more visible. Which alternative will best express our love for God and our love for our neighbour? Which alternative will make peace a little bit easier to establish and to safeguard, in an increasingly violent world? Which alternative will make it easier to protect the most vulnerable, not just in the UK but in a world containing increasing numbers of vulnerable people? Which alternative will best help us to fulfill our calling as human beings to protect the global environment? Which alternative will be most generous? Most self-giving? Most expressive of undeserved grace?

In the end, I don’t think the outcome of this Referendum matters all that much. God will love you just the same. If the disciples had been offered a Referendum on whether or not Judaea should leave the Roman Empire, whichever way it went Jesus would still have gone to the cross and they would still have been challenged to take up their cross daily and deny themselves and follow him. So it is with us.

So what is the new name written on your white stone? Who are you, really? As we gather around the Lord’s Table, let us ask his forgiveness for so readily embracing false identities. Let us ask forgiveness for our prejudices and tribalisms, for our fear and hatred of one another, for the division in our society which prevents us from seeing the likeness of Christ in one another.

Let us seek him afresh in humble trust and obedience, that we may live and choose with a confidence born of our core identity as beloved children of God, and that we may know what it is to sit lovingly at Christ’s feet, clothed and in our right minds.

Jonathan Baker, Canon Missioner

19th June 2016