“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” There are so many things - life events, relationships, inner disturbances – from which we attempt to flee, that possess us, with which we wrestle and lead us to wonder if it would not be better if God finished us off. But into our lives God sends angels to feed us for the journey and Christ to set us free. (RCL 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15; Psalms 42 & 43; Galatians 3:10-14, 23-29; and Luke 8:26-39.)
This week we have three amazing readings – each powerful in its own way. I want to spend a moment with each individually and then look at where the threads might come together.
Firstly that terrible and wonderfully dramatic story of Elijah. The prophet Elijah was sent to confront King Ahad and his wife Jezebel with their wrongdoing – the worship of Baal. Elijah had challenged the 400 prophets of Baal to prepare a sacrifice and to have Baal ignite the offering without human assistance. He had then prepared a similar sacrifice and drowned it in water and then called upon the Lord God. The offering to Baal remained unlit whilst the offering to the God of Israel ignited in a mighty flash. Elijah had then had all 400 prophets killed by the sword. Hence Jezebel is on his case and has warned that she will do to him what he had done to the prophets! Elijah is quite rightfully afraid! And into his fraught flight comes the simple ministrations of angels who provide him with food and drink for the journey. A journey that leads him to an encounter with the elemental powers of wind, fire, earthquake and then most profoundly into the silence that follows in which God is to be found.
The gospel story this morning is particularly dramatic also. We see the terrible torment of those afflicted by legion of ailments from the abyss. In very dramatic ways we see Jesus pit his healing power against the power of demoniac possession and it is a real tussle, a battle of good versus evil. Good wins but not without a fight, which the swine are the scapegoat for – not to mix animal metaphors! Jesus the Christ sets him free to live a normal and fulfilling life in his own community.
And then to Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia. Paul’s argument about the law is rather laborious unless we understand a little of his situation. He is very concerned that other Christian missionaries have come to the churches he founded and are teaching that the Gentiles have to become Jews first and follow all the Jewish laws, including circumcision. Paul is claiming that the Gentiles do not need to embrace all of Judaism in order to have a relationship with God through Christ. But as a good Jew neither is he arguing for the abandonment of the law. Rather he argues that the law drives us to God in its very demands and then we are set free by Christ.
How can this be, that the struggle to fulfil the righteous law can be likened to being out of one’s mind from political anxiety or being possessed by evil spirits. They are obviously different problems but what they have in common is this ability to destroy our peace of mind and our easeful relationship with God. And St Paul, as so often, points to what the dilemma is for our spiritual journey and development. It is as a good Jew that Paul writes that paradoxically the law is both the problem but a right and necessary part of our growth and development.
So there are many things that can disturb us and that has the power to destroy our peace of mind: running from the consequences of our actions as was Elijah; out of our minds with a legion of spirits/illnesses/things that threaten us from the abyss; and trying to fulfil the demands of the law. Whatever it is that threatens our peace of mind and the relationship between ourselves and the divine Christ can be our liberator.
One of my favorite teachers in this dilemma and many others of Christian living is Franciscan theologian and priest Father Richard Rohr who writes about the spirituality of the two halves of life. He tells the story of an old monk speaking to a young monk and telling him that in the first half of life he wrestled with the devil, and in the second half of life he wrestled with God. Or as the Dali Lama expressed it “You need to learn the law very well, so that when it is time you can break the law properly!”
In a nutshell what Richard says is that it is the task of the first half, or stage, of life to learn the law – our tradition, our formation stories, our group identity. And then in the second half, or the later stage, of our life we need to move beyond the law.
At first that may sound worrying – if people are set free from the law then lawless will surely break out – people might do and say anything including cruel and dangerous things. But Richard or St Paul or the wise mystics in the centuries in between are not advocating anarchy. Rather that people learn on the outside the law and then take it into themselves where it becomes lived because of love and freedom not blind obedience and fear. The law alone, even if we could come close to obeying it, will not bring us into encounter with God.
Another way of thinking about it is as Jesus taught that the Ten Commandments are not so much replaced as summarised in the two great commandments and the motivation becomes love of God, self and neighbor rather than fear of judgment. For the law is not so much wrong as it is a crude and brutish teacher or disciplinarian. In Christ there a greater freedom. Indeed in Christ there is complete freedom – another whole level of truth and righteousness and mercy that is beyond the reach of mere law and rules.
It is the complete freedom of love that Paul glimpses when he sees that in Jesus the Christ there is no longer Gentile or Jew, slave or free, female or male. This is a portion of Scripture many of us know well but we may not fully understand the enormity of what Paul a good Jew is claiming. Every morning of Paul’s life since he was 12 or so he would have prayed the “berakot” or three blessings that are at the beginning of the morning cycle of prayer: ‘Blessed be He that He did not make me a Gentile; blessed be He that He did not make me a slave; blessed be He that He did not make me a woman.’
Paul was well schooled in the wisdom and rules of Judaism – the law – and yet he glimpses that in Christ there is a freedom, indeed the need, to go beyond the law, the understanding of the day. Beyond the conventional wisdom of his day that it was blessed to be Jew, free, and male he saw that these great divisions of his time did not divide the love or spirit of Christ. Today St Paul might argue that the divides of race, religion and sexual orientation are not divisions within Christ?
But Richard Rohr cautions that we cannot go straight to a liberal, liberated position because psychologically and religiously we need the safe container of the law. We need first to know the rules before we can live free of them. We need the discipline of the religious life before we can live in spiritual freedom.
And so like the demoniac, freed of the legion, we are returned to our rightful mind and sent back into our ordinary lives there to witness to the love of God in the everyday. Freedom is not for self indulgence but freedom to love and to serve and to worship.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ come and set us free.