All Saints Margaret Street | Trinity 1 – High Mass Sunday 29 May 2016

Sermon for Trinity 1 – High Mass Sunday 29 May 2016

Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


Readings: 1 Kings 8.22-23, 41-43; Galatians. 1.12; Luke 7.1-10

Tomorrow I fly to Seville in Spain to begin my walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The wonders of modern technology mean that I will be able to send regular reports and even photographs home at the touch of a button.

Keeping in touch from afar in St. Paul’s day was a much slower and more difficult business. But it was not impossible and a substantial part of the New Testament consists of his letters to the churches he had founded or was planning to visit. 

Sometimes they address questions that have been raised or problems that have been brought to his attention: which is the case with the Letter to the Galatians which we will be hearing extracts from at mass for the next few Sundays.

Paul follows the conventions of his day by introducing himself to those he is writing to, Paul and apostle…to the churches in Galatia:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Recipients of such a letter would then expect to hear a blessing upon themselves, or a thanksgiving such as that in Philippians:  I thank my God in every remembrance of you…

So, the Galatians would know this was no ordinary letter when this was absent and they heard instead:   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.

Paul is clearly furious with them. What has been going on?  What has caused him to take up his pen with such urgency?  We have a problem: we have Paul’s letter but nothing that went the other way. So we have to work out what he was so concerned about from what he says about it.

It seems that he had heard that his converts in Galatia, who were Gentiles, had come under the influence of Jewish Christian teachers who were persuading them to adopt the Jewish Law, contrary to what he had taught them.

It’s as if I were to get a message while I was trekking across Spain telling me that evangelists had come to All Saints in my absence. Pointing to statistics of decline, they had persuaded you that all our teaching and worship was a hopeless failure in winning people to Christianity.   So, the mass and choir, liturgy and sacrament,  must all go in favour of seeker-friendly services, a praise band and worship songs projected on screens,  I know this sounds well beyond improbable, but you get the idea.  You can guess what my reaction would be.

These intruders seem to have been questioning not only Paul’s teaching but his apostolic authority. Hence his restatement of his call from Jesus Christ and God the Father in the opening sentence; and the divine origins of his gospel, which was not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

They seem to have suggested that Paul had offered the Galatians an easy option; a sort of Christianity-lite, one without the demands of the Jewish Law and of circumcision in particular.  And that he had done this for the sake of popularity.  Hence his question:  Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 

Paul pronounces a curse, anathema, on those who are undermining his work. Later in the Letter, he will use language so crude that, if I were to put in the Parish Paper or a report from Spain, I would find myself hauled up in front of the Bishop for a dressing down.

This is not the language of ecumenical diplomacy; of “both and” rather than “either or.”  Paul is not only convinced that he is right and his opponents are wrong, but that this is not just a difference of opinion on which they should be able to agree to disagree.  This is an issue which goes to the very heart of the Gospel.  His opponents, by teaching that to be fully Christian Gentiles must not only accept Jesus as the Christ the Messiah, but that they must accept the Jewish Law, were talking about more than a matter of discipline and lifestyle.  They were arguing, as did the Pharisees in Judaism, that the keeping of the Law was an essential preparation for the coming of the kingdom. 

Paul does not argue for a Christian life without moral teaching or discipline, but he believes passionately that Christians must see their life as lived in response to the prior action of Jesus Christ on the cross and in the resurrection, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. The death and resurrection of Jesus, not the perfect keeping of the Law, are the fulfillment of its purpose. To deny this was to negate the centrality of Christ and of God’s grace offered to all through him.  It was, in effect, to subordinate Christ to the Law and not the Law to Christ.  Jesus may be a great teacher of the Law; he may be a great prophet sent to recall people to God’s law; but if that is all, then he is merely another human being and cannot make the crucial difference to the human situation which Paul sees in Jesus.

For Paul, this Gospel of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, of the purposes of God seen in the scriptures of the Old Covenant; of that universal scope which we hear in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple he has built in Jerusalem:

When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name  –  for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm   – when a foreigner comes and prayers towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel.  

We hear the prayer of one such foreigner addressed to Jesus in the Gospel.  The centurion is a Gentile, perhaps in service to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, or to Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea.

We have here an example of Luke’s practice of relating parallel events from the life of Jesus and the life of the early Church.  Similar to this passage is the story of Cornelius in Acts 10, which we heard about in Eastertide:  “a centurion of the Italian cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.”  He sends for Peter who is persuaded to respond and then to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this Gentile and his household.  When he gets back to Jerusalem, he has to defend his own conduct in accepting the hospitality of Gentiles to the leaders of the Church there. Such a thing was not permitted for devout Jews.  Both stories foreshadow the mission to the Gentiles which unfolds in Acts. They provide an authoritative precedent for that mission in the ministry of Jesus himself.

The centurion in the gospel is presented in a positive light: in his concern for the well-being of his slave; his friendship towards the Jews; his trust in Jesus.  He was probably one of those attracted to Judaism by its moral quality but who had not taken the final steps of becoming a Jew. His patronage would establish a relationship with the beneficiaries, requiring mutual support from them.  The elders are fulfilling this obligation by speaking on his behalf to Jesus. They convey and support his request:  “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

Throughout his ministry, we see Jesus impressed by the faith of people and granting their wishes to benefit a third party.  The slave did not have to believe in the power of Jesus to be healed; that was not a requirement for the cure, for Jesus, it is sufficient that there is faith in the community – that faith can help and uplift others. That is why we pray for one another and for many others who may not even know we are praying for them.

Jesus sees no problem in granting the centurion’s request and sets off with the elders to the man’s house, only to be met by another delegation of the man’s friends.  Knowing that a Jewish religious teacher might not want to risk ritual defilement by entering the house of a Gentile, he has told them to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself , for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

Although the elders had vouched for the centurion’s worthiness, he declares that he is not worthy either to have Jesus enter his house or to come directly to him. 

Furthermore, he believes that it is not necessary for Jesus to come to the house.  He can simply speak the word. The centurion draws an analogy between Jesus’ command and his own experience as a military officer.  He works in a chain of command, his commands are effective. He has authority in his own context, but now he needs help. He assumes that because Jesus is set under God’s authority and acknowledges it, he can command with God’s authority in healing.   He recognizes authority because he has doubly experienced it: both being under the authority of his superiors and having soldiers under his own.

Hearing this, Jesus is amazed.  He responds with strong words of praise: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  Jesus is not denying that there is faith in Israel. He assumes that faith should be found there.  But the centurion’s faith is extraordinary, and is found where one would not expect it, in a Gentile soldier.  

Luke was not writing in a vacuum, but in the context of the Jewish War which led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. In its aftermath, it would have been difficult for Jews and Gentiles to feel any mutual sympathy or trust.  We know how difficult it is in our own day to build trust between communities which have been at enmity: Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland; the descendants of slaves and slave-owners in the United States; Serb, Croat and Muslim in the Balkans; Muslim, Christian and Jew in the Middle East.

Gentiles would understand Luke’s story as an invitation to share in the community of Jesus and the reign of God.  Even soldiers in the service of Rome and its client rulers may share in the benefits of Jesus.

It also challenges both Gentiles and Jews to show faith equal to the centurion’s.  The fact that he and Jesus never meet is important in two ways:

1. The centurion anticipates all those believers yet to come who have not seen Jesus but who have believed his word as having the power of his presence:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,”  as Jesus says to Thomas in John’s Gospel  ( John 20.27).  Such faith is not disadvantaged, as though it were secondhand or belief at a distance, something of major importance to those of us who believe in Jesus Christ in another time and another place. The word of Christ, effective and present to faith in all times and places, creates and sustains the Church.

2.  The centurion’s contact with Jesus is through two sets of intermediaries, some Jewish, some Gentile. The two dramatize his situation as a bridge between two worlds, Jew and Gentile, believing in the God who is God of both and trusting that the word of Jesus had the power to cross any barriers between the two.  The time would come when missionaries would take the word into the Gentile world (Acts 1.8); Simon Peter himself would, reluctantly and with the prodding of the Spirit, enter a centurion’s house, preach, baptize, and break bread with gentiles (Acts 10).  But that story is yet to unfold; Luke is moving the reader in that direction.  The healing of the centurion’s servant not only anticipates that story but begins and authorizes it by the healing word of Christ. Paul is determined to oppose anything which reverses that outward direction of travel.