What's In A Name?
June 19, 2022 Rev. Dr. Darlis Swan
Then they arrived at the region of the Gerasenes,which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on shore, a man from the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had not worn any clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down
before him, shouting, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me,” for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding, and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd stampeded down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they became frightened. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then the whole throng of people of the surrounding region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone out begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
The Gerasene Demoniac, Luke the Cypriot, c. 1594
Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“What’s in a name?” I would argue that names not only have the power to describe but to define. Have you ever been called stupid, fat, ugly, or a klutz? Have you ever been given a nickname that seemed to really describe you – good or bad? If I were to ask you to turn to the person beside you, would you share names you have been called? On the other hand, has a teacher somewhere along the line called you intelligent or smart, and that gave you the confidence to excel in whatever subject you were studying? Names…
In today’s gospel, Jesus asks this man possessed by demons what his name is. The word demon here refers to invisible powers whose activities range from annoyance to harassment and destruction. In the ancient world these powers were understood to be part of many cultures. These demons recognize Jesus because his power is greater and it is not limited to Jewish people alone. In fact, the land of the Gerasenes is the land of gentiles, so no self-respecting rabbi would be taking his followers there.
When Jesus asks this poor man his name, he says, “Legion”. In other words, he is not known by a name of his own. He has no name, no identity left, except what he is captive to! We worry about all kinds of identity theft. We are told to constantly protect ourselves from hackers who could steal our personal information and all our resources. This poor man did not have an identity to begin with – until he met Jesus.
Now to explain legion - a roman legion consisted of 5000 to 6000 soldiers. The demon-possessed man must have had a lot of “voices” going on in his life. Jesus healed this man. When he did this, he gave the man a new name. It is just like Abram and Sarai. They are given new names when they have the promise of a child. Simon becomes Peter, and Saul becomes Paul. Names – good or bad are powerful.
Now you might think that when Jesus gave this demon-possessed man a new name –a fresh start, that others in the community would rejoice and be glad. But that wasn’t the case. They were used to the shackles that held him and to his raving. That was part of their social order. When the demons are cast out of this man, they don’t know what to do with him. What did Jesus do here? He upset their social structures. He changed the order of things.
There is a striking element in this story that is sometimes overlooked. After healing this man, Jesus sails away again. That means that all Jesus did in this land was heal this one possessed man. This might mean that he went to this strange and unfamiliar place just to take away this man’s demons and transform him into a human being – a loved child of God.
This community of people did not want Jesus around. They ask him to leave and he does. Can you imagine that these people were angry to see this man well – healed or “saved”. We understand that this man – now made whole - wants to follow Jesus. Why wouldn’t he? He might get to go on a new adventure – rather than remain with these people. You see this man is now a witness for Jesus. They can’t ignore him or his presence among them.
While I have no experience with this image, our former presiding bishop Mark Hanson, makes this connection. He told about a young man who had to be put in a “witness protection program” because he had given information to the police about a crime that had been committed by one of his friends. He had to have a new name because he was in danger, and that was the only way the police could protect him – by giving him a new identity.
Isn’t that what Jesus did here? He made this man a witness to the healing power of God’s grace – by putting him back into his own community where they could not ignore his new life and future. And he was protected even though the community was afraid of what Jesus might do to them. (The herd of pigs was not of great concern to this Jewish community.)
Now some of you may still be asking what this has to do with us, but this story is really about our Christian community – here at Christ Lutheran and beyond. We have the chance to strengthen and encourage each other – and to give each other new and life-giving names! God has us in a kind of witness protection program through our baptism.
When we were baptized, we were given the name of “Christ”, and we received the promise that no matter what, God will love us and protect us. We are free to witness in his name and no matter where we go, what we do, or what may happen to us, we are God’s children. We are sent out into the world. We are called to witness for Christ! That may happen right here in this neighborhood as you offer health care and so many other programs to meet the needs of those who come to us. It may happen in our bible study! There we may see signs of the coming of God’s kingdom!
Names…God has given each one of us a name which is lifted up at baptism as we are washed in water in the name of the triune God. We have a future – no matter what our age or life circumstances may be. When God gave us his name and made us God’s beloved children, we were given power through Christ – power to build a community and to bring reconciliation to God’s people. We are free to receive the new life in Christ and let God conquer the demons in our lives and make us whole.
We are witnesses; we have a new name in Christ, and we are protected by God’s never-ending mercy and grace. Sometimes our lives are interrupted by God’s grace…the order of our community is upset by Jesus’ power. This forces us out of our ruts – (nostalgia/memory). Memory is a good thing in the church as we honor and respect our history as a Christian people. If we cling to nostalgia, we remember things in such a way that they become more important now than they ever were at the time. We give testimony to what God has done in our lives and how we have been claimed by God to be who we are as individuals and as the church. We are called to proclaim God’s word - and to do it in a world that has not always been kind to us.
Evil is a horrible reality in the world around us. We may not talk about demons or possession or unclean spirits, but we know from experience about the power of evil. Just think of what is going on in Ukraine or here in Harrisburg and many cities in this country alone!
Of course, there are other more personal signs of possession among us. Unbelievable numbers of people among us are possessed by drugs, alcohol, gambling and so forth. Sometimes we wonder…who shall set the captives free?
We have the answer in our gospel for today! God in Jesus Christ speaks the word that is the beginning of freedom for captives. Jesus comes to us through water and the word – in stories like today’s gospel. Jesus says, ”I have come to set you free from captivity to evil. Come out, evil power, come out! Rush down the river banks and be drowned! In the name of God you are released! If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then know that the kingdom of God has come upon you. Such is the power of my word. Hear my word. Believe my word. Do my word.” Amen.