Mary Elizabeth Pratt-Horsley
Today, June 24th, is the Feast of John the Baptist. If we were sitting at a café in Montreal, sipping a café au lait, we would be surrounded by people celebrating Québec’s National holiday. The Feast of St. John the Baptist is also a significant date on many church calendars.
As a child growing up in Mexico City, I could never forget this feast. Each year on John the Baptist’s Day, people in Mexico City took great joy in dragging each other into the city’s many fountains. If you didn’t want to get wet… you stayed close to home on June 24th!
Who was John the Baptizer? We are familiar with his words in the gospel accounts – calling people to repentance – to examine their lives – to change their priorities… In Luke’s gospel, which we are using on Sundays this year – John seems to lay down a structure for the kingdom values that will be incarnated and modeled in the life of Jesus. When the crowds asked John: “What should we do?” John answers without hesitation: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”.
John has been called a “bridge” person – enabling people to move from the former understanding of covenant with God to the new covenant incarnated in Jesus… In John’s person…and in John’s preaching… he drew together all the hopes and expectations of the former covenant. Yet when people flocked to him … he pointed away from himself towards Jesus….
John was the herald … but Jesus was the message…….
John was the voice … but Jesus was the Word…
John spoke of promise … Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise…
John preached repentance … Jesus brought forgiveness and healing…
In today’s Gospel we are given an example of that forgiveness, compassion and healing action that were so integral to Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is tired… He had fallen asleep in the boat crossing the Sea of Galilee – so deeply in sleep that he did not feel the raging storm which terrified the disciples. He stills the storm - to the amazement of the disciples – They then arrive at the other side of the sea – to the gentile land of the Gerasenes.
Despite his weariness, Jesus did not hesitate to reach out to this gentile man who was no longer in his right mind – who was naked, loud, out of control. Others in the Gerasene community responded to this man’s illness with fear – forcing him outside the boundaries of his own people. Jesus restores this man to new life…new possibilities. The man experiences new life out of the deathlike illness that had imprisoned him.
In response, the man wants to leave his community and stay with Jesus. Jesus directs him to stay within his own community: “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you”. Jesus clearly sees himself as a conduit for the healing power of God. The Gerasene man, however, just as clearly, sees the Divine in Jesus. Luke tells us: “So the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
Thinking again about John the Baptizer… John called for a conversion of the heart… but Jesus made available the grace that enables such conversion and change to happen. It is abundantly clear that it is grace that makes it possible for any of us to move beyond the boundaries and walls that we create – walls which separate us from those perceived as “not like us”…
Of course this is not a new phenomenon – In today’s Epistle, Paul addresses the Galatian Christian community – reminding them that through Jesus’ Incarnation and Resurrection, they have been freed… freed from the strict purity code which, under Judaism, had separated people into “us and them”. Apparently other Christian missionaries had come to the Galatians, telling them that they had to follow the Jewish laws and code, including circumcision, before they could become true Christians. This was completely contrary to what Paul had taught them… about the freedom they had received in Christ Jesus to be children of God and brothers and sisters to one another…
We can sense Paul’s annoyance… He takes a prayer popular with Jewish men in his day… and seems to use it to frame his teaching to them. The prayer goes: “Thank you God, for not making me a foreigner, a slave, or a woman”. Paul declares: “…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.”
In the former covenant, obedience to the law protected one’s relationship with God. In Jesus, we are given God incarnate, who goes beyond obedience to the law – to model not only what right action looks like… but more importantly, what right heart looks like. It is no longer about who is in or out in the purity code – it should no longer be about boundaries and walls ---- Jesus made that clear when he moved beyond boundaries, as in today’s gospel. He healed those who were non-Jews or those who were unclean according to the Jewish purity codes.
Paul addressed a society that was experiencing difficulties around religious and ethnic diversity. So are we!
Today it seems that across our faith communities – Jewish, Christian, Muslim- there is a polarization between those who are progressive, and those who are literalists and separatists. I find I have more in common – it seems – with a faithful, progressive Jew – than I do with some of my brothers and sisters in the rest of the Anglican Communion.
And the Galatian Christians’ concern about ethnic groups (Jew or Greek), or economic place (slave or free) – seems to strike a chord today, as we consider the situation of the immigrant in our midst.
Paul reminds us that there is a healthy place for diversity in God’s creation and in our communities – He is not speaking of uniformity or homogeneity – but rather of the possibility of openness and unity in diversity. He is speaking of valuing diversity – by valuing all our brothers and sisters.
Of course we may prefer the comfort of surrounding ourselves only with the familiar -with those who think, act, talk and dress like we do. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, we are being challenged by Paul… by John the Baptist… by Jesus … to recognize our comfort zones … and to move beyond them.
Jesus challenged the Gerasene man to tell his community the story of what God had done for him. We are challenged to share our own personal stories – of boundaries crossed, of re-integration made possible, of healing and resurrection – of inclusion.
God is aware of our needs…and of our possibilities. God is constantly reaching out to us… giving us new possibilities for the real situations in which we find ourselves. God then empowers us to move in life-giving directions. When we are open and able to cooperate with that process … and increasing wholeness results … our call is to share what we have experienced, to follow the instructions we heard Jesus give today to the Gerasene man: “…declare how much God has done for you”. We can witness to God’s presence in our words, in our actions, in the way we live our lives…
To return to John the Baptist – How does the person of John impact our lives today?
John prepared the path … but Jesus is the way…
Like John, we are invited … we are challenged … to point to Jesus… to live our lives in such a way… that our words and actions reflect the Way that Jesus embodies…. the way of transformation and new birth … the dying to all that is darkness in our lives and in our society… and the resurrection experience of rebirth and new life --- so that we can truly be co-creators with God of wholeness in our communities and beyond. Amen.