and from Luke’s Gospel: Chapter 7:1-10
The passage we’ve just heard from the Gospel today is much more striking than it may at first seem. It’s easy to read this as a miracle story and point to how wonderful Jesus is, without grasping another, deeper meaning, which shows just how much MORE wonderful Jesus is, than we might have thought!
I wonder how you feel when you hear the name, soldier? Does this image conjure up affirmative or negative feelings for you?
My view is a positive one. My own father served for 23 years in the British Army and he remained every bit the soldier, even in civilian life. When he talked of his comrades, it was only to speak of their courage, persistence, determination and other, (knightly) virtues. He believed that soldiers were there to serve their country and bring relief and liberation to the oppressed. He didn’t express himself that way; he pointed to specific instances like the liberation of Bergen/Belsen in the Second World War and to the Berlin Air-lift just after it, (in which he took part). He saw soldiers as ‘the good guys’ and the British soldier was the best of the best. I loved my Dad and I knew from living with him, day in, day out, that he always strived to be his best – so it’s not surprising that I think positively of soldiers.
I know though, that for many people, the word soldier holds fear. To live in one’s own country under an occupying force is beyond my experience, but I can easily imagine how frightening it is. Week by week we pray for our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who live with this very reality.
The words we’ve heard this morning come to us from people who are living against the backdrop of occupation. Jesus, rabbi; teacher; healer meets with messengers from a Roman Centurion. The Roman Army was an army of ‘might is right.’ That is, their armies would march into a country and demand allegiance at the point of a sword. Fall into line, or die – that was pretty much the choice. For many years the Roman Empire had ruled over the lives of peoples they had first conquered in this way. One might argue, (and I dare say the Romans did), that by the time of Jesus, their role had become one of administration and peace-keeping – pushing it, in my view; but every side has its story. I think we can be fairly sure though that the Jewish people longed for a time when Rome would be defeated and Israel would be restored to its former glory. But Luke, and the other Gospel writers, often portrays soldiers in a much more positive light. I suppose this should not be surprising since Jesus himself exhorts us to love our enemies – surely the hardest of all Christian teachings?
In this passage, Jesus, goes to Capernaum and he is met with a delegation from a Roman Centurion whose servant is sick. The messengers explain to Jesus that this gentile soldier knows that Jesus’ intervention will heal the sick man. But as Jesus prepares to go to meet with him, he receives another message telling him that the soldier is so sure of Jesus’ command against the dark powers, (of sin and sickness), that all he need do is say the word. The soldier expresses his belief that he, himself is not worthy to receive Jesus. He is a soldier amongst soldiers, with an established hierarchy. He receives and obeys the orders given to him and he, in turn, orders his own troops to do his bidding. In his world, this is how things work. In Jesus, he sees a great commander whose orders are obeyed by powers which cannot be quelled by human force.
Jesus finds himself amazed at this man – a gentile whose understanding and faith is greater than any he has ever encountered. This encounter restores one man to health and opens the gate to a better understanding of the “foreigner.”
It just so happens that I was presented with a brilliant illustration of some of these themes when I listened to the radio this morning. On Radio 4’s Sunday program I heard two items, that lit up this passage for me.
The first was an interview with the Bishop of Bangor, (North Wales), Andrew John. The presenter asked him how, (or indeed, if), the church could help the family of April Jones find a way to cope with the dreadful events that took her life and come to a place of healing and hope at some time in the future. The Bishop stressed that there was no quick fix and that no one should be hurried into ‘closure’. People need time to grieve, after all. What he did offer though, was the church, as part of the community can help to find and celebrate the ‘good’ that happens in community and in so doing, demonstrate that light will always overcome darkness. That’s the gist of it anyway – I hope I haven’t done the Bishop a disservice!
That item was later followed by one about a synagogue in Bradford, (Yorkshire). Back about 50 years ago, the synagogue was thriving. Many, many Jews had found refuge in the U.K from the Nazi regime and found new homes in Bradford, where they set up businesses and got on with building new lives and contributing to the diversity and culture of the city. In those days, we heard, the synagogue was so busy, they had to put out extra chairs in the aisles. Today though, only about 10-15 people turn up for services – sounds familiar to us in the Christian church doesn’t it? (This question is primarily for the U.K followers – it may well be a different story where you are). This means, of course, that the synagogue resources are not what they once were and when the roof began to let in the rain – and oh, how it rains in the U.K – the community were at a loss to know how they were to pay for the repairs.
Now, Bradford is still a diverse and multi-cultural city. There is a large Muslim presence and when some of the Muslim community got to hear of their neighbour’s difficulties, they decided to help and pay for a new roof. Wow! Jews and Muslims? Really? This is a wonderful good news story – a real illustration of what the Bishop meant when he said we should celebrate those stories that show that light will always overcome darkness. But as we celebrate this as a good news story – let’s think about what it might mean to the bigger picture of Jewish- Muslim relations. Supposing you’ve grown up and spent all your life in Jerusalem or Gaza. All your life you have heard stories about Jews and Muslims and you will, doubtless, have formed a very negative opinion of one or the other, (depending on your own ethnicity). Now, you hear this story about a synagogue in far-away Bradford. What does it mean for you? Does it actually cause a tiny chink of light to shine? If you’ve only heard ‘dark’ things about the other, what does it mean to see the light?
I think Jesus’ encounter, (by proxy), with the soldier was one of those ‘chinks of light’ which shines through the ages to remind us of the importance of loving our enemies.
Again in the Sunday program, there was a report on the increased ‘hate’ incidents aimed at Muslims in the U.K, following the recent murder of soldier, Lee Rigby, by extremists, two weeks ago. As well as ‘hate crimes’ like car-keying; fire-bombing mosques and public name calling, it seems that people have taken to social networks like Facebook and Twitter to vent their spleen. Lee Rigby’s family, on the other hand have appealed for calm and have stated that Lee had friends from widely diverse cultural backgrounds and would not have condoned any of this vile behaviour. Their love for Lee shines out against the darkness of hatred.
So, we begin and end with a soldier. Not the likeliest image to stand beside the Prince of Peace, but Jesus often stands with unlikely. Let us remember that Jesus came to be the light of the world and as the writer of John’s Gospel says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.” Amen.
By the way, after the service, several people, who had heard the Sunday broadcast came up to me and pointed out that at the end of the Bradford story, we heard that the Chairman of the synagogue, Rudi Lever was about to go on a short holiday and that, as he needed someone on whom he could rely to take care of things, he put the synagogue keys into the hands of his Muslim friend, Zolphi Kareem*.
* apologies if I’ve mis-spelled the names – I only heard them and didn’t see them written down.