Sunday, 2 June 2013

Trinity 1: The faith that amazes

Luke 7.1b-10

The story we’ve just heard is one of the many healing miracles which the Gospels record Jesus doing. There are a lot of them and it’s is easy and to think that they are all pretty much the same. Someone is ill; Jesus makes them well again. A blind man sees, a deaf man hears, a woman bent double by disease is enabled to stand tall again; all very wonderful for the people concerned, but isn’t it all a bit repetitive? Do we really need so many similar stories? And anyway, how could such things happen? Centuries of scientific thinking mean that we tend to think healings like this are impossible, and many people feel that they make Christian faith look outdated or incredible?

But as with much of the Bible we need to realise that our questions are not the questions of those who first heard these stories. We might hear the same words they did, but we don’t hear the same meaning in them. So we need to work a little harder if we are going to get at the heart of their message. In the world of the first century pretty well everything was regarded as a miracle, from the sun rising in the morning, to the ups and downs of human life. It was all in the hands of the Gods, or Goddesses, or whatever spiritual forces you happened to believe in. They ordered the world as they wanted. So our ancestors weren’t nearly as bothered about how something extraordinary happened as we would be. If you had lived then what would have mattered to you was why  those divine beings had made whatever choices they had, and more to the point, how could they be persuaded to make things happen the way you wanted?  

I’ve started by pointing all that out because otherwise we risk dashing off on a complete wild goose chase as we look at this story, or any other Biblical miracle come to that. We’ll never succeed in explaining, or explaining away, these stories – they come from a thought world too different from our own. What we really need to ask is what these stories meant to those who first heard them, people who were not asking how apparently miraculous healings happened but why they happened. If we look at this miracle with that in our mind, I think we will discover that it is far more relevant to our own lives than we might imagine.

So – introduction over - what is happening here, in this story of the healing of the centurion’s slave? What might its message be to us?

Let’s start by getting inside the story. Imagine we were going to act it out. How many characters would we need to play the parts involved as the Bible tells it? There would be Jesus, obviously. And some Jewish elders, the ones who come to plead for Jesus to heal the slave. Then later on there would be some friends of the centurion, sent to tell Jesus that he need not come any closer. And there would be a motley crowd of bystanders, just curious to see how things panned out.

 But that is it. The two people who we might think are the central characters in this story are never seen at all. We never get to meet them. The first is the slave himself, languishing on his sick bed. And the second is the centurion who longs so much for his healing. Actually, if we were going to act this story out as Luke tells it, we might find it was rather dull and unsatisfying. All the real drama happens elsewhere; the anxious vigil, the pacing up and down, the words of love and acts of care, the grief at what looks like an inevitable tragic ending, the desperate hope which makes the centurion ask for Jesus’ help. None of this is seen. It would be like an episode of Casualty recorded entirely in the ambulance dispatcher’s office with all the action happening at a distance, off-screen.
Roman soldiers carrying light spears (lancea) and shields. Detail of a relief from the Antonine Column, Rome, erected c.AD180—196 in recognition of the Roman victory in battle over a Germanic tribe.

But that is the point that Luke is making. This centurion is at a distance, not just physically but in other ways too, and he knows it. It is a rather odd situation when you think of it. He’s a Roman official, part of the army which is occupying Jesus’ land. He’s a Gentile, not Jewish. He seems to have developed an interest in the Jewish faith and made Jewish friends, but he’s still an outsider. He sends others to Jesus with his message not because he thinks it is beneath him to come himself, not because he has some high-handed sense of entitlement to Jesus’ help, but because he feels he has no entitlement at all. That becomes clear later in the story. When he hears that Jesus is on his way he sends another message to him to stop him “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…”

He knows that many Jewish rabbis would be wary of associating with a member of the occupying army – it might look like collaboration – and he knows too that the fact he is a Gentile means that many would consider him unclean. He would pollute them ritually and they would have to go through special ceremonies to cleanse themselves again. He takes elaborate care not to put Jesus in a position where he might be compromised, even if it means he can’t make his appeal directly.

There is something immensely touching about this. This man could have tried to pull rank, throw his weight around, but he doesn’t. He puts himself at Jesus’ mercy, and not for his own sake, but for the sake of a slave, albeit one who is dear to him. He has no doubt that Jesus has the power to heal, the question is, will he want to? The centurion doesn’t know, and can’t insist. All he can do is ask, from a position that he knows is weak and vulnerable, an outsider whom Jesus has no reason to feel he should help, as far as the centurion can see.

The Jewish elders who come to bring this message obviously think it’s unlikely that Jesus will want to help this man either. They seem to think this man is one of the good guys, but why should Jesus care about the slave of a Gentile soldier? That’s why they throw in some special pleading of their own. “He loves our people”, they say, “and he built our synagogue…”  Some things never change. Receiving gifts from people tends to make us feel we owe them something in return, and these synagogue elders clearly think that this is the moment when a debt is being called in. There’s no evidence that this is in the centurion’s mind. There’s no evidence that this makes any difference to Jesus either, but they clearly think this is the game-changer that will persuade Jesus to help.

It seems to me that it is the contrast between the bargaining of the elders – however well-meaning – and the centurion’s own absolute refusal to try to manipulate, his humble acceptance of his powerlessness in this situation, which so amazes Jesus when he praises his faith. The centurion knows he can’t buy God’s help. He just asks, out of pure human need. He knows how much he loves this slave, how he would do anything in his power to help him and he trusts that any God worth worshipping would care at least as much as he does for him. That might not mean the slave will be healed, but whatever happens the centurion starts from the assumption that both he and his slave are safe in the hands of God, even though they are outsiders, even though many at the time would have regarded them as unclean.

And that, I think, is where this story comes home to us. It isn’t about miraculous healing, whether it happens and if so how. It is about the simple act of asking for help – from God or from one another. That’s something that many people find difficult. It makes us feel vulnerable, by definition help-less, and who wants to feel like that? Knowing that we need help brings to the surface the suspicion, deeply held by many, that they don’t really deserve it, that they need to make some special pleading, that they are not really worth, or worthy of, the time, attention and love of others or of God.
At that point, what happens?
Some people just deny their need and pretend to be invulnerable.
Some people bluster their way through, insisting on their rights in the assumption that if they don’t they won’t get help at all.
Some people manipulate, ingratiate, work obsessively to put others in their debt and employ emotional blackmail. “How many passive-aggressive people does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Don’t mind us, we’ll just sit here in the dark…”
Some people try to buy their way to favour. I am sure many people did build synagogues in the hopes of winning the blessing of God, as these elders assume the centurion has done, just as in the Middle Ages wealthy people built churches and bought indulgences in the hope that it would get them into heaven more quickly, just as now businesses and individuals sponsor charities to improve their public image.

I don’t know whether you have recognised your own preferred style of trying to make things happen the way you want, but we are all probably in there somewhere!

But the message of this story is that none of our anxious attempts to rig the odds, in the end, will bring us what our hearts truly desire, and what is most precious of all. Money can’t buy you love, in the immortal words of the Beatles, and nor can it buy you protection against all the world’s ills. You can’t manipulate or bluster your way to ultimate security. The centurion knew he couldn’t force God’s hand, and he didn’t try to. But he also knew, somehow, that this God whom he had come to honour and worship loved his precious slave just as much as he did, and that whatever happened, he could trust that love. That’s the true miracle in this story – the faith that amazes Jesus - and it is a miracle that can transform lives now just as it did then, allowing us to drop our anxious attempts to manipulate and control life, the universe and everything and let ourselves be held in the hands of  God instead.


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