The Centurion and his Slave

Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 29th May 2016

Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

Today marks the beginning of a quieter time in the Church’s year – a year that so far seems to have moved at an astonishing pace.  Christmas and Epiphany seemed to come and go in a flash; early February saw the beginning of Lent and once again we were preparing for the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  During the Great Fifty Days of Easter we were both rejoicing and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Last Sunday, we found ourselves, to use Tim Alban Jones analogy, at the foot of the mountain lost in awe and wonder at the greatness, the vastness, and the incomprehensibility of God, the Creator of all that was and is and is to come.

So here we are this morning at the beginning of this post-Trinity time of year, with the Holy Spirit dwelling among us.  But what exactly does that mean; what does it mean for us as individuals and as a community?

 Luke gives us the story of the centurion and his slave.  The centurion was a Roman soldier in charge of a large number of men who were responsible for keeping the sometimes very uneasy peace in Israel through policing rather than military duty.  The Roman occupation was deeply unpopular, and there were regular uprisings and attacks by individuals and groups.

In a part of the world that is deeply divided, this scenario is still all too familiar – a military leader on peacekeeping duties in a volatile country far from home, living with the ever present threat of terrorist attacks against his peace-keeping force.

The name of at least one of Jesus disciples – Simon the Zealot – suggests links with Jewish freedom-fighters.  But there was also Matthew, formerly a Roman tax-collector and therefore seen as a Roman collaborator.  So there are good reasons to suspect that an approach from the centurion might well have provoked tension among the disciples.

This story of the centurion and his slave is also mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel but in Luke’s Gospel, he does not meet Jesus personally, but instead sends elders of the Jews to plead on his behalf.  They do so, it seems, not least because the centurion was favourably disposed to the Jewish people, and had been instrumental in the building of this group’s synagogue.   But to be clear, the centurion was a Gentile, who, in Galilee, would have been in the service of Herod Antipas.  He had clearly built links with the Jewish community and shared in something of the life of the community, but as a Gentile he was also very much an outsider.

In this harsh world, the centurion was a kind man:  not only did he care about the well-being of his slave, but he had the enthusiastic support of the local Jewish leaders who affirmed that he was worthy and that he loved the Jewish people.  If we were reporting this story today, we might say that he had won their hearts and minds.  But in the political and social context of the day, it was extraordinary.

Everything about this story is topsy-turvy, revealing something about the awesome, incomprehensible God who himself turns the values and norms of the world on its head and shatters our worldly expectations!

The centurion treated both his slave and Jesus with immense respect.  He knew his authority and was accustomed to maintaining discipline – he spoke, people did as they were told.  He could have ordered his soldiers to go, take Jesus and bring him to his house, and instruct him to heal his slave.  But there is none of this.

Instead, he recognises his need and so asks the Jewish elders to invite Jesus – this itinerant preacher with a reputation for healing, to heal his slave.  He chooses to use no violence, he does not command and while Jesus was certainly his social inferior, he presumes nothing and seems to want to avoid inconveniencing him.

Jesus is utterly amazed at the depth of his trust and his faith and says to the crowd that were following them:  “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  The boundaries of culture and class are brought down and a person is healed.

The other day, I came across the story of a settlement in Hong Kong which resonates with our Gospel.  I refer to the St. James’ Settlement – an Anglican church, an Anglican school and a Community Service Centre.

In 1949 the late +Ronald Hall, Bishop of Hong Kong recognised the need to minister to a group of young people in the small town of Wanchai.  These young people were hanging around the town, no real focus in their lives and with little family support, and were getting in to trouble.  But at the same time, resources available were very limited.  Bishop Hall had no place available to gather them, yet he saw a very great need that wouldn’t go away and would probably increase.

There was, a Taoist Temple in the neighbourhood with rooms available for use.  So he approached the Temple and working with the priest, was able to use a room to gather the young people together and started the Boys’ and Girls’ Club.  Gathering them together, offering them love and guidance that was often lacking in their lives, these youngsters escaped a downward spiral into juvenile delinquency and crime.

Because of their love for God’s children, two different religious leaders were willing to work together across boundaries to help the young people.  This humble beginning of youth ministry in a Taoist Temple eventually became what it is today – a church, a school and a community service centre.

As a result, great things have been achieved and the work of the St. James Settlement has expanded beyond just serving the youngsters, to serving the needs of the wider community providing a wide range of services – for children and young people, but also families, the elderly and people living with a wide variety of mental health or physical needs.

The centurions love for his slave was such that regardless of their social differences he was desperate to help him and so sought the help of someone outside his community.  Jesus shows us the vastness of God’s incomprehensible love, a love that refuses to recognise boundaries and barriers of human invention.

The continuing instability and violence across the Middle East and other parts of our world is resulting in one of the largest migrations of peoples the world has seen in a very long time.  But fear and suspicion is paralysing us – not just our political leaders, but people from every walk of life and across the full social spectrum including many who would call ourselves Christians; it is driving us to build bigger and more complex physical and bureaucratic barriers.  And so we are failing to follow Jesus command to love our neighbours.

In Dingwall in the Highlands of Scotland, a young family have put their furniture in to store, are staying in temporary accommodation waiting to learn whether they will be deported to Australia later this coming week.  Kathryn and Greg Brain are Australians with Scottish ancestors, and their 7 year old son, Lachlan, speaks Gaelic.  They came to Scotland in 2011 as part of the Homecoming Scotland initiative backed by the Government to reverse the trend of depopulation in the Highlands.  But in 2012 the Government cancelled retrospectively the visa scheme that enabled the family to come to Scotland and since then they have been snared in complex bureaucracy and visa applications.  Their local community and the Episcopal Church where the family have worshipped since their arrival have rallied in support not least in raising and contributing significant sums of money to help the family with the brutally expensive legal and bureaucratic process.  Today, their future remains uncertain.

In his letter to the people of Galatia, it is clear that Paul is not a happy man and is furious with the churches.  He wades straight in stating that

‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different Gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.’

For some, old understandings, traditions and customs, rules and regulations around circumcision and whether or not that makes you ‘worthy’ carry far greater weight than trust and faith in Jesus and his teaching to ‘love your neighbour’.  I wonder what Paul would be saying to us if he were to write to the churches in Kettering, or indeed those who hold political power!

The stories of the centurion and Jesus, of the Taoist priest and the Bishop remind us that if we can but let go of our fears and faithfully trust in the power of God and his Holy Spirit dwelling among us, great things can happen – a sick slave is healed, young people are loved and a community flourishes;…….. and frightened, desperate people clinging to a sinking boat, and an Australian family living in the Highlands could find love, and hope and joy living among us.  Amen.