Faith in Christ is Liberating

Children's Comment after reading Luke 8:26-39

The story we heard from the gospel of Luke is strange and scary. A man, who is possessed by demons, confronts Jesus. When Jesus asks his name, the wild man replies, "Legion." Then the demons ask permission from Jesus to leave the man and to enter a herd of pigs. Jesus says OK, and when the demons enter the pigs the whole herd runs down a steep bank into the lake and is drowned. The men, who were taking care of the pigs, run away and tell others what has happened. Then people who are afraid ask Jesus to go away. The story ends with Jesus telling the healed man to go home and to give thanks to God for being freed from the demons that had possessed him.

Now, some stories have hidden meanings, and this is one of those stories. The clue to interpreting the story is the name of the demons. "Legion" doesn't sound like a regular name, and it isn't. Legion refers to a group of soldiers, and in the time of Jesus a legion was a large group of Roman soldiers. The people who first heard this story would have known what "Legion" meant, so how might they have understood the story? A man is crazy, because he is being controlled by "Legion" — by Roman soldiers. Jesus frees the man, and tells him to thank God for his new freedom.

In the story the demons represent soldiers, and the man represents people who have been conquered by the Rome Empire. So, the story says that the people will be freed from the occupation of the Romans, when Jesus reigns in the name of God. Knowing how to interpret the clue in the story, the meaning of the name of the demons, helps us understand its hidden meaning. And because the Romans were a conquering army, we can appreciate how the story might have given hope to the people who heard it.

Sermon after reading Galatians 3:23-29

Was it right to interpret the story in Luke 8:26-39 as "good news" about ending Roman rule? Certainly, the story has other levels of meaning. It is one of many healing stories in the New Testament gospels, so it confirms both the healing ministry of Jesus and the importance of healing for the early church. The story takes place on the Eastern side of the Sea of Galilee among people who are not Jewish, because they are keeping pigs for food, so the story clearly supports the ministry of the church to the Gentiles.

Yet, these meanings should not be taken as outweighing the major action of the passage. A man is liberated from the demons that are occupying him. The name given for the demons is not insignificant. In the version of the story told in Mt. 8:28-34, the word "Legion" is omitted although it appears in the earliest New Testament account of Mk. 5:1-20. The author of the gospel of Matthew may have felt it was too dangerous to include the name in his gospel account.

The gospels were written during a Roman occupation hated and resisted by the Jews, but also the Emperor was demanding that he be recognized as a "God" and as the "Savior" who had brought the "good news" of peace on earth. Caesar Augustus included these references to the Emperor in the Julian calendar, which was promulgated throughout the Empire just before Jesus was born. Recall now that the author of the gospel of Luke begins his birth story of Jesus with the words, "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus." The author of the gospel of Luke is not only referring to an imperial census, which in the story requires Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, but to the extension of the power of Rome beyond any proper authority given to Caesar by God.

This is how we should understand the famous teaching: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Mt. 22:21, Mk. 12:17, Lk. 20:25) These are not words that simply define separate roles for the state, and thus justify taxation and other legitimate civil authority, but words that sanction resistance against a state that compels people to worship its leaders.

Does this understanding affect our reading of Galatians 3:23-29? It should. Especially, when we realize that faith, which is the word pistis in Greek, is the same word used by Roman Emperor's to identify the loyalty they expected from their people. Paul is writing about faith as the successor of the law, and the immediately preceding verses concern the law of Moses. Verses 23-29 of Galatians 3, however, do not specifically mention Jewish law, but draw a sharp contrast between life lived under law and through faith.

Paul says: "Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith." (vs. 25-27)

The faith of Jesus Christ, which came with and in Christ, is now, within the church, faith in Jesus Christ. And through this faith, through loyalty to Christ, everyone is equally a child of God. So, Paul proclaims, "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." (v. 28) In these few words, Paul proclaims that the status distinctions of the Roman Empire, which accompany faith in the Emperor, have been abolished by faith in Christ Jesus.

If Paul were concerned only with Jewish law and faith, he would have stopped after asserting that "there is no longer Jew or Greek." But Paul continues, "there is no longer slave or free," and in these words he rejects the legal distinction that makes the Roman Empire possible. Paul also affirms, "there is no longer male and female," although of course there is. Nonetheless, Paul teaches, distinctions of Jewish and Roman law about men and women do not hold in the reign of Christ.

This is Paul's way of "casting out the demons" named "Legion". He calls the Christians in Galatia to create a radically inclusive community of faith. He challenges them to choose between faith in Caesar and faith in Christ. This teaching and that choice cost Paul his life, for he was executed in Rome for treason against the Empire. And this teaching and that choice also led many early Christians to lose their lives in defense of their faith in Christ.

In the fourth century Emperor Constantine pressed church bishops to undercut the radical message of the gospel by the promulgating the Nicene Creed, as orthodox Christian doctrine. State and church authorities used the Nicene Creed to suppress religious and political dissent and to consolidate power under the Emperor and the Pope. But the liberating message of the New Testament has continually inspired reform, and has contributed to our contemporary understanding of an open and inclusive church and a secular and democratic state.

So, what meaning should we now draw from these passages from scripture, and from the history they have engendered?

Metaphorically, we might ask, what name should we give to the demons that occupy us? What possesses us, has taken control of our lives, and prevents us from living a healthy and happy life with our neighbors?

Similarly, we might ask what choice of loyalty do we face today? For Paul, the choice was between faith in law and Empire, and faith in Jesus Christ and the church. Do we have social, political and economic loyalties that stand in opposition to our loyalties, as Christians?

The good news of the New Testament is not that there are simple answers to life's hard questions, but that faith in Christ is liberating. © Robert Traer 2016