Inclusiveness the Jesus Way

When you go to visit someone in hospital, do you make sure you use the hand cleansers which are provided at the entrance to every ward both before you enter and upon leaving? When you are choosing a café for lunch, do you look out for food hygiene rating which should be displayed on the door of every establishment? These give an assessment of the level of cleanliness in the kitchen and rate the procedures used to store food; the ‘salmonella’ rating as I am inclined to call it. We are all happy with a five …but how low would you go?
Cleanliness is not always just about food and health. For many people it has strong religious connotations. If you are a strict Jew or Muslim, this will determine the kind of food that you eat. Pork will be off the menu. You will also ritually wash when you gather for worship. The categories of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ stood out even more clearly in the world of the New Testament. Over centuries, the once Jewish homeland; the promised land had been trampled upon by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and in Jesus’ time most contentiously by Romans. Worse still, the old ‘Northern Tribes’ of Israel had diluted the pure faith and become those dirty Samaritans. In this mixed-race community, many Jews wanted to stand out, to accentuate their cleanness. The Pharisees were an extreme example of this trend. They watched Jesus ever so carefully to see how clean he was. Did he was his hands properly when he went for meals? What kind of people did he associate with? Did he avoid lepers, people who were bleeding and prostitutes?
Our gospel reading today (Luke 8. 26-39) has Jesus crossing over the lake of Galilee to the other side calming a terrible storm on the way. He comes to an area described as the country of the Gerasenes (or Gadarenes) on the eastern shores of the lake. It was relatively remote and generally shunned by the Jewish elite not least because of the possibility of encountering things which were unclean. For Jesus, it becomes the site of one his most unusual miracles. He is met by a man of the city who had many demons. He is clearly in a severe state, naked and unable to live in a house using tombs as shelter. These tombs, like the one that Jesus himself would be laid in were hewn out of the rocks. Large enough to contain several bodies, it would be quite feasible for a man to live in one, but they were considered to be unclean. You could not be around one on the sabbath, hence Jesus’ body was not visited from 6.00pm on Good Friday until first light on the Sunday.
The man or was it the demons inside him, recognise Jesus and call out: ‘Jesus, Son of the Most High God.’ (verse 28) Jesus commands the spirits; the unclean spirits to come out of the man.
The next part of the story is to our ears quite bizarre, but I guess it would be less so for many of middle eastern or African background even today. A conversation ensues between Jesus and the demons as to where they can go now they can’t live in the poor man any more. They do not want to head further inland, into the abyss and so Jesus grants their request and lets them enter a herd of pigs who then rush down a steep bank into the lake and are drowned. There is no way we can begin to explain what happens in a way that would satisfy our rational western minds, but for those of a Muslim background who speak of the jinn or genies and people of our own culture who might describe themselves as psychic, this incident may be more recognisable. We must also lay aside our sympathetic feelings for the pigs and resist reporting our Lord to the RSPCA for of course, the pigs were regarded as unclean too.
What we do see here is Jesus being both recognised by a legion of evil spirits and his comprehensive control over them. They are unclean as were the tombs in which the man lived and the pigs which his neighbours bred. Jesus is not deterred by their uncleanness. He enters this region and is recognised for who he is by unclean spirits; Son of the Most Hight; the most holy God. The Pharisees would have been outraged at Jesus’ behaviour, but they do not appear to be present to witness this incident, it was not where they chose to live or associate.
It must be said that the Pharisees and all good and devout Jews could not be blamed for trying to keep themselves religiously clean and encouraging others to do so. After all it was set down for them in laws which are preserved in our bibles. A precise list is given of clean and unclean animals in Leviticus chapter 11. There is considerable instruction about how to deal with leprosy, other diseases, bodily discharges and the aftermath of childbirth amongst many other things. In part these relate to preserving life when on the move in a hot climate, but they also ensured that Israel took seriously their responsibilities in worship of the Holy God; that they were distinct from the idol worship of other nations and cultures and that they avoided cult prostitution which was practiced by many of their close neighbours.
These rules all served an important purpose, but the Pharisees and Scribes had taken them to new levels. They developed new laws around cleanliness the sabbath which simply became burdensome to people and received criticism from Jesus for this. (Matthew 23.1ff) For Jesus, it was not what goes into a person which defiles them or makes them unclean but what comes out, words and thoughts and actions. (Mark 7.15ff) But most importantly of all, Jesus had come to fulfil those laws and teachings of the Old Testament that were about cleanliness in ways in which the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders and the crowds could scarcely imagine. He would destroy the temple and in three days rebuild it. (John 2.19) The temple and the sacrificial system of offering animals and birds was the means by which the filth of human sin could be dealt with for the Jewish people. Jesus now says in effect that he will do it himself instead in his own body. His death would ensure the ultimate cleansing from all sin.
It is for that reason that often in Jesus’ ministry he crosses over. In this case, he crosses the lake to reach out to this man and his community in their uncleanness as viewed by the orthodox religious people of the day. He is prepared to eat with tax collectors and sinners. He lets the woman with the flow of blood touch him. He enters Samaritan regions and tells a compelling story in which the hero is a Samaritan. Jesus does not fear that he will be contaminated by anyone’s uncleanness or sinfulness. He reaches out to them all.
Who might he cross over to our culture and society? Would it be the druggies with their needles, those spaced out in the bus station? Would it be the homeless, the refugee and the asylum seeker? Would it be the person struggling with a disability or on universal credit? Would it be the LGBTQ+ community or the Muslim or the child with ADHD? I guess you would want to answer yes to all of that. After all, as our New Testament reading says: ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) The challenge is to remember that if we live in him and he in us, then we have some crossing over to do as well.
Yet this awesome episode in Jesus’ ministry tells something yet more powerful. Jesus does not just crossover and reach out because it’s trendy, or inclusive. He does it because he loves. This is not soft love. It is redemptive love. It is love which seeks change and intends to make whole. The legion of demons is moved on. The man is restored and told to declare what God has done for him. There is power over the unclean spirits moving them into the pigs restoring order from chaos. Yes, our church and our witness should be inclusive; opening doors for everyone to hear of God’s love, but we are also called to be agents for change and renewal, seeing hearts and lives set free from what oppresses leading to cleansing and rebirth.
Trinity 1 23.06.2019

Rev Jonathan Smith

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