The unofficial apostle of Christ
Discipleship comes in many forms.
Mark’s Gospel tells a particularly striking healing story, that of a man suffering a fate worse than death. This man is “possessed with an impure spirit,” and he has no name and no identity.
Something horrifying happened to this man, and his mind, body, and spirit have been overthrown. He has little, if any, control over himself and instead reacts to forces outside his power to master. This man, made in God’s own image, can no longer see that image in himself nor in anyone or anything else. All he sees is darkness and nothingness. All he hears are lies and hostile voices in his head. All he feels is rage, pain, and humiliation.
He lashes out at anyone and anything in order to be heard, to be whole, to feel something, to regain what has been lost, even if he cannot remember what that was. He is broken, incoherent, and a danger to himself. The gospel says that he is chained from time to time, suggesting he may also have been a threat to other people.
He lives, naked, in the graveyard on the outskirts of town. He howls and yells. He injures himself. If or what he eats is unknown. How he survives is unknown. All we know is this hopeless man is incapable of being fully human as God intended.
It is here that Jesus enters into this situation. He does not run away. He does not assault, torment, or ignore the man. Instead, Jesus carefully reaches through the spiritual smog surrounding the man and seeks to bring him back to life. Jesus helps the man to recognize himself, to know his own history and family, and to remember that he is a child of God.
Jesus expels the parasitic delusion that has taken control of the man and uses his own healing powers, along with the rituals and symbols provided by his culture, to cleanse the man of this pollution and return him to his senses. He sends it into a herd of pigs, who carry it over a nearby cliff.
That’s when something truly astonishing happens: The man becomes whole. He remembers who he is, where he’s from, and what happened to him. His mind, body, and spirit are sound again.
Understandably, the man wants to leave this experience behind. He recognizes that Jesus is different and seeks to follow him, to sit at his feet. The townspeople also want to forget. They are amazed and frightened by Jesus and the cleansed man. They want both to move on. So the man asks Jesus if he can come with him.
But Jesus refuses to let the man come with him. Instead, he instructs the man, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” His command ensures that no one will forget what happened. And the man complies. He gets up and goes off to the Decapolis to preach the good news.
In my adult life, I have been drawn to many gospel stories. But this particular story continues to capture my imagination. For much of my youth and young adulthood, the effects of trauma ruled my life. I could neither understand nor wield control, which led to a feeling of god-forsakenness. I felt outside the purview of God’s grace.
Long before I studied theology, I resonated deeply with the main character in this story and his encounter with Jesus. Jesus helps the man recover his identity and offers him a way forward so that the “impure spirit” no longer controls him. He helps the man uncover the image of God in him that had been obscured for so long. I see myself, my faith, and my own struggles reflected in this encounter.
For Catholics in the United States, this story highlights the connection between the gift of healing and the call to discipleship.
The key to understanding the story’s importance is to understand why Jesus says no when the man asks to become a disciple, to follow him. First, it is an act of mercy. Jesus knows that his disciples will suffer greatly and that this poor man’s entire life has been constant torment and suffering. By saying no to his request, Jesus is telling him to go and live his life.
St. Irenaeus famously wrote, “Gloria Dei vivens homo” (“The glory of God is the human person fully alive”). This man has not had the opportunity to be fully human, be in full possession of himself, to choose his path in life. Jesus is saying to him, “You are finally free. Go and live life to the fullest and reflect God's glory to others.”
Second, Jesus’ refusal is an act of commission. By commanding the man to tell his story of being healed, Jesus is making him a disciple, albeit in an unofficial capacity. Jesus commissions the man to preach the good news of God’s in-breaking reign to those whom the man knows best. The man is being made into a messenger (literally, apostle) of the gospel to others. The man’s life has become the good news.
The story emphasizes that discipleship is more than ordination or consecrated religious life. Sometimes discipleship can be more “unofficial” than official. It can be a commission given after being brought back from the brink of losing one’s humanity.
The story shows that being freed to live life to the fullest is a gift from God. It means that their wounds have not conquered them and that they now can tell the story of God’s salvation with the authority of lived experience. Like the man in the gospel, people today are asked to evangelize through living a good life, through becoming incarnate words that speak of resurrection. Restored humanity becomes a reminder that evil and darkness do not have the last word.
Unlike the official disciples, such as Peter, John, and the others, the man in this story does not have his name recorded. Yet he too is called to be an evangelist, a messenger proclaiming God’s reign. As are so many.
The gospel the man preaches, that many today are called to preach, is the lived experience of salvation through Jesus. Just as no one knows how many people the cured man affected, today no one knows how many people we may affect.
Discipleship comes in many forms, wounds can be healed, and unwarranted sufferings can be made meaningful. Freedom from affliction connects with freedom to live life fully and, by doing so, to become messengers of the good news.
Image: The Met Museum open access