The Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today is Matthew 8:28-34.
Jesus regularly took his disciples out of their comfort zone. He took them to Caesarea Philippi, where immigrants did unspeakable things. He took them to Tyre and Sidon, beyond the border of God’s own people.* And here, he takes them across the Sea of Galilee, to ‘the other side’.** Here, the people are different. They have different cultural norms and values and practices. They eat different food.
The first people Jesus and his disciples encounter are demonised: afflicted by unclean spirits. That might sit uncomfortably with us in our own culture which has elevated the good gift of ‘Science’ to an unquestionable idol; but plenty of people still believe, experientially, in things that science cannot measure; and plenty are troubled by their experience. We ought not dismiss them.
These two demonised people are not only beyond the disciples’ community; they are marginalised by their own community, driven out: and they are hurting. In fact, they are in effect the living dead. But their torment has been invisible to the disciples until now, because they were on ‘the other side’. After all, who knows? Perhaps everyone on the other side is demonic? (And in this way, everyone on the other side is subtly demonised.)
Jesus takes his disciples beyond their comfort zone, beyond their familiar culture, in order to reach them, in order to bring liberation.
His actions cause a disruption, potentially getting the swineherds in trouble, incurring cost to the owners of the swine. Indeed, the community come together to ask him to leave: they were, they claim, quite happy before he turned up, uninvited. Please, just go. Let’s not romanticise our story with a happily ever after end.
Jesus is a creature of habit. He still sets off over the horizon, taking his disciples beyond their comfort zone, to the other side, whoever might live there, and with particular awareness of those who are isolated and terrified.
Today sees the publication of a report into the death of a disabled Iranian refugee, who reported being the victim of racism to the police 73 times over 7 years, and was consistently failed, until he was beaten to death and set on fire. Read it, and weep. It is a salutary case study in why we need to follow—and keep following—Jesus to the other side.
Lord, have mercy.
*Matthew records both these events later, in chapters 16 and 15, respectively.
**From the context we can infer that they have gone to ‘the other side’ of the lake. But Matthew does not spell this out for us. Instead, he opens up an ambiguous and more creative space, in which ‘the other side’ refers just as well to a ‘them’ in relation to an ‘us’.