Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.Luke 8:30
I still remember my first Father’s Day as a dad. Actually, as an expectant dad. My wife was pregnant with our firstborn, Katie. And that Father’s Day, back in 1993, when Karen and I got to church, I was very surprised when someone wished me a happy Father’s Day. Happy Father’s Day? Me? I wasn’t ready for that. I was still getting used to my wife being pregnant!
I wasn’t ready for that Father’s Day in 1993. And I am not ready for this Father’s Day, either. My first Father’s Day since my father died, just a couple of weeks ago. I’m still in the beginning stages of my grief, and of seeing my life in this new way. I’m certainly not ready for today. But here I am. Here we are. Ready or not. That’s how life works, right?
Today’s Gospel Reading
Today’s gospel reading (Luke 8:26-39), on the face of it, doesn’t seem to have much to do with Father’s Day. It is the story of the man with the nickname “Legion,” because he had so many demons. How does this story connect to Father’s Day? While we know very little of this man, apart from his demons, we know that he has a family. We know that he has a home. In fact, at the end of this story, Jesus tells the man to return to his home, and declare how much God has done for him. That is his first and most important task as a follower of Jesus. Not to leave his family and follow Jesus, but to return to his family. And what a joyful reunion that must have been! Imagine his parents, if they were still living. How grateful they would have been to see their son without chains and shackles. Imagine his wife, if he was married. His children. What a joyous day that would have been.
So, when you think about it, this story is as much about family and community as it is about demon-possession. This story is about the demons that divide us, and Jesus’ desire to unite us. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a Father’s Day gospel reading, but I can work with it.
But first, I think that we need to pause for a moment to think about demons. This man is named Legion because of the many demons that had entered him. So, what are these demons? Are they even real? Most of us don’t know anyone who has been possessed by demons. It’s hard to relate to that. Hollywood loves this idea, probably because it is so dramatic. Ever since “The Exorcist,” at least, there has been movie after movie about this theme. But all they do is make it all seem even less relatable to our lives.
So, what do we make of these stories in the gospels? Let me say two things about these stories involving demons. First, I don’t think that we should simply deny that there are demons in our world. As a pastor, I have had people share stories about demons that seem all-too-true. I’m not going to say that they don’t exist. But I will say that Jesus is stronger than any and all of the demons in our world.
But the second thing that I want to say is that even if we don’t see demons at work in our world today, I do think that these stories can help us think about our world, and help us to see God at work in the midst of them. You’ve heard the old saying, “if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”? Well, let’s apply this to demons. Think for a moment about what the demons in the Bible do. When you think about it, the demons in the Bible consistently do three things:
- They cause self-destructive behavior in the person they are possessing.
- They cause this person to feel trapped by their condition.
- And, finally, they separate that person from their family, friends and community.
So, if you think about demons in that way, then there are many demons in our world, aren’t there? Things that cause self-destructive behavior, that cause us to feel trapped by our condition, and that separate us from family, friends, and community. Things like addictions, for example, or mental illnesses, or destructive habits, and on and on.
The Blame Game
We might think that demon-possession is a rather old-fashioned, unscientific way of thinking about all of this. But sometimes I wonder if we have lost something by becoming so “advanced.” At least when we talk about demon-possession, we aren’t playing the blame game.
Take addiction, as one example. It’s always tempting to blame people who are struggling with addictions and other destructive behaviors. Don’t they know what they are doing to themselves and those they love? But if we treated addiction as an illness, which I believe that it is? Or, what if we thought of addiction as a demon? It is something that leads to self-destructive behavior, and that causes a person to be separated from family, friends, and community. As old-fashioned as it is to talk about demon-possession, at least it keeps us from playing the blame game.
When you look at our world today, it is obvious that there are a lot of things holding us captive. They truly are legion. But here, of course, is the good news at the heart of this story: Jesus came to free us from these things. Jesus came to free us from all of those things that hurt us and separate us from one another. Jesus came to set us free from sin, death, and the demons in our world. Just as he crossed the Sea of Galilee, on that stormy night, to free this poor man known as Legion.
Let’s think about this man’s nickname some more, because I think it is a key to this story. Legion wasn’t his real name, of course. Legion is a Roman military unit containing 4,000-6,000 soldiers. And this poor man seemed to be possessed by so many demons that everyone simply called him “Legion.” And when Jesus meets him, this poor man is unable to call himself anything else. He simply calls himself, “Legion.” The demons in his life have taken over to such an extent that he has lost his identity. He doesn’t know who he is anymore. He is simply known, to himself and everyone around him, by this label. How sad. How tragic. And how common, even in our world today.
When we call a person an addict, aren’t we doing the same? Or when we call someone homeless? Those are labels, not names. And we do it all the time. How sad that we never even learn the true name of this demon-possessed man. We don’t learn anything about his family. His father and mother. His wife, his children. We don’t learn anything about what he used to do for a living. We don’t know anything about his hopes and dreams for his life. We know only that he is known by “Legion,” and that he is too far gone to be able to live with his family, and that he is someone to avoid at all costs. Until Jesus goes out of his way to come to this remote community for this one purpose: To heal the man known as Legion.
Finding Our Identity in Christ
If we can accept that there are things that look like demons in our world today, then we can embrace the miraculous gift that Jesus offers to us all. Jesus came to free us from these demons, and to give us a new identity. Jesus came to seek out every child of God and give them a new name. No one is to be called Legion anymore. We are now – one and all – children of God. We are now – one and all – God’s beloved. We are now brothers and sisters in Christ. The demon-possessed man, formerly known as Legion, and all of us.
We have all been given a new identity that is more important than anything else in this world. And a new mission, too. I love that this man known as Legion is given such an important task in the gospels. He is the first apostle to the Gentiles. After he is healed, he wants to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells him to go home and tell everyone what God has done. Making him the first to tell the world beyond Israel about Jesus.
This man is now a follower of Christ. That is the most important thing about him, now and evermore. His identity is now secure in the one who freed him from his demons. And that is true for us, too. Our identity, first and foremost, is now rooted in Christ. We are children of God. We are followers of Jesus. We are Christians. Before we are anything else, and certainly before we are anything that the world wants to call us, that is who we are.
Because we are baptized, the demons that still nip at our heels no longer define us. We may still wrestle with what you might call demons in our lives, to be sure. But regardless of what they may be, they are not stronger than our baptism in Christ. They don’t define us. Our baptisms into Christ define us, now and always.
Do you remember the musician, Prince, who changed his name to an unpronounceable character? We started calling him “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Well, today we have the story of “The Christian Formerly Known as Legion.” He has a new name, a new identity, and a new lease on life. This man who was Legion is now Christian. And that is more important than anything else in his life. Or in ours.
The demons in the world today are still Legion. I believe that. But I also believe Christ is Lord over them all. The man formerly known as Legion is proof of that. And so are you. You are baptized children of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Now, go and declare how much God has done for you. To his glory. Amen.