Sermon for 1st Sunday after Trinity: The Herd of Pigs – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday 19 June 2022 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson.

Our gospel reading seems to consist of a self-contained account of the healing of someone with acute mental problems interpreted by the understanding of the time as being invaded by demons. No doubt it is convenient to parcel up St. Luke into small sections so that we gradually hear a large part of the gospel but are not overburdened with lengthy recitation at each Sunday service. However, such chopping into sections does not do justice to St. Luke’s careful arrangement of his material for he is clearly working to a plan. Chapter 8 begins with the freeing of Mary Magdalen from 7 demons, continues with a number of parables and then the stilling of the storm on the lake. Then we come to our story of legion and the chapter ends with more accounts of healing miracles. Then the disciples are sent out as evangelists and afterwards Jesus asks them who they think he is, leading to the confession at Caesarea Philippi by St. Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. So you might well think that St. Luke is helping us to understand who Jesus was and indeed there is something of a refrain in these verses: “who is this?” It is a question which the parables and miracles are setting out to answer.

Our reading directly follows the account of a storm on Lake Galilee – quite a frequent occurrence. But since Jesus rebukes the tempest as though it were demonic, it seems to be regarded a result of hostile powers whipping up a storm. Disorder and madness in mankind are also expressed in the OT under the figure of a storm and the link with the sea is continued by the picture of the pigs plunging over the cliff into the waves.

As a prelude to his exorcising Jesus asks the name of the demon and the name legion is given suggesting a large number for the Roman military legion consisted of upwards of 6000 soldiers as well as supporting auxiliaries. The legion of demons is reduced to negotiating terms and in exchange for leaving the man are allowed to invade the herd of pigs. You might reckon that the demons were not very intelligent for they hadn’t thought about the panicked reaction of the pigs – which was to rush into the sea and drown. The demons therefore go to their destined place of punishment in the Abyss after all, which we may regard as a nice irony.

The swineherds flee and tell everybody what had happened. The population is seized with fear and possibly annoyance though whether that was because the man they regarded as mad was seen in his right mind sitting at the feet of Jesus or because they were aghast at the loss of the pigs and their income, is not made clear. The healed man is charged by Jesus to proclaim his story and the work of Jesus in healing him so that the mighty power of God might be known by the citizens of that region.

This story, as with the stilling of the storm on the Lake deals with the reaction of people to the person of Jesus and what he said and did. We have the disciples saying “Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him” and we have the Gerasenes begging him to leave because they couldn’t cope with his power. Finally at Caesarea Philippi Jesus turns the question “Who is this?” into “Who do people say that I am” and then into “Who do you say that I am?” As we know it is St. Peter who makes a sudden breakthrough in understanding and says: “God’s Messiah”. Today, too, the task of Christians is to draw people to Jesus, to find ways of helping them to see what Jesus is like. We need to show them how Jesus opposes and vanquishes what is evil and brings peace and goodness to all who follow him.

Those who learn more about Jesus will finally come to the stage when they ask, “Who is this Jesus?” – for he is the one who died on the cross to save us all from perishing. He it is for whom the wind and waves abate. He it is whom the demonic powers and malign forces of chaos obey. It is Jesus who is the king of heaven and whom we will want to join in the heavenly courts – and even those who struggle with faith during their earthly lives may well hope that they will be welcomed into heaven. As one of my churchwardens used frequently to say: “there are no atheists in lifeboats.”