Sunday, 23 June 2013

Trinity 4: "My name is Legion"

If you were here in church last week, you’ll remember that we had a wonderful, packed service of baptism for little Kate Gallagher, and we have another baptism next week – it seems to be the season for it. One of the most significant moments in the baptism for any family is the moment when, just before I scoop up the water, I say to the parents, “name this child”. Of course the baby has been named legally when the birth is registered, but this moment matters for many families just as much.  It is a reminder to us that the child being baptised isn’t just any child, but a unique individual, a never-to-be-repeated gift to the world, with their own personality, their own path to tread, and ultimately their own story to tell.

Names matter, and in the story we heard from Luke’s Gospel just now, we meet a man who discovers that for himself.

He’s living in the tombs outside the town of Gerasa – perhaps rock-cut caves like the one Jesus will eventually be laid in himself – and he is described as possessed by demons. We’d diagnose him as mentally ill, but the point is the same. He’s in a desperate state, and has been for a long time. He is chained and shackled, regarded with fear – fear for him and fear of him. According to Jewish law, contact with the dead, or the tombs in which they lay, even if it was just fleeting, made you ritually unclean. This man lives here all the time. How unclean does that make him?

The whole story reeks of uncleanness, in fact, because later we find that this is an area where pigs are kept, another taboo for Jewish people. Yet here they are, and in large numbers too. Why? Who is keeping them? And who is going to buy and eat them?

The answer to those questions lies in  where this story takes place. Gerasa is on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, and it was one of the ten towns known collectively as the Decapolis, which just means “ten towns” in Greek. They’d been founded hundreds of years before by the Greek ruler, Alexander the Great, and the populations were very mixed as a result. A lot of Gentiles lived there, so they could be uncomfortable places for an observant Jew at the best of times. By the time of Jesus, though, this was also an area where the Roman army, the army of occupation, had many of its strongholds and administrative bases. For the local population, although there was money to be made in supplying the army, it also meant that you were very much under their eye and at their mercy. These pigs may well have been destined to feed the Roman soldiers stationed locally, and the loss of them may have left the pig-farmer with a real problem. Hungry soldiers aren’t likely to be too impressed by some cock and bull story about demons.

To add to that, by the time the Gospel of Luke was written, probably around the 80’s AD, the violence that had always been in the air around Gerasa had finally erupted into bloodshed. The emperor Vespasian had brutally put down a rebellion there in AD 67, sacking homes, massacring the population and destroying livelihoods. The name of Gerasa had become notorious. It would have evoked in the minds of Luke’s readers the same kind of images as Helmand Province might in ours, or Lockerbie, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dunkirk, the Somme, places we associate with conflict , death and terror.

The sacking of Gerasa hadn’t yet happened at the time this story was set, but Luke’s readers knew what was coming, and even at the time of Jesus the danger would have been very obvious in this place where Roman soldiers, in large and menacing numbers, were a daily sight.

So when Jesus asks this poor man what his name is, perhaps it’s no surprise that he answers “Legion”. He uses this Roman word to point us towards a Roman threat. Legions were the largest unit of the Roman Army, around 6000 men strong. A Legion was a terrifying sight, a faceless mass in their identical uniforms, with gleaming armour, weapons bristling, a force no individual had a hope of withstanding. The root and the trigger for this man’s distress is the political situation in which he lives. This isn’t a story about one man’s mental illness – a purely personal problem that was his alone. This is a story about what it is like to live in a world gone mad, a world where fear is all around, a world where you know you can be trodden underfoot with no more thought than a person might tread on an ant. A society that lives like that for any length of time is bound to be damaged by the experience. Different people will react in different ways. Some will collude and compromise to keep the peace – keeping those forbidden pigs, for example. Some will rebel. But some will be driven to mental illness by the continual fear.

This man seems to have so internalised the terror of the Legion around him that he has become all terror, all Legion himself. Maybe that feels easier; better to have the demons inside you where you know what they are up to than outside. Maybe, too, for his community, focusing on managing the threat this one man poses is easier than acknowledging the dread of living under occupation.  Perhaps he is the container for all their fears, this man who thinks his name is Legion. 

As I said earlier, names matter. In the book of Revelation, amidst all the tumult of that vision of the end of the world and the second coming, there is a lovely moment when Jesus promises to all those who suffer that at the end they will be given a white stone, and on that stone will be written a new name, “a name that no one knows except the one who receives it”, says the Bible. It seems to me that this is exactly what is happening in this story. Jesus comes into the mess and dirt of this graveyard and gives this man his white stone. He restores to him his true identity, his real name. And what is that name? We don’t know, but it certainly isn’t the name he calls himself, this name that embodies terror and violence. He isn’t Legion; he is a child of God, made by God in his image, known by God, loved by God. By treating him with care and compassion instead of fear, Jesus reminds him of this truth. Not long after this, Jesus will find himself in another graveyard, sealed in a tomb of his own because of his commitment to that message.

It might seem cruel to us that after his healing Jesus doesn’t let this man travel on with him Instead he sends him back to his own community. But in doing so he is telling them all that this situation was never just about one man. This is not some random affliction that has landed on him out of the blue. His problem was really a problem they all shared, the problem of trying to hold onto sanity in a mad world. And Jesus message to them was that while they might not have been able to overthrow the Romans, they could at least help each other by treating each other with love and care and justice. It wasn’t just the healing of this one man that was needed, but the healing of their society, the healing of their attitudes to one another. In our first reading, Paul reminded another community living under the threat of Rome of that truth. If the Galatian Christians were to have the strength to cope it would be because they lived “as one in Christ Jesus” respecting each other and caring for each other across the boundaries of race, social class and gender.

Mental illness is an immensely complicated subject. Sometimes it is caused by purely physical factors, biochemical problems, hormonal imbalances, in the same way that physical illnesses are caused. Medical approaches can often help. Drugs are often very effective, vital tools to help people get through tough times. But medical models don’t always tell the whole story or provide the whole answer. I listen to people in distress or difficulty regularly in my ministry. Sometimes they start off feeling puzzled by the depression or anxiety they are suffering – why are they feeling like this? But the cause is often quite obvious. They are depressed and anxious because they are battling with depressing and worrying situations. Why wouldn’t they feel like that?  

Someone living with domestic abuse and violence is bound to be vulnerable to feelings of worthlessness. They aren’t worthless, of course, but if you are treated like dirt long enough, you are likely to start believing you are dirt. The root of the trouble is not the victim but the abuser. Someone struggling with financial difficulty or unemployment, especially in a time of recession, is going to be anxious. They have things to be anxious about. Discrimination, exclusion, scapegoating are all likely to take their toll if you encounter them often enough. Some studies suggest gay and transgender people seem to suffer a higher than average incidence of mental health problems. I’m not surprised. If you keep hearing people using words like “abomination” when they talk about such a basic part of your identity –apparently with impunity – there’s bound to be a risk you’ll feel abominable yourself from time to time. It doesn’t help if your loving relationships are regarded as some kind of threat to society rather than being affirmed and supported either, denying you the security and mutual care others take for granted.

Often when people feel they are going mad, it is actually the world around them that’s insane. Good mental health is as much to do with the creation of supportive, just and inclusive communities as it is about brain chemistry, and we can all do something about that.

Our post-communion prayer this week acclaims God as the one who comforts the afflicted and heals the broken, who can give each of us that white stone with our true name and identity inscribed on it when we have lost sight of who we really are, his beloved children, whatever our race, gender, sexuality or lifestory. The prayer goes on, though, to ask God to teach us “the ways of gentleness and peace”, the ways of his kingdom. If we could learn those ways, perhaps we wouldn’t be so likely to afflict and break one another in the first place.


Monday, 17 June 2013

Trinity 3: An uninvited guest - Breathing Space sermon by Kevin Bright

When I was first married we used to have time for dinner parties at weekends. One of our friends seemed to have it all down to a fine art, children asleep upon arrival, immaculate house, delicious food and carefully chosen guests.

Introductions always bore this out, ‘Blogs the teacher meet Smith who’s just completing her PhD or Jones the architect meet Patel the interior designer.’
Thoughtfully organised events in a private setting where everything felt as if it were under control.
It wasn’t until I started reading up on today’s gospel that I realised how far from such a setting Jesus visit to Simon the Pharisee’s house was. Forget any ideas of a cosy meal in your dining room with carefully chosen guests.

It is far more likely that the meal took place in the open courtyard of Simon’s home. It was common place for doors to remain open allowing friends to join later but also beggars and passers-by would join from time to time.

The woman who seeks forgiveness is an uninvited guest. In a Jewish context, the description of her as a ‘sinner’ would indicate someone who was not faithful to God’s law, commentators commonly assume that she is a prostitute though this is far from certain.

We should question Simon’s motives for inviting Jesus to his house. Perhaps he was genuinely interested to hear what Jesus was all about. Perhaps he wanted the many people around his table to see that he dined with controversial and topical figures, that he was important enough to mix with such people even if he didn’t share their views.

Possibly this backfired on him as the actions of the uninvited woman not only highlighted Simon’s lack of hospitality as he failed to observe common customs of cool water for hot dusty feet, a welcoming kiss of peace and some sweet smelling oil but also demoted him in terms of importance as her actions made her centre stage. It’s typical of the apparently topsy-turvy way that Jesus has come to teach where those considered lowest are shown to have great value.

Simon is too obsessed with the sins of the woman to consider that he may also need forgiveness, something we can all be guilty of at times. It’s so easy to be outraged by some wrong doing and focus our anger on that person that we fail to consider that we also need to change our ways.

Just to make Simon even angrier Jesus forgives the woman’s sins, at Simon's house in front of many people, invited and uninvited. Those guests that shared Simon’s view asked something like ‘who does he think he is declaring forgiveness of sins.’

There’s a sense in much of what Jesus was doing that he was called to be what the temple should have been to the people. Tom Wright describes ‘his offer of forgiveness, with no prior condition of temple worship or sacrifice, as the equivalent of someone in our world offering, as a private individual, to issue someone else with a passport or driving licence. His actions undermined the established system and offered a new way forward based on incredibly generous standards of love and forgiveness.

The events challenge us in many ways.
Do we dehumanise other individuals by focussing only on the aspect of their lives we disagree with, judging them and lacking compassion rather than caring about the person as a whole? In doing so we could be revealing our own limits on the amount of forgiveness we believe is available from God.
Do we only focus on sin which is public and visible without acknowledging private weaknesses and shortcomings which contradict God’s kingdom? In doing so we fall into the same trap as Simon the Pharisee.
Yet in judging Simon we perpetuate events so we need to remind ourselves that we are all sinners who need God’s forgiveness and that Jesus also wants us to spread compassion and forgiveness among our communities.

In Galatians Paul reminds us that righteousness is not something we are capable of by our own efforts we can only edge close when we put Christ centre stage and make his glory our motivation. Of course we will fail at times but that’s when we need to have faith in the depth of God’s extraordinarily generous forgiveness which frees us to say sorry and start all over again.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Father's Day - All Age Worship and Baptism

Today is Father’s Day, and what better day for a baptism? Today as we baptise Kate we also pray for Brian, her father - and Melissa as well, of course - celebrating with them the gift of this child that has been entrusted to them. We know Kate is a great joy to them, but also, that having her has meant taking on a whole new set of responsibilities, and worries as well. Bringing up children isn’t a walk in the park. It is hard work, tiring and costly – not just in financial terms. Every parent wants to get it right, to be the very best parent they can be, to give their child what that child needs so that they grow up happy and healthy. But it’s not easy. Children don’t come with an operator’s manual – you just have to work it out as you go along.

That’s why I thought for today’s Bible reading we would have a famous story from the Bible about a father – perhaps this father can show us how it’s done.

I am quite sure that when this man from Jesus’ story became a father he felt just the same sorts of things as any parent here. Let’s imagine we were there at the beginning, when the father in this story first became a father, when the first of his two boys was put into his arms. He was so proud, so delighted. Surely this was the best baby there had ever been! And then his wife had another child. The best baby all over again!

He was going to be the best father there could possibly be. He sat with his children, all beaming smiles and gazed in wonder at them… He was going to teach them right from wrong. He was going to love them and protect them. He was going to teach them to treat others fairly. Nothing bad was ever going to happen to them. And they were going to turn out to be fine, upstanding young men, a good support to him and to one another, achieving great things, doing great good…

In the darkness of the night, he would imagine their future, and it was always a good one.

As they grew up of course there were ups and downs, times when he had to tell them off, but it was still going to be all right, because he loved them and was working as hard as he knew to be a good dad.

So it was a bit of a shock when his younger boy, still just a teenager, came to him one day and said. “Dad, you just don’t understand me! I’m leaving home! Give me my inheritance, the money I would get when you died (ouch!). I want to go off and make my own life somewhere far away, where I can be myself!”

The neighbours were horrified when they heard it too –
“What an ungrateful wretch!”
“Still, I told you things weren’t quite as hunky-dory as they looked in that family!”
“That boy must have learned that sort of attitude from somewhere, “
“ I blame the parents myself – they must have been too soft on him.”
“Or too hard!”
“Anyway, I supposed he’s given him a flea in his ear now and grounded him for his rudeness?”
“No, he’s given him the money”
“Given him the money! Whatever for? Well, that’s the proof then – fine dad he turned out to be!”

It didn’t help matters much when reports started to filter back that this son was throwing his money away on wild parties and women who were no better than they ought to be…

What did the father feel like in the midst of all this…we can only imagine… what would you feel like…? I think I would feel I must have failed somehow.

He still loved his younger son. Every day he sat staring down the road in the hopes he might see him returning. But what if it really had been his fault…? As the days passed he questioned himself endlessly. What if he never saw his son again? What if something happened to him? Where had that perfect baby gone?

But at least he still had his older boy with him. Now there was a good lad. Never moaned, never complained, always worked hard… He  couldn’t be a completely bad dad, because at least the older one had turned out well .

But then his younger son came back. At first he couldn’t believe his eyes. The figure in the distance just seemed so familiar – the way he walked, something about him… But it was him, he was sure. So he leapt up and ran towards him, and before the boy could say a word he threw his arms around him. He was thin and ragged, but he was there, safe and well. He was so overjoyed he didn’t pay any attention to the apologies the boy was stammering. And soon the party was in full swing.

And that’s when he discovered that actually the older boy wasn’t quite the paragon of virtue he’d assumed either. He was actually bitter, jealous. “You’ve never thrown a party for me…”he whined, “But you could have had a party whenever you wanted!” said his father. And the scales fell from the fathers eyes all over again. That dutiful, obliging boy he’d thought he had, had actually been a simmering cauldron of resentment. And he’d never noticed…

Sometimes people call this story the Prodigal son. Sometimes they call it the Two Brothers. Sometimes they call it the Loving Father. But actually I think it ought to be called “The Father who discovered he’d been getting it wrong, somehow, all these years , and he didn’t even know how…”
It’s not a snappy title, but it’s accurate.

Obviously by the end the relationship with that younger son was mended, and we have to hope that now that resentment of the older son was out in the open that would be healed too, but none of that would have taken away the father’s awareness that actually this wasn’t how he had planned and dreamed it.

And that’s what makes this story such a powerful one. Because anyone who is part of a family will find themselves somewhere in it sooner or later, perhaps as one of the two children, perhaps as the dad, wondering whether there was anything he could have done to prevent all this heartache and trouble. We might even find ourselves in several of the roles over our lifetimes.

The one thing we can predict – the only thing, in fact – about family life, is that it will go wrong, at least some of the time, that people will hurt each other, fail each other , disappoint each other. The point of the story, though, is that when that happens, it isn’t the end…This dad turns out to be a good dad, the best dad there can be, not because his children never get in a mess, but because when they do, he doesn’t give up on them – or on himself. Somewhere, somehow, he finds the strength to go on caring – not to live their lives for them, but to love them anyway.

And that brings me back to this baptism. Of course, we hope that Kate’s life will be full of sunshine and joy, that everything will go well for her, that she will be blessed with every blessing that any baby ought to be blessed with. But the reality is that sooner or later, things won’t go to plan, because she’s a human being, and so are Brian and Melissa. What happens then? This sacrament of baptism reminds us throughout that it isn’t the end of the world, that there can always be a new start, not just for the prodigal son, or daughter in this case, but also for her parents. In a minute, as we prepare to baptise Kate, we will light our paschal candle. We have a new one every Easter, a reminder of the resurrection of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness can’t overcome. And of course we will be pouring over her the water of baptism – she doesn’t need to be washed clean of anything at the moment, but there will come a time when its promise that, it will all come out in the wash might be vital.

Baptism is about a lot of things, but most of all it is about God’s love, love which like the Father’s love in the story we heard, somehow is always there, through thick and thin, when things are going right and when they are going wrong too – and that, for all fathers and mothers is a reassuring message. You don’t have to be perfect, any more than your children do – God loves you and is with you anyway.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Trinity 2: Recalled to life

Another week, another healing miracle. If you were here last week you might recall that the Gospel reading for the day was the healing of a centurion’s slave. This week we hear of an even more extraordinary miracle. A widow’s son is raised from death. In fact, two widows’ sons are raised from death. Sometimes it’s hard to see how the various Bible readings are related to each other, but this week it’s obvious. Elijah restores life to the son of a widow in the Phoenecian town of Zarephath; Jesus performs the same miracle hundreds of years later in Nain in Galilee.

If you were here last week, you might remember that I started by making two points about miracles, and they apply just as much to these miracles as they did to last week’s. The first was that in the ancient world miracles weren’t regarded with quite the same astonishment as we might bring to them today. All of life was a miracle. People didn’t expect life to follow scientific laws – it was all simply in God’s hands. The second point I made last week was that because of that, miracle stories in the Bible weren’t intended simply to amaze their readers. They were there to make a specific point, to tell us something about God, or ourselves, to make us think. That’s why there’s not a lot of point in trying to explain, or explain away, how a miracle might have happened. It just wasn’t a question the original writers or readers were asking.

So, that’s the recap, in case you missed all that first time round, but what about these two stories? What is it that they are trying to tell us?

I’d like to suggest two things. The first has to do with the fact that they both concern widows. Widows are often mentioned in the Bible. They are high on God’s list of priorities. There are 128 mentions of them – I counted so you don’t have to! - and the message that is hammered home again and again is that widows need and deserve special care and concern. “Cursed be anyone who deprives…the widow of justice” says the book of Deuteronomy (27.19)

We might think that was obvious. Of course those who grieve should receive compassion and care. But the Biblical preoccupation with widows isn’t really about that.  Widowers grieve too – now and in Biblical times – but they aren’t mentioned at all as a group.

The particular problems widows faced in the ancient world were rooted in the fact that women generally had lower status in society – all women, single, married or widowed. And the raw truth is that in societies where women don’t have the power and the freedom to act independently of men, to run their own lives, earn and control their own money, they are always going to be especially vulnerable when the men they are forced to depend on die. That’s as true now in many parts of the world as it was in Biblical times.

The United Nations estimate that there are 1.5 million widows in Afghanistan at the moment, far more than you would expect naturally because of the war there.  Their plight is often dire, simply because their lives as women are so restricted by the attitudes of their society. It can be almost impossible for them to support themselves; respectable women don’t go out unaccompanied by a male relative, let alone work outside the home. They are completely dependent on the charity of family members. Younger widows are often forced to remarry, whether they like it or not. If they don’t have any family to take them in, and they can’t find a second husband, widows are often reduced to begging or prostitution.

That’s why aid agencies so often focus on their needs and the needs of the children they support. It’s also why widows merit such special attention in the Bible. Widows were often put in an impossible position then too, ostracised if they did try to support themselves, condemned to abject poverty if they didn’t, denied help, but also denied the opportunity to help themselves. It was the same for other vulnerable groups – the sick, the landless, the stranger. Again and again the prophets pass on God’s command that they should be given what they need and treated with equal dignity. Jesus restates that message over and over too. It can feel like a bit of a stuck record.   “All right, God” we might want to say, “we get the message, you can stop going on about it”. Except that we haven’t got the message, any more than those ancient peoples had.  We still scapegoat and stigmatise groups of people for things that are not in their control at all. It might not be widows; it might be people struggling with other problems - unemployment, poverty, disability, mental illness. Those who are already carrying heavy loads find themselves weighed down by the  extra burdens of prejudice, disapproval, lazy stereotyping and labelling, called scroungers or skivers, told to pull themselves together. As long as our society still does that we still need to hear this message.

So that’s the first thing we need to know about these stories. They are stories about vulnerable people and the extra, and quite unnecessary loads society sometimes imposes on them. In Biblical times, widows were the group which most clearly epitomised that vulnerability.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, for these particular widows, life had just got a whole lot worse.

They had at least had sons – just one each, but that was enough. However difficult it had been for them, there had been hope for the future. Their sons would look after them, and would one day marry and, they hoped, have children of their own. They would be secure in old age, and remembered with love too. But now that hope had been destroyed. Their sons had died.

We don’t know any more about the widow of Nain than we are told in this incident. She isn’t mentioned again. But we have got a bit more of a “backstory” for the widow Elijah helps. He’s been staying with her for some time by this point. He first met her when he was on the run from the evil King Ahab, in a time of drought and famine. Elijah ended up way outside Israel, in the Phonecian town of Zarephath. And the first person he met was this widow, on the edge of town, foraging for firewood. He asked her for food, but she explained “I have … only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in jug. I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”  She hasn’t quite given up – she is still preparing this last meal – but she can’t see any further than that. Elijah promises, though, that if she cooks what she has and shares it with him, there will be more where that came from, and so it proves to be. The jar of meal never quite runs out, and the jug of oil always has just enough in it to meet their needs.

But then, having come through all of that, her son, her precious only son, dies anyway, of some random and completely unconnected illness. How cruel is this? Is God playing games with them all, giving with one hand and taking away with the other? Whether it is really God’s doing or not, Elijah isn’t having it, and he doesn’t mince his words when he appeals to God, just as the widow hasn’t minced her words with him. He more or less insists that God gives this child back his life, and the widow back her future, and that is what happens.  

Elijah is moved to help by sheer, simple compassion, and the same is true of Jesus. He looks at the widow in Nain and has compassion for her too. The the Greek word that’s used here actually says he is “gutted”, gutted at the knowledge that everything she has hoped for has been wiped out at a stroke, gutted to see the realisation on her face that she might as well be dead herself now. When Jesus raises her son he isn’t just performing a miracle that displays God’s power at work in him – if that were the case, raising any dead person would have done – he is giving the gift of a future to a woman who thought it was all over for her, that there was no hope left anymore.

These stories aren’t really about the restoration of physical life to those who have died – that is not something which happens routinely in the Bible. Death is part of life, something that comes to us all and is not in itself to be feared. These are stories about those moments when, for whatever reason, we might feel there’s nothing to live for.

God cares about life, say these stories, this life, here and now. It is not meant to be just a waiting room where we are tested and shaped so we can one day enjoy life in heaven. It is God’s first and greatest gift to us, and his intention is for all of us to live it to the full. That means that we are meant to seek what is life-giving for ourselves, but it also means we are called to combat anything that makes life less lively, less joy-filled, less wonder-filled for others too. There are unavoidable sorrows in every life, losses we can’t predict or prevent, but they don’t have to mean the end of everything when they strike. On a personal level, the small acts of care and compassion, the refusal to write others off, the determination to include rather than exclude can all help the seeds of new life to flourish in people’s lives, however fragile they might appear at first. On a broader level, the political decisions we make, the economic systems we build, the attitudes we teach our children can create a climate where life flourishes for all, or where death prevails.

We can’t raise the dead to life – I can’t anyway – but the greatest and truest miracles are not always the most instantly spectacular. They are those which enable people whose spirits have been crushed by the world, whose hopes have died to live again as they discover they are loved, valued, precious children of God. Each one of us has it in our power to make those miracles happen if we are prepared to let ourselves be gutted, moved with compassion, as Elijah and Jesus were.

Amen for more details of the challenges faced by widows around the world.

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.