By Bruce Epperly
Pentecost 4 — June 20, 2010
I Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
This Sunday’s lectionary readings are about spiritual, emotional, social, and relational transformation. The apostle Paul once counseled, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) All of us dwell in this world – though the nature of this world may differ from person to person, congregation to congregation, and institution to institution. This world is the vision, or life-experience, that prevents us from experiencing God’s presence in our lives and, thus, stands in the way of our awakening to a world of abundance, health, energy, courage, and growth, individually and corporately. This world hems us in with its “impossibilities” and “impracticalities,” limiting what we expect from God and from ourselves as we seek to be responsive to God in our time and place. But, as these scriptures point out, within this world of limitation, God is still at work, making a way out of no way, and inviting us to embrace a new vision of ourselves and the world.
For Elijah, this world was dominated by isolation and fear – rightfully, he ran for his life when Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him. When God twice asks, “What are you doing here?” as if to call Elijah to spiritual self-examination, Elijah twice asserts his faithfulness, but also, and more essential to his current existential situation, his sense of utter isolation. Elijah believes that there is no one with whom to share the quest for national fidelity and justice, no one to be his companion in championing the cause of the one true God.
But, the one true God surprises Elijah. In a theophany worthy of “Avatar,” God allows Elijah to view the wildness of creation – wind and fire, earthquake, storm and thunder – and then makes it clear that God’s apparent silence is more powerful than the greatest natural phenomena. God does not have to display coercive power to transform the world or Elijah; God’s presence quietly and lovingly permeates all things. This wise and loving power will inspire and energize companions for Elijah. Jezebel remains on the throne for the time being and her threat is real, but Elijah will discover companions in his cause, and through it all God will guide his path. Perhaps, Elijah’s spiritual companions have been there all along, but have been hidden from him by his fear. Fear is transformed to adventure; isolation to community; and Elijah is invited to move forward in response to God’s revelation to him.
This world for the church in Galatia is the world of diversity and otherness. Welcoming the Gentiles will change everything for the church that is emerging on the horizon: Jewish Christians will not only need to learn Gentile ways, they will have to accept them as equals spiritually, ecclesiastically, and ethnically. The shape of worship, theology, and spirituality will be transformed by the inclusion of these “strangers” as first-class Christians and legitimate recipients of divine revelation. The Holy Spirit that gave life to Jesus’ first followers on Pentecost inspires persons of all ethnicities, theologies, and worship styles. Here, however, unity does not mean uniformity – our own identities are heightened when we see them in light of a deeper identity, our relationship with God.
God is constantly calling the church to creative transformation and to grow in insight as it embraces the diversity of spiritual experience.
The passage from Galatians cries out for congregational self-examination of our fears of diversity and otherness. We don’t need to limit our concerns to the groups that Paul mentions: we can include any other potential dualism – gay and straight; immigrant and citizen; old and young; emerging and traditional; conservative and progressive. The Letter to the Galatians does not give us a political agenda, but a way of seeing that transforms Christian character, moving people from exclusion to embrace and from community to global loyalty. From this way of seeing, in which God is perceived as present in all creation and in the diversity of humanity, we are called to new behaviors. Certainly this passage invites us in a time of growing anti-immigrant sentiment to ground our relationship toward “undocumented workers” in the affirmation that God is in all things and all things are in God.
This world for the man described as “demon possessed” is that of fragmentation and alienation. Regardless of the cause of his dissociation, he has no centering personality; he lives by the self of the moment. Left to himself, he can’t embrace the many selves that war against one another. He needs someone who sees the hidden health within him. He needs someone to affirm his in his manifoldness in order to find his way “home” to a unified healthy self. He needs someone to tell him he belongs in God’s realm and in human community.
Jesus speaks to the man’s deepest self, calling it forth his resources for health and wholeness. He sees the divine amid the fragmentation and alienation and enables the man to experience this same holiness in himself. Jesus also listens to the desires of the chaotic selves and gives them exactly what they want. Perhaps, there was a movement toward health in the chaotic selves – they may have known what was needed for the man to be whole again and, in their own way, begged for Jesus to set the man and the many selves free from bondage. Jesus says the word – exorcises the demons – and off they go into a herd of swine. While we can debate the reality of the demonic or the role of exorcisms in the life of faith, we can surely see the need for healing in this story and in our own manifold selves. Perhaps, only a word from God can set us and our loved ones free. Complexity of selfhood is not the problem; it is the lack of integration and coherence of the many aspects of the self. The story ends with Jesus telling the man to go home – his witness will be his transformed self and a joyful life ahead.
Transformation takes many forms – freedom from fear and isolation, freedom from the fear of otherness, freedom from the forces that destroy the spirit. We all need liberation from the worlds that imprison us. We all need a renewed and transformed mind to challenge the painful alienation and brokenness of our lives – the fear and isolation that confine us – so that we might claim our transformation in Christ.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.