Second Sunday after Pentecost 2022, Year C — 19 June 2022
Rev'd Martin Johnson
Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:20-29; 3:10-14, 23-29; Luke 8:26-39
’Ere, are you an Orstralian? said the woman in the card shop; I had inadvertently greeted her with a cheery G’day. I confessed that I was, but then disappointed her by telling her that I hadn’t shaved that morning with a large Bowie knife and did not make a habit of wrestling crocodiles or swimming with sharks; that I was in fact a Latte sipping urbanite and what’s more a man of Kent! Identity, what a multi-faceted thing it is and how much we would prefer to narrow it down and label each other. Who are you, who are we, who am I? These are questions that St Paul urges the Galatians to consider carefully. At one point in this letter he cries out in exasperation, ‘you foolish Galatians,’ as they prevaricate over their true identity. Today Paul reminds them in Christ there are no longer Jews or Greeks, there are no longer slaves or free, there are no longer males and females. Who are you, who are we, who am I? The same questions are asked of us today at a time when identity has become an issue in our political, social, and religious lives, in our individual and corporate lives.
A short while ago I found myself in central London. I travelled up to town on the day after the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee long weekend hoping to bask in the afterglow of the occasion; the city was draped in bunting and union flags, there was a sense of a hangover. The celebration came at the right time for a city and nation still emerging from Pandemic, but the tube trains weren’t running, the drivers were on strike and there was a sense of foreboding as the country looked towards economic uncertainty and industrial unrest. Even in the swankiest of shopping strips there are empty shops, familiar names have gone. The celebrations offered a momentary sense of unity in a divided nation, poverty is more apparent, and Brexit is still a talking point and cause of division.
I made my way from the West End to the City of London, the edifice of St Paul’s emerged at the end of Ludgate Hill but I turned off and made my way to St Barts Hospital, a centre of healing, one of the oldest hospitals in the country, founded in 1123. At its heart is the ancient Church of St Bartholomew the Great, the oldest church in the city a survivor of both the Great of London and the Blitz. I went in and bumped into the Incumbent, ‘nice church Vicar, it’s Norman, nice church Norman!’ That isn’t quite true! But inside the door is an imposing statue of a man, he appears naked but on closer inspection this is an anatomical figure, muscles, bones, and sinews. And draped over his arm is his skin. This is the patron of the church and hospital, Bartholomew who by tradition was flayed alive for his faith in the risen Christ.
In today’s gospel, as in the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Mark) Bartholomew and the other disciples have undergone an ordeal on Lake Galilee, Jesus has silenced a great storm and they wonder about the identity of this man; they are clearly still afraid as they reach the other side. Only Jesus gets out of the boat, this is ‘Badlands’: there are tombs, unclean demoniacs . . . next to a vast piggery, even! This is for them an unholy Trinity! Jesus had taken them to a boundary that they dare not cross to do so would be an issue of identity. But Jesus heals and restores identities; of all those present only the disturbed man recognises Jesus — Son of the most high God, and he is restored to his true identity and family, surely a place, however we might understand family, where we should be able to find our identity. And the legions of Rome an invading force which then and as today threatens the identity of peoples are driven into the sea.
During my time away recently, I had my own identity issue. My brother suggested a trip to Manchester to visit his daughter, my niece and Goddaughter, Rebecca. We arranged to meet her outside her flat the next morning to avoid having to park. But when we arrived an ambulance was outside and there appeared to be something going on in the foyer of her flat. A young man came out and told us that a person had collapsed in the foyer and was being helped by a nurse, whom we presumed was Rebecca. The young man returned to the foyer and told her that, and I quote, ‘your parents are waiting outside for you.’ My brother and I were somewhat amused by this, as you can imagine, but the young man had unknowingly spoken a truth, I am indeed her Godparent and I recalled the story of Jesus whose family were waiting for him outside a crowded house. Jesus responded to them in terms that gave new meaning to family. This is typical Jesus opening eyes to new ways. We hear much about identity politics today, but Jesus gave people an identity, gives us an identity, one that goes beyond what we might think about ourselves. The miracles of healing are not just about sickness but about all that places limits on us, in Jesus we are all healed of the limits of the identities that we place upon ourselves and which others place on us. In Jesus the identities of the nations are healed . . . let all the families of the nations worship before him.
As Bartholomew sat in that boat with the others we can only begin to imagine the terror of being in that strange place, a place which threatened their very identity — and remember their identity and their salvation where intimately linked. Bartholomew came to understand the very nature of the man they followed and with it came a change in his very identity. From fear to bold proclamation. We are called to same renewal today, at a time when the church itself is concerned about identity and the way it is expressed we need to consider first and foremost our identity ‘in Christ’ and the family with which we share that identity. We need like Bartholomew to move from fear to proclamation and like the man in the tombs recognise the Christ in whose identity is our hope. Amen.