June 30, 2013

Prayer Book Parallels: The Government Of God


Text: Luke 8:35: “...they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

We often have a lot to say about the government. It’s sort of what we’re wired to do in our country. We all have opinions about how the government should be run, and we are actually entitled to have an opinion about how we should be governed. That seems so noncontroversial to us, we sort of lose sight of how incredibly unusual it is in all of human history.

The church also has a lot of opinions about the government. And sometimes that is a cause of difficulty. In part that’s because our tendency to agree with what the church has to say about the government is usually pretty much directly proportional to our political preferences. If our politics agrees with the judgment of the church, then we’re all for an activist church. But if our causes or our candidates’ positions fall under the scrutiny of the values of the gospel, we are unhappy with the church messing in affairs of state.

We have a long, long history of this. Sixteen centuries ago Saint Augustine wrote one of the first significant texts of Christian political theology, in which he did exactly this—set up a criticism of the culture and values of the political order of his day, and then contrasted it to the way things would be, the way they will be, in God’s government. It’s a book you might have had to read at some point, a book called City of God.

Government is never far from the work and witness of the church. But not “government” in the political sense—at least not only, and not usually.

I’m talking about a different sort of government, and it’s one we get a sense of by holding up in contrast two of the things we’ve read this morning.

The first is the collect of the day. This is one of the oldest prayers in our prayer book; it goes back to something called the Gelasian Sacramentary, which you don’t need to remember. Just remember that it’s old, more than a thousand years old; it became part of the worship of the church not long after the church itself became part of the Empire.

The collect sets up a simple bargain. It asks God to help us, or actually to make us, love God, because of the benefit that accrues to those who love God. And that benefit is described in these terms: “you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving kindness.” That word “govern” is a direct translation of the ancient prayer: “quia nunquam tua gubernatione destituis quos in soliditate tuae dilectionis instituis.”

The government we’re talking about here is self-government. Not the self-government of a group of citizens who vote on their leaders, but the self-government of each and every individual. We are asking God to make us love God because we know God gives those who love God the tools of self-government.

If that seems like a weird thing to be hoping for, consider the reading from Luke this morning. Jesus and his friends are wandering way, way out of their neighborhood. Nazareth, like Jerusalem, is on the west side of the Jordan River; that is where the Jewish people lived, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. But Gerasa was way to the east of the Jordan River; the people who lived there weren’t Jewish at all. That’s why, if you think about the story, there were pigs around.

What they encounter there is a man possessed by demons. He is, in short, a man completely out of control. The best anyone can do to help him is to fetter him with chains; Dr. Crain would say that he is the classic example of a patient who is a danger to himself and others.

Another way to think about him is that he is a man who has completely lost any capacity for self-governance. We don’t know why; we’re not told whether it is the result of a choice he had made or simply a misfortune he had suffered. We only know he is in the grip of forces greater than he can master. He is no longer in any control of his own life.

•  •  •

The Gerasene demoniac, as he has become known through the ages, is a vivid and disturbing character. He is completely lost, a man beyond hope, exactly because he has lost every last shred of self-control.

And although we may not want to see him this way, he is set up as a cautionary tale. We may not think we are any longer susceptible to possession by demons; but we are surely capable of deluding ourselves about the true nature of freedom. This is a man who lives outside the conventions and codes of society. He lives completely detached both from the pressures of conformity and the obligations of life in community.

And he is miserable. Indeed it is not merely symbolic that he is living among the dead; in his condition it is as though he were already dead for all practical purposes. To be completely incapable of self-government is to have lost something essential to humanity.

The drama in the story is almost cinematic. We don’t see how the miraculous change happens; Luke gives us a story about the direct confrontation between Jesus and the demons, which is another way of saying a confrontation between God and this man’s unwillingness, or inability, to accept any limits on his range of choices.

We’re given a little diversion about the demons moving over to the pigs—in Jewish cosmology, about the only fit place for demons—and we watch as the pigs go down the cliff and into the drink.

But the real drama is as between the two images of the man we receive. We meet him as a wild man; completely lacking any sense of limits, living naked and alone, out of control and out of the desire of control. And when we next see him, he is a completely different man; he is sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind. You almost want to add that he’s just taken a shower and had a spa treatment. The contrast could not be greater.

The message here is the prayer of the collect. When this man lets Jesus act for him in his life, when he finally agrees to give up what he thinks is freedom for something that allows him truly to be free, he gets more than he could possibly have ever found out on his own. That picture of a man sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening and reasoning with a teacher, is the picture of a man who has accepted God not as an equal, but as someone to answer to. He has found the capacity for self-government in his realization of who Jesus is, and in his gratitude of what Jesus has done for him.

•  •  •

That image of the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind,” is an image we can sum up in a single word—but it is not a word we like very much. We don’t like it because it sounds somehow belittling or degrading. Or it sounds infantilizing or just embarrassing. But there’s no way around it, really. The word is obedience.

It’s not a word we are comfortable with. But it is the key in the lock of this idea of self-government. If we understand the order of things in the right way, if we come to see our true frailty and our genuine dependence on God, we finally grasp that the best we can hope for in this life is to summon the will and the discipline to overcome our all-too-active tendency to do things and say things that actually cause us harm—even when we claim them to be our truth.

The tough message is that our truth is not necessarily God’s truth, and our love of personal sovereignty is not necessarily a path to fulfillment.

So the gift we receive in return for our devotion to the God that made us and saved us is just this; the gift of the needed capacity for self-regulation. Without it the best we can know is a kind of false and deceptive freedom. With it, we can finally find the quiet and the concentration to sit and listen to what God has to offer. Amen.