The threat of the outsider

The Gospel for the Eucharist today (Luke 7.1-10) was a gift, as the lections always are.  I was preaching at Southwark Cathedral and afterwards a number of people asked me to get the sermon out more widely.  So this is my sermon from this morning.

In that notorious film ‘The Life of Brian’ there’s a scene in which the members of the Judean People’s, or was it the People’s of Judea, are plotting against the foreign occupying force. Reg, the leader, in order to inspire a bit of passion in his comrades, asks them what has now become a famous question ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ After an initial silence suggestions begin to come forward until Reg is forced to come out with the final version of his question.

‘All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

And still a lone voice answers ‘They’ve given us peace!’


What have the Romans ever done for us?


Capernaum was a prosperous town on the north bank of the Sea of Galilee and was where much of Jesus’ ministry was centred. It was close to the route that traders would’ve taken, there’d have been a good fishing industry from the lake and consequently it was a mixed, diverse and wealthy community. And amongst the Jews lived Romans and Jesus would’ve known them. He lived there, Peter lived there and pilgrims still visit the site of Peter’s house or more correctly Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, just across from the remains of the synagogue.

The gospel for today describes an event that took place in this town. Jesus has arrived back and as he enters some of the elders of the community approach him with a strange request. There’s a Roman centurion in the town who has a sick slave. Would Jesus heal him?

Just think for a moment what’s happening. This is a foreigner, a pagan, one of those oppressing, taxing and killing the people, subjecting them to the humiliation of occupation and here are the senior men of the town asking Jesus to cure his slave. These men were elders, so leaders of the community and leaders within the synagogue and they’re determined to make the case for why Jesus should perform this miracle.

‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ (v.4)

So this foreign, pagan soldier has become so much part of the community that he’s even built the place of worship, the place of gathering for the community. This is a remarkable guy. Jesus knew the synagogue, he’d taught in it and he’d make profound proclamations about his own nature within its walls, he’d performed a miracle of healing in it. He knew it.

So he goes with them. But whilst Jesus is on his way another set of messengers arrives. The Centurion feels uncomfortable. He feels unworthy. He recognises that Jesus is a great man and although he himself is powerful and obviously rich he doesn’t feel that he’s worthy to have Jesus in his house, under his roof. He says that was why he sent all these messengers – because he felt unworthy to approach Jesus himself. And then he says something remarkable

‘But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’ (v.6)

He understands the power of command, he uses it all the time and he, a powerful man, recognises that Jesus is yet more powerful. And Jesus responds

‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ (v.9)

This Roman had done great things, through his generosity, but his faith had revealed something of the majesty and power of God, for his slave is made well.

We use a version of this Roman centurion’s words every Sunday as we come to the Eucharist and say in response to the invitation to communion

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.

In his book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles’ the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, a former Canon here, points out another factor about this Roman living in their community. Jeffrey suggests that he was probably living something of a homosexual lifestyle. He comes to that conclusion because of the language that’s used about the slave.

The elders say of the slave that the Centurion valued him highly, others translate this as ‘he was very dear to him’. Luke uses two Greek words to describe him, the traditional word for a slave and also a word which can also mean son or boy, with overtones of affection. It was well known in Israel that the Romans engaged in homosexual acts and often, as in Greek culture, an older with a younger man and it was one of the things that the Jewish community objected strongly to. But here the elders, if this is true, advocate on behalf of a person who in many ways revolted them and went against their social norms.

Before the altar Solomon pleads not just on behalf of his own people but on behalf of the outsider, the foreigner.

‘Hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.’ (1 Kings 8.43)

They’re outside of the faith community, they’re outside of the community as a whole but God is asked to regard those who are on the outside as he regards those who are on the inside. And Jesus does the same. It has to be Good News, the gospel that Paul speaks of in the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, the gospel that he wants the people to remain faithful to and not pervert.

We still have almost a month of the debate on the options that the referendum on EU membership will present us with. Don’t worry I’m not going to tell you which way to vote, I haven’t the audacity to do that and the Church of England has said we don’t have an official position on it – though the Church of Scotland has now decided it does. But one thing concerns me and that’s the way in which so many of the arguments that we’re being subjected to are concerned with the threat of the person from outside of our community, whatever that community is.

The person from outside is so often described as a threat to jobs, economy, the health service, the availability of school places, even British identity. What have foreigners ever done for us, is almost the Pythonesque question that’s asked of us.


The diverse community is the good community


Sometimes the fears are around people from other faith communities who come and live alongside us. The decision by the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to begin his mayoralty in this Cathedral was seen as scandalous by some and some Christians have attacked him and fabricated stories about him and this Cathedral simply because he’s Muslim. Now, that’s scandalous.

What we’ve committed ourselves to doing and being here is to celebrate diversity, not to tolerate it, not to put up with it, not to be suspicious of it, but to actually celebrate it and we do that because that is what Jesus does and as he looks at this Roman centurion, pagan, part of the oppressive army who will nail him to a cross, perhaps someone whose life style challenges their own social norms, he recognises that the depth and quality of his faith surpasses that of what he sees around him within his own birth community. He listens to the foreigner and finds in him true and deep faith just as another centurion will look at this Jesus hanging on the cross and testify to his divine nature

‘Surely this man was God’s son’.

The Gospel is perverted when we judge someone on account of their difference – the colour of their skin, their sexuality, their accent, their wealth or poverty, their ethnic background, their physical or mental ability, their gender, their faith. The Gospel is celebrated when you look at the person sitting next to you now and simply recognise God in them.

However we make up our minds in a few weeks time I hope that it won’t be because we fear the foreigner. God hears without prejudice and the humble yet powerful centurion stands as a challenge to each one of us.

challenge my deep seated
and denied prejudice
with your transforming and accepting love.

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