Outside In!

June 2, 2013

Icon, centurion

Ordinary 9. Proper 4C

1 Kings 8,22-23 & 41-43; Galatians 1,1-12; Luke 7, 1-10

Last weekend there were a number of demonstrations against Islamic extremism in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich the previous Wednesday. There was a march through the centre of London on Bank Holiday Monday organised by the English Defence League and also in Newcastle on Saturday and York on Sunday. These came after 10 mosques around the country had been subject to arson or graffiti attacks and there had been a further 193 anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police.

In Newcastle , a prominent Muslim political and social commentator, Mo Ansar, confronted the EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, but at the end of their discussion was photographed with a smile on his face, being hugged by the person whose policies he opposes. For this he was criticised by many Muslims and anti-fascists, for compromising with the promotors of prejudice and evil. When they learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque in York, its leaders decided to have an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussion, and played an impromptu game of football with some of them. The Archbishop of York praised them for meeting anger and hatred with peace and warmth.

In each of these incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat a non-believer, and those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’. They opened themselves up to them and invited them to become, in some sense, ‘insiders’.

This is the message that we are meant to hear from our Bible readings today.

The passage from 1 Kings is part of the description of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. Unlike the later Temple, built after the exile and expanded by Herod the Great, the first Temple did not have different courts and barriers to keep Gentiles and women away from the central sanctuary. Solomon’s speech showed that he hoped his magnificent Temple would become a place of prayer to the one true God for people of every nation. Its magnificence would draw people to become insiders.

In the reading from the letter to the Galatians, we hear one half of a correspondence between Paul and the church he established in Galatia, which consisted largely of Gentiles.

After he had left, it seems, Jewish Christians visited the churches, and insisted that, before they could truly become Christians, the pagan converts had to subject themselves to Jewish ceremonial law, including, in the case of male converts, circumcision. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome as a Christian through the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

The challenge to treat all people as insiders in the name of Jesus is brought out most strongly in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant, which we heard in today’s Gospel. This was clearly an important story to the early Christian community; there are slightly different versions of it in three of the four gospels (Matthew, John and Luke).

The centurion was in more than one way an outsider for Jesus and his companions. He was a Gentile; entering his house, eating with him, having any physical contact with him or his possessions would have rendered an observant Jew ceremonially unclean. He would not have been allowed to approach the holiest part of the Jerusalem temple; he would have been confined to the outer Court of the the Gentiles.

Then, he was a Roman soldier, a representative of the hated enemy that was occupying the sacred land of the Jews. There had been a large military presence in Galilee since the uprising that followed the death of Herod the Great in Jesus’s early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’s fellow Galileans. The rebellion centred on Sepphoris, four miles north of Jesus’s home town of Nazareth. After the rebellion was crushed, Sepphoris was razed to the ground and its inhabitants taken into slavery. Roman legions remained in the area to deter any further rebellion, and the centurion was part of this army of occupation; it is possible the slave was a Jewish child, taken into slavery after the rebellion.

Any Zealot would have taken the first opportunity to kill the centurion. Religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.

Third, the anxiety and effort which the centurion expended over the healing of his slave implies that the relationship between them was more than that of master/servant. This was something that was quite accepted in Roman society; but the Jews saw such homosexual relationships  as evidence of the depravity of Roman society and further proof of its alliance with evil.

Yet the centurion did not act like an outsider. He did not keep the usual distance between occupier and occupied. He did not automatically treat every member of the subject people as a potential terrorist. It is possible that he was a “God-fearer’, a Gentile who was attracted to the ethical teaching of Judaism, but who would not go the whole way and become a convert. Luke reports he had paid for the construction of the synagogue, and he was friendly enough with the elders to ask them to approach Jesus on his behalf. He was sensitive to Jewish religious beliefs – although he wrapped it up in comparisons between his own authority and that of Jesus, his second message was designed to avoid placing Jesus in the position of becoming unclean by entering a Gentile house.

And although he was a member of the occupying power, he asked for help from a Jewish holy man. He treated him with respect, using the honourable title ‘Lord’. This was an amazing act of humility – equivalent to a member of the British Raj asking for help from a Hindu Sadhu or a colonial official in Africa approaching a witch doctor.

The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions to risk making himself ritually unclean to help, and commended his faith as being greater than that of any insider.

This story anticipates the inclusion of Gentiles inside the community of the redeemed that we read about in Paul’s letters and the book of Acts.  It highlights the irony, that the Jewish leaders failed to recognise the authority of Jesus – but  a Gentile outsider did, and was commended for it. In the end, the healing of the servant was not important. The important thing is the greater healing proclaimed in this miracle – the healing of the barriers against a hated and excluded group, who are now included.

The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: the wrong religion, the wrong nationality, the wrong sexuality.

Our world today seems to revel in dividing itself into hostile groups based on many different characteristics. We love to label people according to their race, colour, religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, location within the country, political affiliation, and so on and so on; and give that as a reason to justify competition, conflict and exclusion. Even locally, even within one faith, we can separate ourselves from others on the basis of differences of interpretation of faith and churchmanship.

Today the scriptures challenge us to reject the worldly way of building up our own ‘insider’ identity by hostility to those we label ‘outsiders’. It tells us that, to the God revealed in Jesus, there are no outsiders. God is the God of all people and all creation, both those who worship as we do, and those who don’t, those who identify themselves as believers and those who don’t. Our Spirit inspired mission is to invite the turn the world outside in, to invite the outsider in and offer acceptance and healing, knowing that in the all encompassing love of God, there are no outsiders.

Whose side are you on?

January 9, 2011

(Isaiah 42, 1-9; Matthew 3,13-17)

Has anyone ever said to you “Whose side are you on?” It usually happens when you are involved in a discussion, and you make a point which demonstrates that the issue is less clear cut, less ‘black and white’ than other people thought.

 

Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the Jewish nation in exile that he is on their side. It may not seem like it to them. After the glory days of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom had split in two, and first the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been defeated and overrun and their elites deported to a foreign land. This was explained by the prophets as God’s punishment for their lack of loyalty to the Covenant.

 

But through second Isaiah, God proclaims that he is going to do something new. He is going to restore them to their position as his people, renew the covenant with them,  and make them a light to the whole world. There will be no doubt that he is on their side. But he is going to do it in an unexpected way. They might expect God to send them a warrior King, who will defeat their enemies and establish their dominance by force of arms. But the King God will send will be a Servant, whose main task will be to bring God’s justice to the world.

 

He will do so in gentleness. He won’t make a great fuss about it, or be high-handed or brutal. His way will be so gentle that it wouldn’t break a bent reed or snuff out a lamp. Both of these metaphors tell us God’s servant will have a special care for those people the rest of society thinks useless or unimportant. A bent reed was no use to make a pen for writing, or for building with; all that could be done with it was to break it and use it for fuel. A dimly burning wick was worse than useless,it was a danger. As it burned towards is end,it grew dim, and the wick could break and fall onto the rush covered floor,causing a fire; the only safe thing to do would be to extinguish it. But God’s servant would do neither. He would bring liberty, teaching and the rule of God not just to the Jewish nation, but to the furthest ends of the earth.

 

Though his way would be gentle, he wouldn’t be ineffective or weak, because he would be sustained by the strength of the God who created the earth and gave life to all humanity. God had chosen the Servant and God delighted in him. He was to be sent to do God’s work on earth.

 

Isaiah didn’t identify who God’s Servant was. It could be he was speaking of an individual. It could be he was referring to the Jewish nation, or a faithful remnant of them.  It is clear that the gospel writers identified Jesus as the Servant, since there are constant references to the Servant Songs of Isaiah in their writings. So when we hear the Servant Songs, we hear them as referring to Jesus and his ministry. But they could equally refer to anyone who does God’s work of bringing justice into the world. They refer to those who are on God’s side, as God is on theirs.

 

The Hebrew word for justice means so much more than our contemporary English word. ‘Zedakah’ means much more than doing things according to the law; it goes well beyond retributive justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth)  or equal application of the law. In the Old Testament it is frequently paired with the words for compassion and grace. Justice is equivalent to righteousness, and loving-kindness, which show a particular concern for the defenceless, the sick and the vulnerable, and which are characteristics of God,.

 

In New Testament Greek, too, the same word, dikaiosune, can be translated as integrity, virtue, charity, piety, godliness, righteousness, justice. This is the word which Jesus uses when he answers John the Baptist’s objections to baptising him. he thereby affirms that he sees his ministry as doing God’s will, and as applying God’s standards of justice.

 

His baptism is affirmed by the descent of the Spirit (the spirit which Isaiah prophesied would be given to God’s Servant) and by the voice from Heaven, which proclaims (again, like the Servant) that God delights in him. In Matthew’s version, the message is addressed not just to Jesus, but to everyone. It is a proclamation that he is on God’s side, and God is on his.

 

Righteousness and justice are particularly important in Matthew’s Gospel. In his birth story, he says that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This did not mean that Joseph simply kept the rules; if he had done so, he would have denounced Mary and had her punished when he found out she was pregnant. On the contrary, he went against the rules, shielding her from punishment by resolving to divorce her quietly; and then standing up against public opinion by marrying her and adopting her son as his own. Like the Servant, he was strong but compassionate.

 

Righteousness also features twice in the Beatitudes, as a human characteristic which will bring blessing from God. For Matthew, this is a defining characteristic of the Christian community, the followers of Christ, those who have made the choice to be on his side. Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, presents his readers with the necessity of making that choice before it is too late.

 

His baptism by John in the Jordan is shown in the Gospels as the moment when Jesus made public his commitment to work for God’s justice and righteousness. John the Baptist proclaimed the same standards; he rejected the approaches of the Sadducees and Pharisees because they didn’t really understand how far their understanding fell short of what that meant. Jesus later said that his followers must have a higher concept of righteousness than those of the religious elite: unless their idea of righteousness and justice exceeded that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, they would not enter God’s Kingdom.

(Matt 5.20).

 

Our baptism is the moment when we decide, and make public whose side we are on. We are called to recognise who Jesus is, and to follow him in doing what he did. We promise, as he did,  to do God’s will, and to be God’s faithful servants for the whole of our earthly lives.

 

For some of us, that commitment was made for us when we were infants; but we take responsibility for it ourselves when we are confirmed, and every time we re-affirm our baptismal vows, and every time we have to make a decision about how to act. Will we act in accordance with earthy standards of righteousness and justice – or in accordance with God’s standards?

 

It is very, very easy to forget what a radically different standard of righteousness baptism commits us to. It is all to easy to fall back into a less demanding definition, which simply asks that we keep the rules and accept the current definition of what is good or bad or the traditional interpretation of what it means to be righteous.

 

If we study it carefully, the Bible can open up to us the full richness and complexity of God’s standards of righteousness. The Bible can be interpreted in a restrictive, judgemental and negative way, reinforcing human concepts of righteousness, which teach , that only a few who consciously believe and don’t break any rules will be saved. Or it can reveal to us the full glory of the God who will go to any lengths to save even those who consciously reject his call: his judgement on human evil, yes, but also his compassion for human weakness and the repeated offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn to him in repentance and humility.

 

Christian baptism calls us to Live God’s Love (as the Bishop of St Albans has titled the current diocesan initiative). The Feast of the Baptism of Christ today is another chance for us to reconsider exactly what that means in our lives, and decide once again whose side we are on.