Sunday 18th January 2015, Epiphany 2, evening

Matthew 8:5-13

by Revd Chris Palmer

‘When Jesus heard the centurion, he was amazed and said… “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.’

I love the picture of Jesus being amazed: the idea that God, grace, the world could take Jesus by surprise.  It reminds us that although we profess Jesus to be Son of God, this doesn’t mean he knew everything or emerged from the womb fully aware of all God planned for him. Jesus discovers God’s grace in and for Gentiles.  Brought up in a traditional Jewish setting, taught that his own race were the chosen people, the God of Israel the one true God, and the temple, the law, and the land the peculiar gift of God to the Jewish people, Jesus could be excused for being blinkered.  He heard God’s vocation to announce the kingdom of God, but assumed this was a message for Israel. We see it most clearly in the famous story of his encounter with the syro-phoenician woman.  ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel… it is not right to take the children’s bread and through it to the dogs’  In the end she teaches Jesus that faithfulness to the God of Israel is found in outsiders.

The story we heard about the centurion is just the same: Jesus is taught by the centurion that Gentiles, even hated, occupying Roman forces, could be faithful to Israel’s God.

We may be shocked that this takes Jesus by surprise.  After all the story of the New Testament after Jesus is all about the Gospel being proclaimed to Gentiles, and them entering the kingdom simply on the basis of faith in Jesus, not because they observe the Jewish requirement to keep the Sabbath and circumcise sons. This matter dominates the letters of Paul and the book of Acts. It was the question of the day – the equivalent of our rows about women bishops of gay relationships. 

But they only needed to have this row because the place of Gentiles in the community of Jesus was not clearly established during Jesus’ own ministry.  So it’s not surprising that the faithfulness of Gentiles takes Jesus by surprise.  Paul’s eloquent rhetoric, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ is easy to quote, but was an insight reached through much heartache, hard words, and bitter recriminations in the earliest church.

And it’s a message that’s apt for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – because it reorientates our understanding of Christian unity. What I want you to notice is this: Paul’s statement of unity, ‘all are one in Christ Jesus’, is an affirmation of the oneness of humanity – no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. When we talk about Christian unity, we are not primarily talking about members of the Christian ‘club’ getting along together; we are talking about members of the human race discovering their common humanity, acknowledging that despite all differences we belong together – and believing that this unity of humanity is embodied for the world in those who profess Christ: ‘all are one in Christ Jesus’

This is the main thing I want to say tonight: Church unity means the unity of humanity embodied in the the church. And for the church to bear witness to this, means losing the defensiveness and pride that are so often a mark of propping up the ‘club’.  Jesus is brilliant in this way.  Just think back to the syro-phoenecian woman for a moment, if you can remember that story.  Jesus repeats the orthodoxy that Jews are the children and Gentiles the dogs, seemingly to maintain his own honour as a male Jew in front of other male Jews. But in the end he throws in his hand when he’s raised the stakes high to hand the honour to the Gentile woman and accepts humiliation himself.

The story of the centurion is not quite so startling, but we still see Jesus ready to learn, to be teachable, to embrace outsiders, to see how God’s work is so larger than his own perspective.  Having recognised the centurion’s faith he goes on, ‘I tell you, many will come from East and West and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom…’  Where we might be tempted to play hurt, affronted, defensive, at the preumption of a pagan oppressor, Jesus was ready to see his request as a sign of God’s bigger purpose.

I think this perspective challenges how we live, how we are church, and how western nations act on the world stage.

What about the way we live each day? I saw it written recently that people who instinctively trust others are happier than those whose instinct is to distrust. True, to be wary might save us being taken advantage of once in a while.  But this occasional upside is bought at the expense of daily suspicion, anxiety, and mistrust that is wearing on the soul. Jesus could usually sniff out the hypocrites – nearly always the religious insiders – and he wasn’t afraid to name their hypocrisy; but he was also ready to trust those that no one else would give the time of day to. And this brought tremendous wholeness to Gentile soldiers, tax collectors, vulnerable women, and lepers – and to himself.

I’ve heard two stories from members of the congregation about trusting strangers recently – I can’t really repeat them, but in one case it worked out well, in the other it didn’t.  That’s a reminder that adopting an open attitude towards people doesn’t guarantee our earthly well-being, but it is, I think, the only path to true God’s wholeness.  Jesus kept his openness even on the cross; he prayed for the soldiers crucifying him, ‘Father, forgive them: they don’t know what they are doing.’ He put their cruelty down to ignorance rather than malice.

Then there’s the church. I think the church is often very bad at trusting and embracing difference. Certainly the recent history of the Anglican church suggests we’re more bothered about holding the club together than we are about affirming to unity of humanity in relation to gender and sexuality.  I’m rather hoping that the Church of England’s ridiculous attitude towards gay relationships is like Jesus with the syro-phoenecian woman: we’re setting ourselves up for a humiliating climb down, which will in the long run make us more humble and open to God’s grace, and bring healing to others in the process. Watch this space.

But there are stories of Christian faith inspiring openness to those who are different. A member of my last congregation was a volunteer with EAPPI – a programme run by Quakers to post western observers in Palestinian villages and at checkpoints between Palestinian territory and Israeli territory. They went unarmed into an area that was a battleground between different religious and ethnic groups – ready to trust and bear witness to trustworthiness in a context of huge suspicion.

Maybe most acutely at present the question of the unity of humanity and trusting others is begged by terrorist attacks and security threats. Those who engage in terrorist violence are goading others to become fearful and guarded, violent or aggressive in response, and to make claims of cultural superiority or national entitlement which become the premise for further attacks. The ‘christian’ response should be a refusal to play this game. To remain trustful and open in dialogue, to eschew violent words or actions that merely turn up the temperature, to ensure that we remain humble about the good of western values or liberal democracy so that we can engage in creative conversations.

One aspect of humility is to own that we can’t control outcomes or ‘win’ even in the face of evil. But humility stands a better chance than arrogance of leading to a hopeful future. The disaster of Western hubris in trying to ‘fix’ Iraq should be a lesson for generations; I fear we’ll forget.

One of Jesus’ most brilliant insights – repeated again and again – is that the faith of the other is healing. He says to the Centurion, ‘Go; let it be done according to your faith’, or to others, ‘Your faith has made you well.’  I could sum this sermon up like this.  We’re always tempted to say, ‘My faith is good news for you; let me impress it on you.’  But Jesus teaches us to say, ‘Your faith is good news for you and for me. And is the beginning of trust between us.’