Ordinary 9. Proper 4C Galatians 1, 1-12; Luke 7, 1-10
Whenever there is a terrorist outrage in the UK, there is a reaction, sad to say, against the community that the terrorists are believed to belong to.
Three years ago there were a number of demonstrations against Islam in reaction to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich. 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 both by Muslims and by anti-fascists, for compromising with the promoters of prejudice and evil.
When the leaders of a mosque in York learnt that the EDL march was targeting their mosque, they decided to organise an open day. Helped by members of other faith communities, they served tea and cakes to the marchers, invited them into the mosque for discussions, 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 two incidents, those who followed a faith refused to treat non-believers, even those who oppressed and harassed them as ‘outsiders’ or ‘enemies’. 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.
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, a church which consisted largely of Gentiles.
After he had left Galatia, it seems that some 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. In the case of male converts this included being circumcised. This appalled Paul, who taught that everyone was equally welcome into the Christian community by the grace of God in Christ, regardless of their previous background, and that no action was needed from converts apart from an acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord. Hence his condemnation of the actions of the Jewish Christians as ‘perverting the Gospel of Christ’.
Does anyone nowadays, I wonder, pervert the Gospel of Christ, but setting entry conditions for membership or holding office which Christ would not have set?
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 and John, as well as 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.
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’ early childhood; an uprising that led to savage reprisals and multiple crucifixions, events that were still raw in the memory of many of Jesus’ 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. Many religious Jews would have seen him as a representative of the ‘principalities and powers’ against which the faithful believers should struggle.
Lastly, 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 and servant. There was affection, maybe love. 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 its alliance with evil.
And 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 colonial official in the British Empire asking for help from a native traditional healer.
The Roman centurion didn’t act like an outsider – and Jesus didn’t treat him like one. He responded immediately to his request, and seems to have been prepared, as on other occasions, to risk making himself ritually unclean to help. Finally, he commended the ‘outsider’s’ 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, by showing 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 divisions between the favoured believers and a hated and excluded group, who are now included.
The Roman centurion would still be considered an outsider by some in our society today: he would still be 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. And 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’, both in faith communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our politics. 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. We can reject these divisions in the way we think and talk about those who are different from us: emphasising the ways they are like us, rather than their difference and strangeness. We can do it in practical ways: meeting their basic needs, for food, for medical care, for housing and security; in other words, doing to them as we would have them do to us.
The scriptures we have heard urge us to build a society based on invitation and hospitality, not separation and hostility, on inclusion and healing, not exclusion and conflict. Our Spirit inspired mission, following the example of Jesus, is to 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.
h/t Progressive Redneck Preacher