Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Tale of Two Servants

The Centurion's Servant by Stanley Spencer
courtesy WikiArt. Original in Tate.
1 Kings 8.22-23, 41-43
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:
“LORD, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way....
“As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Luke 7:1-10 
When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum.  There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So And  Jesus went with them.
He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great  faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Lord – bless and make fruitful your word in our hearts. Bless what I say that is true, and correct my mistakes in the minds of these kind hearers. Amen.

May I first say how delighted I am that Revd Sarah Swift from Christian Healing Mission is with us taking the service. To preach on a healing miracle in her presence is a bit like preaching on the New Testament with Tom Wright in the congregation!

The Duke of Wellington had quite a way with words.  Someone came up to him in the street and, mistaking him for the painter George Jones, accosted him with “Mr Jones, I believe”
Wellington was not impressed. “Sir, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!”

Social norms of the time required that letters to gentlemen were concluded with elaborate expressions of courtesy, but on one occasion Wellington is reputed {I cannot find a reference to the actual letter} to have concluded a letter with:
    I remain, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant (Which you know damn well I’m not)
    Wellington.

So here we have, in Luke, a Tale of Two Servants. There is a slightly different account of the same incident in Matthew 8.5-13 and a similar incident  involving the son of a court official in John 4.46-54.

What has Jesus just been saying? “Judge not and you will not be judged”  “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit”  “Why do you call me Lord Lord and not do what I say?”

The region had been under Roman control since 63 BC when Pompey sacked Jerusalem. Julius Caesar appointed Antipater the Idumean as the first Roman Procurator, and his son Herod the Great was designated “King of the Jews” by the Senate. But when he died in 4BC his kingdom was divided between his 3 sons. Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee but his brother Herod Archelaus has been dismissed for incompetence by Augustus in 6AD after an appeal from the Jews so Judea had its own Roman Prefect, one Pontius Pilate. {This gives some additional insight into why Pilate was so concerned about the opinions of the Jewish leaders - they had got his predecessor deposed}.

There were two Roman legions in the region, this one was the 6th Ferrata founded in 58BC by Julius Caesar which was based in Megiddo (whose Greek name is Armageddon). Megiddo is about 31 miles SW of Capernaum, and about 13 miles SW of Nazareth. A Centurion commanded a Century of nominally 80-100 soldiers, so roughly a combination of a Sergeant Major and Captain/Lieutenant. Six Centuries made a Cohort and at full strength a Legion had 10 cohorts (about 5,000 men in total). There was a strict gradation of ranks of Centurion. The Centurion of the 1st Century in a Cohort was also the Cohort Commander, with the most senior centurion (the Primus Pilus) who commanded the 1st Century of the 1st Cohort also participating in war councils.  So when this centurion says he is “set under authority ” he is in a well established system with clearly defined rules. Commands must be obeyed and commands will be obeyed.

The Romans were the colonial power but at that time it was pretty light-touch.  Herod Antipas was in charge of Galilee and this centurion had endeared himself to the locals by using his troops to build a synagogue.  Note the echo of Solomon in our first reading who has built a temple.  And now his servant is ill. In Luke the word is doulos which means slave but in Matthew the centurion refers to his pais which means boy – it doesn’t imply that he’s his son and he’s almost certainly a slave but clearly a valued one.  Matthew tells us that he’s paralysed at home and in terrible distress.

The Centurion has sent Jewish Elders to Jesus who explain that he deserves special consideration.  He knows that Jewish Rabbis don’t normally go into gentile houses, and most rabbis might be reluctant to help the representative of an occupying power.  And Jesus goes with them. The NIV has “So Jesus went with them” but this is wrong – there is nothing in the Greek to suggest that Jesus came because they said the Centurion had built a synagogue”. They are the people of God bringing the healing power of God to a Gentile. Evidently the Centurion learns that Jesus is coming, and he then sends friends to give this remarkable message .  And the centurion’s words are repeated, in every Roman Catholic Eucharist: “Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”

So Luke shows us, early in Jesus ministry, how healing from Jesus comes to a gentile household, and how faith reaches this Gentile household even before Jesus comes. In Matthew’s account Jesus says at this point “Truly I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  An idea prefigured by Solomon praying for God to hear the prayers of foreigners.

I suppose I should just touch on the scientific aspect of this.  Some people used to say that healing miracles were “scientifically impossible” but we now have a much more realistic understanding of how little we really know scientifically about how the body reacts to disease. The immune system is far more powerful and complex than was previously supposed (one of the hottest areas in cancer therapy is in helping the patient’s immune system attack the cancerous cells better) and some of the links between the immune system and the nervous system are becoming clearer.  Under the right conditions stem cells can turn into any other cells in your body.  And if someone is paralysed and in terrible distress (the word is basanizomenos which means being tortured) there is very likely to be a neurological element. I think that almost all the time when God intervenes – for healing or other purposes – He makes things happen which are otherwise highly unlikely but which are not actually impossible according to the laws of physics. As Aslan famously says to Lucy “Do you think I break my own laws?”

I said earlier that this was a Tale of Two Servants. Because Jesus himself is a Servant. In Matthew 12.18 Matthew is clear that Jesus is the one prophesied by Isiah (42.1-4) “My servant who I have chosen” Pais (as LXX (though LXX has "Jacob is my servant") - the same word Matthew uses in his account and Jesus describes himself (Luke 22.27) as “one who serves” and says (Matthew 20.28, Mark 10.45) he came “not to be served but to serve” (though the word used is diakanos from which we get deacon) and strikingly in Mark 10.43-44 he says “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant (diakonos), and whoever would be first among you must be slave (doulos) of all”

So let’s identify three things that this means for us, today:
  1. Servant Leadership is absolutely fundamental. We are here to serve. For those of us in any form of leadership positions, our leadership must be servant leadership.  And the need for service is urgent.  However we look at it, the world is crying out for the healing power and love of Jesus Christ.  We have a world full of suffering and evil. Murderous fanatics killing in the name of a perverted interpretation of the one true God. Cynical people traffickers profiting from vast human misery. And here in the UK a nation which increasingly shrugs its shoulders and turns away from Christianity to a vapid mishmash and moral vacuum.
  2. We have the amazing privilege of Direct Access to God the Father through Jesus. We’ve become so familiar with this that we tend to forget how extraordinary it is. Powerful people are guarded by multiple layers of gatekeepers, and generally have to be approached through intermediaries.  The centurion knew how the world worked when he sent Jewish Elders to approach Jesus.   But we have the extraordinary privilege of being able to address God directly as our Father and knowing, by Jesus promise and for Jesus’ sake, that He hears our prayers. Let us be conscious of this privilege, use it, and use it wisely.
  3. Bringing the healing good news. The Centurion would never have sent to Jesus if he hadn’t heard about him. This was quite early in Jesus’ ministry, but someone must have told him about Jesus and the amazing things he was doing.  We have this awesome and urgent responsibility. Worldwide Christianity is growing rapidly. In China, which I visit often, there are now probably over 100M Christians – which is more than the number of members of the Communist Party. Even official sources put the number of baptisms as over 500k a year , and no-one knows how many members there are of the underground churches but it is certainly tens of millions.  Yet here in the UK we seem to be losing our religion with a shrug of indifference. We cannot stand idly by and let this happen.

    Maybe we can each think of one extra way in which we can contribute to this work, starting this week? Whether this is by prayer, speaking to people, increasing our financial contributions or by other means, God can and does use our time and talents to His glory.


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