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Thursday, 17 November 2016

Crossing boundaries

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Jesus was amazed or surprised. This is worthy of note because the Gospels only record that Jesus was surprised twice. He was firstly amazed that his own, hometown people rejected him, and secondly that this gentile officer accepted him (Matthew 8. 1 - 13).

There is much about this story and this officer that is surprising. We see his humility in that, although he is the local official of the ruling power, he says he is not worthy to have Jesus, an itinerant Jewish preacher, in his home. When the same story is told in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 7. 1 - 10), we find that the local Jewish elders testify to the officer’s love of the Jewish people, to the extent that he himself had built a synagogue for the locals in Capernaum. As a result, the Jewish elders are prepared to advocate on his behalf. Then we read that slave is ‘very dear’ to him. There is much about this man that is at odds with the general practice of those who have positions of power, particularly when the position of power held is that of an oppressive ruling elite.

So there is much about this man to which Jesus would respond. The officer cares about others and he does so regardless of nationality, religion and class. His love of others enables him to cross boundaries between people. There is even the possibility (in the Greek word used of the slave) of a same-sex relationship existing between the officer and his servant! The officer is an intercessor. He speaks on behalf of his servant and sends other intercessors (the Jewish elders) in his name who speak on his behalf. As a result, nothing is mentioned in the story about the servant who was healed having faith. It is the officer who had faith and stood in the gap for the servant by interceding for him.

His faith was seen in that he believed that Jesus would help his servant and in his realisation that Jesus didn’t need to come his home in order to do so. The Jewish elders didn’t think Jesus would help a gentile soldier unless they had proved that he was good to the Jews. Yet, in order to receive help from Jesus no good works are required. The Jewish elders wanted to prove to Jesus that the officer was worthy of Jesus’ help and yet the officer himself stated that he was not worthy. His faith was seen in his trust that Jesus was someone who would act with compassion and love, not that he saw himself as good enough to earn that love. Jesus showed in this story that the only thing he assesses is whether or not we have that kind of faith.

The officer understood Jesus’ ability to heal in terms of his being part of a chain of command in which he was able to issue orders and where what he ordered occurs. The fact that Jesus commended the officer’s faith doesn’t mean that we then have to accept that the officer was right about Jesus being part of this chain of command. The story can be understood in that way and often has been, but what Jesus commended was the officer’s faith, not the means or logic by which he arrived at that faith.

Jesus continually taught that true leadership is shown through service. He reversed our common expectations about the way in which power should be held and exercised. The Roman officer, by caring about others and doing so regardless of nationality, religion and class, was actually living out in practice what Jesus was teaching to others. As faith without deeds is dead, it may actually be the officer’s practice of servant leadership to which Jesus was referring when he said, “I tell you, I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel!”

Like Jesus then, if we allow ourselves, we will be surprised by this story. In it, the gentile, the pagan, the one who did not believe in the God of Israel, the one who was the representative of the oppressive ruling power, the enemy, was the one who crossed boundaries of race, religion, class (and possibly also sexuality), to show real faith in practice. Despite the differences between them, this man and Jesus recognized a commonality of practice in each other. The officer said to Jesus you seem to be my real commanding officer and Jesus said to the officer I see real faith lived out in practice in you. In the synergy that existed between them the servant recovered and was found to be well once again.

In a world where racist xenopobia is on the rise, we will do well to pay attention to the lessons of today’s Gospel reading. During Interfaith Week, it is vital to state that: “Alongside all of good will, we will work to tackle with renewed determination the challenges of poverty, ignorance, injustice, crime and violence, and social fragmentation and to help shape a society where all feel at home; all are valued and justly treated; and all have a chance to thrive.”


Anthony - If It Be Your Will.

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