Sermon for Pentecost 2 Rev Canon Brian Hardy St Mary`s Cathedral 29 May 2016
Readings (Proper 9C): Galatians 1.1-12; Luke 7.1-10
Some years ago, when I was still distance cycling, I visited friends whose six-year-old son went enthusiastically to the local infant school, and had been carefully taught by his father how to get there safely on his little two wheeler bike. On my first morning there, after breakfast, the little boy said: “I’m going to school on my bike. You come with me. I’ll show you the way.” We duly set off, and, just to make sure that I made no stupid mistakes, I was given a non-stop running commentary on the route, being shown exactly where and how we had to cross each road. At every traffic light we had to wait until we could see the little green man, even though sometimes it took a long time for him to appear. After many twists and turns we arrived at the school, where the boy parked his steed and began to lock it to a miniature cycle rack. Just then he spotted a little pal and ran after him, laughing and shouting happily. Suddenly, just as they were about to go together into the building, he remembered that I had come with him and might still be at the gate somewhere. He turned to look. “Now you can go!” He shouted, and disappeared. I made my way back to his parents` house, marvelling at the boy’s total identification with his father’s authority and the ease with which he unquestioningly repeated it. “Now you can go!” was a statement every bit as authoritative as the instructions the boy had learned from his father.
The exercise of authority, and its attendant quality responsibility, is an essential feature of human society, even though, when it is exercised, it may frequently be challenged – as I am sure every parent knows only too well. In the Palestine of Jesus` day, the Roman army of occupation faced frequent challenge and resistance. The officer of whom we heard in the Gospel reading was well acquainted with the issues surrounding the exercise of authority. He was plainly a cultured person, aware of being a foreigner in a strange land with a culture different from his own. He was making it his business to familiarise himself with that culture, its religious aspect included, and as he did so, he found himself warming to it, even allowing himself to become a benefactor. Clearly he was a man of parts, and of broad sympathies, known by the locals for his openness. So it is perhaps not surprising that, when his trusted servant became ill, the locals came to hear of it Perhaps the servant was himself one of them. Might it be that the rabbi from Nazareth, known to have healing powers and who happened to be in the area at the time, could help? Jesus is found and agrees to come, though no one knows whether, as a Jew, he would be able to enter the house of a Gentile foreigner, especially one belonging to the army of occupation. But before speculation can take hold, the soldier takes the initiative. If Jesus is the person he is described to be, then clearly he has the ability and the authority to exercise his powers from where he is. No need at all for him to come out of his way specially.
So, in the hands of our Gospel writer, a story about the sick servant of a foreign soldier becomes a story about the authority of the healer, the one in whom the kingdom or rule of God can be seen to be bursting in upon the world of human suffering and sorrows. The foreign soldier who senses and responds to this becomes the means by which the story-teller is able to present the rabbi from Nazareth as a figure on the world stage. In him the kingdom or reign of God can be seen to come close, not just to people of Jewish faith but to humanity as a whole. It is not an accident that the Jesus who manifests the transforming effects of the reign of God upon the sufferings and disabilities of his own people is acknowledged by a foreign soldier who requests his assistance on behalf of a servant. The reign of God, with all its renewing energy, comes to meet the whole of humanity, regardless of all self-protective distinctions and barriers. It is precisely such barriers and distinctions that prompted the fiercest resistance to the rabbi from Nazareth, who not only proclaims the closeness of the reign of God but in his own person embodies it. His authority derives from the fact that, in him, the messenger and the message are one. It is hardly surprising that it is those who have power in their own hands who feel most acutely threatened. Hardly surprising either is their determination to remove the dangerous messenger by engineering his death.
Two thousand years on, we find ourselves gathering at an altar which not only recalls that death, but also celebrates the restorative reign of God by which Jesus lives out of his death. We are drawn into the presence of the God who not only creates but also re-creates. Our tentative, often timid, faith draws new strength, new heart, in the presence of the One who makes all things new. To our astonishment and near disbelief we are offered, quietly and undramatically, the food of the new creation which, like the reign of God itself, is closer to us than we dare believe.