'Now from what we know of Jesus, we believe he will instantly grant the man’s request and allow him to come with him. Jesus loves people, and he loved the man so much as to cleanse him from evil spirits. Plus, he wants more disciples. But instead we are told that Jesus ‘sent him away.’ Why would Jesus do this seemingly non-loving, non-welcoming thing?'
When Jesus decides to get back in the boat and go back across the sea and leave the country of the Gerasenes, as they have requested, the man who has had the demonic infestation begs Jesus to be allowed to go with him. In my naiveté, I always thought that this was because the man was thankful for what Jesus had done, that he loved Jesus so much he didn’t want to be parted from him, that he wanted to become a disciple. But there’s another explanation, one which perhaps does not exclude the others. The man is terrified. He has good reason to think that if Jesus goes away the legion of demons he had expelled will be back, or even that he will be easy prey for a new army of demons. He feels he needs Jesus’ protection.
Now from what we know of Jesus, we believe he will instantly grant the man’s request and allow him to come with him. Jesus loves people, and he loved the man so much as to cleanse him from evil spirits. Plus, he wants more disciples. But instead we are told that Jesus ‘sent him away.’ Why would Jesus do this seemingly non-loving, non-welcoming thing?
In another part of the Gospels, we read that the Pharisees accuse Jesus of ‘casting out demons by the Prince of demons.’ The implication is that malevolent spiritual power is being overcome by a stronger malevolent spiritual power. The same thing is going on with the Gerasenes who are so afraid of Jesus. They figure that Jesus must have some powerful mojo indeed to have pacified this man who was uncontrollable. And so they politely but clearly ask him, whom they believe to be a stronger demon, to leave.
Now we know that Jesus is not a demon. He does not desire power in the same way that the evil one does. Jesus did not break the chains of the evil spirit in order to bind with a stronger chain. Instead, we know, the man is free, really free, from domination: free for relationship with Jesus.
But it will do Jesus no good simply to tell all of them this, because they are too used to the ways of demons. In a way, they are all possessed by evil, or at least in thrall to it, and this man has simply been the visible manifestation of it. Something different and more drastic is going to be necessary if Jesus is to make clear that his Lordship means something else than what they expect and fear.
The word ‘Lord’ is translated from the Greek kyrios, but in Latin the word is dominus, from where we get our English word ‘dominate.’ Jesus may well dominate the demons, but he does not dominate others in the sense that we understand the word. He will not remain among the Gerasenes if they do not wish it. In sending the man away from his side, Jesus shows him and all who see him that he does not desire to ‘lord it over’ him, to try to possess him whole as the demons did. He desires the man’s freedom.
And in freely obeying Jesus’ command and trusting in Jesus’ promise, the man will indeed remain in relationship with Jesus and be immune from the evil which had previously infected him. This will be his discipleship: to live in the same place that he did before, but now protected from evil, as a witness to the non-coercive, non-violent power of Jesus. No more will he need chains to hold him back from self-destructive behaviors, no more will he disrupt the peace of his fellow citizens; no more will he haunt tombs seeking the company of the dead. The people who had been so fearful of Jesus’ power may see, over time, that this is a different kind of Lordship; a power for good, as the man remains in his right mind, praising God and telling of all the good things that Jesus has done for him.
Most of us will not have had such a dramatic experience of liberation. But in Holy Baptism Jesus Christ has indeed set us free from the power of sin, death, and evil. Now some of you may be thinking: Am I supposed to believe that some mumbled-over tap water poured over me by some functionary is really equivalent to Jesus’ casting out legions of demons into pigs? Well, if you really want the dramatic experience, I suppose God might be willing to take you up on it, but for myself I’m glad that my deliverance is a little bit more prosaic. And if I believe the word that the Church proclaims in Jesus’ name, that in my water baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit I have been set free from evil, death, and sin, I am indeed free, and nothing, in the end, can harm me. Even so, I know and you know that we all have encounters with evil in the world, even after baptism. When we have these encounters, it is not the experience of a future liberation we crave, but the enduring fact of baptism we cling to, in order that we may continue to live in God’s freedom amidst powers that would enslave us until the day when they are no more.
We have to learn how to live in the spiritual freedom won by Christ – to recognize what would ensnare us into new bondages; and discern how to use rightly the freedom Jesus has accomplished for us. Theologian Eric Gritsch writes, ‘Baptism commits to a daily struggle against evil, be it manifested in confusion, a drive to control others, or escape from daily duties.’ We are called to be non-violent and non-coercive in our words and our actions towards others. Civil servants may coerce others, but only in the service of public order and safety. Parents and teachers are given authority for a time over their children in their immaturity, for the sake of them growing to responsible adulthood. Apart from limited actions in these roles, there is no room for Christians to be coercive, and certainly we are never to use other people for our own ends. We teach our children that we are to use things and love people and not the other way around.
To love people means to love them in their freedom, to respect their boundaries – precisely what Jesus did, to refuse to overpower them even when we might think it’s for their own good. In this way and in others we reject the way of evil that would ensnare us again.
With wise minds but more importantly with thankful hearts we are protected from evil ways of thinking and acting. What keeps the man who had had the legion of demons safe from evil is his daily remembrance of what God had done for him, and his daily thankful response to God. When we gather each week, we do so in order to give thanks for what God has done for us. We give thanks to the Father, for in Christ he has accomplished our salvation from sin, death, and the evil one. He continues to keep us safe through the guidance and counsel of the Holy Spirit as we journey to him. Though sin may hinder us, evil scar our lives, and death finally or even suddenly arrive for us, we shall not fear, for in our baptism he has promised to forgive sin, deliver from evil, and raise from death.
One of the names for the meal we will share together today is Eucharist – or Thanksgiving. For the Christian, every Sunday is Thanksgiving Day, when we come together to tell each other of the good things God has done for us. And we are sent with that good news into the midst of a world that still only thinks in terms of power and domination. We are sent not to ‘lord it over’ others but to lay before them, in our free and joyful words and deeds, the possibility and promise of life in Christ.
 Gritsch, Eric W. A Handbook for Christian Life in the 21st Century. Delhi, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2005.