October 30, 2016 | “Vital Church: Testimony” • Luke 8.26-39

mic“Microphone” by Evan Forester (CC BY 2.0)

Luke 8.26-39 (NRSV)

 

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for 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.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now 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. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.35Then 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 were afraid.36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“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.Diana Butler Bass studied, mainline churches and found that “vital” or “thriving” congregations had a number of spiritual practices in common – she calls these practices “Signposts of Renewal.” In our sermons over that past Sundays we have been thinking about these practices and considering how they could be relevant to our life together as Christ’s church.

 

It starts out that the guy in our Gospel reading, this guy who had demons … who had no clothes … who did not live in a house, but lived in the tombs – it starts out that this guy didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus. As soon as the guy meets Jesus, he asks Jesus to leave him alone.

As Luke tells us this story, he gives us so many signs that this man is in really bad shape.

For an ancient Jewish audience first hearing this story there would be so many things that would have been concerning.

Clean and unclean were huge deals.

They went to such great lengths to pursue purity and to avoid anything impure. Purity had to do with morality and order. Breaking God’s laws, unrighteousness, led to being unclean. Bleeding, sickness, and other health and body abnormalities led to being unclean. Impurity was contagious. There were all kinds of ways clean people could become impure … there were rituals and systems to restore purity, but for some problems and for some people they were inaccessible.

Jesus crosses the lake to the “opposite side” – maybe this is a geographic description … maybe it is a cultural or religious description. The details Luke shares point out how unfamiliar and threatening this opposite place is.

They are in Gentile, non-Israelite territory – unclean.

The moment Jesus’ feet touch the shore he is met by a man with demons – later in verse 29, Luke calls them “unclean spirits.”

The man isn’t wearing clothes – unclean.

The man is living in the tombs – unclean.

There are pigs around – unclean.

The details pretty much scream, “This guy is unclean!”

He is stuck. He has no identity, the demons that possess him have taken his name and replaced it with their own. He is naked. He is homeless. He lives surrounded by death. He seems to be a threat to himself and others … his community struggles to protect him from himself – and to protect the community from him.

He is in really bad shape.

It would have been culturally acceptable for Jesus to avoid this unclean place and this unclean guy … actually it would have been culturally preferable to avoid all this – but it almost seems like Jesus comes all this way just for this one guy.

Luke wants us to know that there is never any question of who is powerful in this story. The man falls down on his knees and begs Jesus not to torment him. The demons beg Jesus not to be sent to the abyss … they beg for permission to go into the pigs. Jesus grants them permission.

Jesus is the one with authority and power here.

Jesus is the one who gives the man back to himself. I love that picture of the man, sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. (For some reason I always imagine him wearing a turtleneck shirt with his hair slicked back – sometimes my imagination doesn’t seem to put too high of a value on historical accuracy!) The people who know this guy and see the difference are afraid.

Maybe it is just too much change … maybe the whole thing was just too much to bear?

Whatever it was, they ask Jesus to leave.

Jesus gets in the boat and again the man is begging … this time not because he wants Jesus to leave him alone … now he is begging Jesus to let him tag along … who could blame the guy for not wanting to stick around … after all this, who could blame him for wanting to stay with the guy who gave him his life back?

Jesus tells him to stay. Go back home and to tell everyone all about how much God has done.

So the guy does. He goes away. He tells people throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

This guy turns out to be one of the first missionaries … he isn’t sent to strange and far away lands … he is sent home. Jesus sends the man to share his testimony … to tell people about how he has experienced God’s activity in his life.

For the past few weeks we have been looking at practices that are common to vital … thriving churches. We have talked about hospitality, discernment, healing … and now testimony.

In her study of vital churches, Diana Butler Bass writes,

In many ways, testimony is the most democratic— and empowering— of all Christian practices. The entire New Testament is a testimony, a record of experiences that early Christians had with the transformative power of God. Those early believers wrote down their testimonies, their experiences of sharing their testimonies, and the impact of their testimonies on the people around them. This basic structure underlies almost every book in the New Testament— most of which claim to “witness” or “testify” to the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Book of Acts asserts that the church itself started with the apostle Peter’s testimony on the day of Pentecost: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (Acts 2: 32). From that point onward, famous disciples, like Peter and Paul, and regular converts and believers spread the good news of Christian faith across the Roman Empire through their testimony. Their stories of experiencing God were so powerful, so personally transformative, that many were willing to die rather than recant their testimony …  At most of the congregations I visited, I heard people speak of faith— offering their testimonies to the power of God in changing their lives and their communities (Diana Butler Bass, “Christianity for the Rest of Us” p. 133 & 134).

I love hearing people share their stories about how God is making a difference in their lives or in their communities.

My highlights of our mission trip to Kenya were opportunities to hear people reflect on their day and share where they had noticed Jesus making a difference. After dinner, as we hung out around the table visiting and drinking Kenyan Chai tea, Jim would catch the group’s attention and ask, “Where did you see Jesus today?” It was so encouraging and challenging to hear people share their stories about where they discerned Jesus’ presence and activity that day – we heard about how someone noticed it in Moses and Jaime and their dedication and never-ending work to bring hope and healing to the Mathare slum … people noticed it in the staff at Children of Hope and their above and beyond efforts to be family for kids who didn’t have family before … people noticed it in the ways the kids enthusiastically welcomed us and included us in their family … it was such a huge gift to be able to sit down with a community and reflect on the ways we experienced God’s presence that day … I really miss it.

Our testimonies can be so encouraging to each other … they can make such a difference …

Many of the churches Diana Butler Bass observed had a formal time for sharing testimonies … maybe each Sunday someone from the congregation was asked to share a testimony of where they have experienced “the power of God … changing their lives … changing their communities…” Some congregations would have written testimonies in their newsletters or bulletins … some planned a special time in worship to share testimonies during Advent or Lent.

There are a number of informal ways we share testimonies; I have noticed that often in the announcements people share testimonies … often people will share how they have experienced God’s presence through a church activity … We hear testimonies in our prayer time when we share about how God has answered prayers … or we give thanks for the ways that God has been making a difference in our lives, or in someone we love’s life.

One of the more powerful ways we hear testimonies has been when people meet with session to join the church. Session asks two questions;

  1. Tell us about your faith … how has Jesus been real to you and made a difference in your life, and
  2. How did God lead you to South Park Community Church.

The ways people respond to these questions are so moving … there have been a couple of times I have looked around and noticed that their wasn’t a dry eye in the room as people have shared their stories and the difference God is making in their lives. It is really encouraging to hear these testimonies that point out the ways God is making a difference in and through this congregation.

The essential parts of testimony are developing eyes that look for, what one of my favorite writers calls, “God sightings” … where is God doing something in our lives … in our community … in our world?

Sometimes it can be intimidating to think about sharing testimonies … but, it can be so natural … it doesn’t have to be standing in front of the congregation … it can be as simple as expressing gratitude … it can be that quick praise we share during our prayer time … someone could ask Jim’s question, “Where did you see Jesus this week?” when we are sitting together eating pancakes … There are so many simple ways we can share our God sightings … you all have so many testimonies to share …

“Where are you experiencing the power of God in your life? Tell how much God has done for you!”

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