Sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity

29th May 2016

Sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity Year C


The Healing of the Centurion's Slave.


Lord, I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed”. Luke 7.1-10



In this morning’s Gospel Reading we have a Centurion, a high-ranking military leader on peace keeping work in a volatile country far from home, and his slave, who is sick and in need of healing. In the harsh world of Roman-occupied First century Palestine, the centurion seems to have been an unusually kind man. Firstly, he cares a lot about his slave’s well-being. But interestingly, as a Roman, he has the enthusiastic support of the local Jewish leaders who say he is worthy, loves the Jewish people and has even built a synagogue for them. In a difficult social environment he has won their hearts and minds. The Gospels dwells strongly with the idea of Jesus the Messiah who comes to proclaim a new Kingdom, where the outsider may be included, and where the complex of cultures, religions and customs and statuses may find their source and destiny in Him.


The current exhibition at The British Museum ‘Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost World’ gives a fascinating insight into a world which centuries before Christ and up to and including the life of Christ was multicultural, multi-religious. Swirling around the known world were a whole host of beliefs and Gods and traditions. Whether in Ancient Greece or in Egypt or Capernaum there lies ample evidence of great diversity and of shared understandings and practices and profound and astonishing cultural and religious exchanges. This delivers a contemporary message in our own time. For this complex picture is beautiful in its intricacy, and runs counter to the actions of those terrorist groups which have attempted to destroy historical sites and artefacts because their mind-set  must refuse the human exchanges they invite. Jesus himself, the Roman centurion, the Romans themselves and their Emperor; the Jews - all held sway within a larger social melting pot. On the one hand all kinds of social barriers and anathemas were observed and yet on the other hand, many like us lived with diversity and differences as a fact of life. Capernaum itself was a properpous internationsl meeting place which would have challenged the average citizen to look beyond himself.


The Centurion is a surprising man. He does not come to Jesus commanding him to heal his slave, but instead tries to avoid inconveniencing Jesus, one who is in every respect his social inferior. The way he entreats Jesus is an indication of the way he has respected the rest of the local population. His humility and generosity of spirit have gone against what would have been expected of him, and in respect he is a very unusual man indeed. It would have been normal for one of his kind to be hated, like the tax-collectors whose lives and works he was employed to protect. But in his person he breaks the binary oppositions of his day, and to achieve this must have taken courage and humility in equal measure. He's in some respects the odd one out.


The centurion is also a curious man. In relation to the love of his own slave the centurion is not only concerned but decidedly devoted in a way which would have been most unusual. Many commentators have read the relationship between the centurion and the servant as a gay one. In those days the Roman soldiery were called ‘gay’ as an insult, and this was a term of abuse. Many soldiers involved themselves in same-sex activity, and if this was so then this Gospel reading involves a comment on the way in which we see Jesus including and addressing the needs of many who were vilified, ridiculed and ostracized, and in particular this very Centurion, a senior member of an occupying force whose religious identity (he may have worshipped many gods) lay at great variance to the Faith of Israel.  The intensity of his request for the healing of the slave would at the very least have ‘raised eyebrows’. Jesus himself would have been very aware of this and of the parallel disparity in status between the Centurion and his slave and yet he is willing to grant the soldier’s request without demur.


The parable strongly points to two very important observations. The first of these is what one theologian has called the cardinal of all Christian virtues, the virtue of humility. Jesus humbles his own status as Messiah to reach out and to meet the lives of those considered intolerable or alien. The Centurion humbles himself before a Jewish rabbi. Remember the other outcasts of lower social status: the woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the Samaritan! The same words of the centurion are written into the Rite of the Mass as we say before we receive the sacrament:


Lord, I am not worthy to receive you (or ‘I am not worthy to come under your roof’), but only say the word and I shall be healed.


The second observation lies in the sheer breadth of Christ’s compassionate understanding. It is in this vein that the Church is to involve itself at the deepest and most responsive level to the world that it inhabits, in all its beauty and pain. It was a former Dean of Westminster, Eric Abbot, who reminded us that


The Church is where the tensions of human life have to be confronted at their deepest level.


Jesus has reached out to humanity in all its variety and type, in all its forms and customs and in all its faith and waywardness and he has met this same humanity with a love which has been called ‘the love beyond all telling’; the love of God himself. Kenneth Leech, late friend of this parish and great spiritual teacher wrote of what he called the ‘crucified mind’ which opposes ‘the crusading mind’:


The crucified mind is the love which grows deeper through pain, and which seeks its end through what may seem a harsh and dreadful love, but whose aim is the transformation of its opponents.


This way of love is not just framed as cozy liberality but as a working love, going beyond the barriers of status and self and challenging us to see God in our neighbour which is essential if we are to realize our own identity in the image and likeness of the Creator. Jesus is for all time the One who reconciles us to God. He alone is able to reach our humanity at the place of its greatest need, and especially where that need for healing and reconciliation with God is prevented or remains unspoken or opposed. The reaching out of God to Man is not to be seen merely as some kind of heroic gesture on God’s part, but the offering of the one thing necessary for the healing of the real person, the reinstatement of the human in the being and likeness of God, whether centurion or slave, whether Messiah or reluctant disciple, whether insider or outsider…