There is a painting that hangs on the wall of the north transept of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh; it was painted in the cathedral in 1910.
The painting is of the Cathedral’s interior. The scene depicted is a mass being celebrated. In the image, the congregation have come to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion, but that is not the focus. In the foreground there are two figures; one, a woman shrouded in darkness. She is kneeling at the back of the church behind the pews, not a part of the celebration. She is known as ‘the penitent woman’. Standing next to her with an outstretched arm is the risen Lord bathed in light. A complete contrast to the penitent woman.
In the painting, Jesus is not standing with the faithful at the altar. He is not at the heart of the celebration. He is not hosting the feast. He is standing at the back, in the shadows, with a woman who doesn’t seem to belong to the church community.
This bears an interesting comparison to the demon-possessed man in today’s Gospel passage. This man, possessed by all sorts of horrors, came to Jesus having been alone, outcast and feared by all.
We heard that he ‘had demons’. I wonder if he ever received a formal diagnosis.
Driven to live in a tomb outside of the city he was cut off and separated from fellowship, community and support, and yet he received healing.
And how did the crowds respond? We are told that they were seized with great fear and begged the Lord to leave their land.
Typical Jesus. Coming in and making everyone feel uncomfortable by engaging with those deemed unfit to be engaged with.
The Gospel message of salvation and redemption extended even to this despised, troubled outcast.
What is this saying to us here, in this time, and in this place?
It is a challenge to us – we the crowd seized with the fears of this age.
Who are the men of this age with a bad case of the demons? Who are the women who shrink and hide in the darkness out of sight?
Who are the feared? Who are the suppressed? Who are the misunderstood? Who are the marginalised?
We as a society and especially as a Church claim to love diversity, and yet we are so very good at compartmentalising people. We place labels or name tags on certain groups of people. We generalise, stereotype and look for the overview, and once we have labelled and generalised, we place the different groups of people in three different places.
1. The ‘good’ section. The like-minded. The well. The strong.
2. The ‘I haven’t really thought much about it’ section. The ambiguous. The ‘uninteresting’. The meek.
3. The ‘bad’ section. The minority. The different. The offensive. The weak.
Whatever our definitions of good or bad, whatever we see as similar or different, satisfying or offensive, why is it that we need to create these barriers and zones of acceptability? Is it the fear of the unknown or the uncontrollable?
Are we trying to protect a false sense of order and control?
We all have people that we know whom we just cannot relate to pleasantly, whom we just cannot agree with, whom we refuse to validate. Rightly or wrongly, whatever our reasons, we must confront this. Just how helpful or healthy is it? Are we truly, truly, justified in our division?
As a Church we are called to love diversity, to celebrate the vastness of the Father’s creation. We are to strive to widen the bond of peace where there is division and separation. But do we?
We must let today’s readings challenge us and kick start us into action.
We have heard that as the Church, the family, the family of God we have clothed ourselves with Christ. We have put on the values, the teachings, the strength, the passion, the very life of Jesus on top of our own. Can we really go on perpetuating our own sense of self-righteousness?
Are we slowly becoming the people that the Prophet Isaiah was prophesying against? Are we sitting in our secret place keeping to ourselves because we are just too holy for those on the outside – those we have deemed unfit to receive the words of life?
Are we so bold as to compartmentalise God? Are we locking him in His church? Are we trapping Him in His sacraments?
Are we here because we want to see the Kingdom of Heaven, or because we are paying our respects to the Gospel in this, our tomb?
Jesus not only crosses our boundaries but exposes them for what they are - unnecessary.
The Church was born through the actions of very unlikely people - a teenage girl, a fisherman, a prostitute and a murderer.
Mary the virgin, Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul; these are the people whom we refer to as the ‘saints in glory’.
What more do we need to truly see the bigger picture?
God has said “Here I am”, not “where do you want me?”
He is holding His hands out to a broken world inhabited by a broken people.
Salvation is a gift which extends only as far as God endures, and we know that His endurance extends as far as the east is from the west.
The Gospel message has no limit; it cannot be exhausted. No boundary. No terminal point. No fixed area of movement.
It is a message of absolute inclusivity. The love of God is for all and all are justified through faith.
‘For all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.
Let us prove this!
© Rob Coupland, 2013