Today across the country and around the commonwealth there are celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Hers has been a quite remarkable example of public service for which we rightly give thanks.
As we look back over those years the one thing which I guess we can all agree on is that we have witnessed enormous change. One thing we could point to for instance is the way we have become a much more diverse nation than we were. And we could illustrate this by pointing not just to the arrival in these shores of people from the European Union and elsewhere but the range of values and faiths that are now held among us. And all of these have brought with them both richness and particular tensions.
The essential challenge I think is that whilst there are indeed many reasons to take pride in this diversity, sometimes along the way it feels as though we have lost sight of the core things, the essential values we wish to hold in common. Now, I`m well aware that this is a huge debate, my point is simply to note that it seems as though we have moved from a place whereas by and large, `things Christian` -for want of a better phrase- were taken for granted as the unifying values of our land there now seems to be far less clarity or certainty about what we all hold in common.
And this is illustrated by the rather subtle way in the media `Christians` now are singled out as a distinct community within the nation or the appearance of recent newspaper articles inviting us to debate what the next Coronation service might look like and what values, religious or otherwise, should be represented there.
In short I`m suggesting that we don`t have to look very far to see symptoms of a certain dis-ease. On the one hand, in the life of the nation it appears we`re not sure what really binds us together and on the other Christians seem to be in a position where we need to re-imagine our place as those called to serve here.
So with this background I want to offer you three things to reflect on based on our Gospel reading this morning.
Today we are told of the Centurion, whose slave was close to death. And some Jewish elders came to Jesus on his behalf. And I think these elders give us the first pointer as to our role in these changing times.
Firstly, look at what they did. They came to Jesus with this man`s concerns on their heart. In other words, they `interceded` for him. What we have here is a picture prayer- and this I`m suggesting is our calling; our distinctive offering. Yes, we want people to come to a sense that they can come before the Lord independently of others such as us. But for those like that Gentile Centurion – who don`t feel themselves to be part of the community of faith, it`s strangely helpful to have someone to whom they can say, “Say one for me”.
In that reading, we`re simply told that the elders “Came to Jesus and appealed to him earnestly…” Well, I say again, this is our distinctive contribution. Whatever else is going on this is our core business. Just take a look at some of the prayer slips which appear on our intercessions board each week. And I am always moved each year at our Crib service where people leave their heart-felt Christmas prayers. We have a great task here.
So firstly, we might ponder- who are we praying for at the moment? Who might you offer to pray for?
Secondly, I wonder if you noticed, they came to Jesus with a really warm regard for this man. This Centurion clearly was quite exceptional. Especially when we remember he represented a brutal occupying army. But my point is that they don`t say anything to Jesus about his theology, or what he believes. Their reason for commending him to Jesus his how generous and decent he has been with them. They just report his self-evident goodness.
And this is the second thing. They simply celebrated this goodness. St. John tells us, `God is love, and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them”. His simple point is that no matter what a person may profess about faith or otherwise, when they `love` God is there. Now I know this point irritates atheists enormously. But this is what we are about. Drawing attention to presence of God and celebrating it. There is no distinction to make as if there were a particularly `Christian` goodness and some other sort. And it`s rather churlish when some Christians imply that there is. No, God is present in all; in all acts of goodness, kindness and compassion and whenever we see them, it`s our job to say- “That`s what we mean”.
This is what Jesus does when he turns to someone and says- “You are not far from the Kingdom of God”. He`s not saying the person is the finished article but he`s encouraging them on the way and so should we.
So firstly, I`m suggesting that in these diverse times we are called to be a prayerful presence. And secondly we`re called be an affirming presence. But let`s also take a look at what happens next in that story. Jesus agrees to go to the Centurions house but we`re told: “he sent friends 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. And then we`re told that “When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’”
This is fascinating. Somehow Jesus seems to be holding up the Centurion as an example of something the faithful either haven`t grasped- or have perhaps forgotten. Somehow the Centurion has something that means the people of Israel have to pull their socks up.
Now, one way in which parts of the Christian family have reacted to the changes of recent years is to what I call `circle the wagons`. Parts of the Christian family have become more rigorous or doctrinaire. And this is an essentially defensive posture. It paints the world in black and white- as a place to escape from; and the sooner God completes the rescue the better!
This, I know it`s a caricature, but my point is that this tendency is really challenged by this incident with the Centurion. Because this is a moment where the `outsider` puts the people of God on their mettle. And this is what Jesus commends him for.
So what does this reach us? Well, you see, this Centurion- using his analogy about being under authority- recognises the significance of Jesus. He almost instinctively seems to know how a person of faith should regard and respond to him. He shows humility and a reverence for his word. He says “Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof… but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed”. So I`m wondering whether all the change and diversity we are experiencing –far from being dark and scary and a time a time to defensively circle the wagons- is actually God`s moment with us?
I remember some years ago going to the bedside of someone who was dying. I`d not met the family before. The phone call came out of the blue. When I arrived at the bedside as you might expect I tried to discover how things were and establish some rapport with them. I took this as essential before I would offer to pray with them. Maybe it was their nervousness and anxiety. Maybe it was mine. Or maybe I spent a little too long on this pre-amble but I recall one member of the family jumping in with, “Well, come on Vicar, say a prayer with us”.
Even allowing, as I say, for a highly charged situation I`ve never forgotten that moment because it was curiously affirming of me. They were telling me what I was there for: “Well, this is what you`re here for- say a prayer”.
And you don`t have to wear a strange collar to experience this. The point I`m making is that the diverse context in which we live is not all negative towards the Christian Faith. Even some of the extremely negative coverage we get in the press- (which is often justified it must be said) is negative precisely because the wider world expects better of us. Sometimes it seems they know what we`re here for better than we do. So can I invite you to ponder this changing context in which we find ourselves. Far from being a time to circle the wagons defensively, or bemoaning what it seems we have lost I`m suggesting that we`re being given a chance to think about our distinctive contribution.
This Gospel passage before us invites us to answer a call to pray for those around us and to be an affirming presence. And it also opens our eyes to the surprises in store. It`s not all negative out there. And that almost instinctive faith of the Centurion reminds us that sometimes those of us who regard ourselves as closer to the action sometimes lose sight of important things. There are people out there who like the Centurion have a way of bringing us up to the mark. Of reminding us of things we neglect or forget. His humility before Christ and reverence for his Words of Christ is a good place to start.