To break down barriers

Peter Seal, 29 May 2016

1 Kings 8: 22–23; 41–43, Luke 7: 1–10

We heard from our first reading how Solomon prays to God. The preceding chapters in 1 Kings are interspersed with descriptions of Solomon’s wisdom and considerable detail of the building of the temple. Solomon prepares to pray a beautiful prayer: a prayer of dedication of the new temple. You can almost sense Solomon drawing himself up to his full stature, taking a deep breath, looking out at the whole assembly of Israel gathered before him, lifting his hands to heaven. And, then, out come the words, ‘Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart’.

It’s a beautiful prayer. What extraordinary words: ‘your servants, who walk before you with all their heart’. Let’s pray to God for more of that ‘walking before God with all my heart’. Solomon continues, ‘But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built?’

The prayer continues for some verses in a similar way; and then there’s the most marvellous development. Solomon says: ‘As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name … and prays towards this temple, then hear … and do whatever the foreigner asks of you. Do this so that all the peoples of the earth may know that this house which I have built bears your Name.’

Solomon, all those years before the life of Christ, gives us a tremendously broad vision, which is all-encompassing.

Today’s scriptures give us an all-embracing, biblical vision of our extravagantly inclusive God.

As we move to our gospel reading it’s helpful to remember that in the first and second centuries after the life of Christ Christians had no sacred buildings. Indeed they saw no need for them. Jews had the temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in AD 70. They also had synagogues all around the Mediterranean, and as far east as Babylon. There were Greek and Roman temples throughout the empire. But there were no buildings used by Christians solely for religious purposes until the third century. When first- and second-century Christians referred to a church or temple or synagogue, they were referring to people, not buildings. The body of Jesus was thought of as the temple in which the word of God made his home among us.

And so, as we move to today’s gospel, we hold on to two things: (1) Solomon’s all-embracing vision, and (2) the early church of the first and second centuries, for whom the word ‘church’ meant ‘the people’.

We learn a great deal about this Roman centurion soldier long ago in the first few sentences of Luke’s story about him.

By this time the Roman Empire was widespread, its personnel posted out to the edges of the known world. Unlike today, there was no chance of an out-posting followed by a home-posting. Men could be left for years in a small community in a foreign land, responsible for keeping law and order and reporting to a distant headquarters.

Very often, they married locally and became part of the community, gradually making friends in spite of their official function. Very often, such men grew old and died in the same place. We know that this man, this Roman centurion, got involved in the local community. When he needed friends to serve as go-between, he knew where to find them. We heard, ‘He sent some Jewish elders to Jesus’.

We also know that he found it difficult not to let official relationships become personal relationships. This happened with one of his staff, a slave, who is now ill. Luke tells us that this slave was valued highly. He was probably an educated Greek, and possibly a teacher of the centurion’s children.

The story, as Luke tells it, is simple and straightforward. The slave is deathly ill. The centurion knows that Jesus, who has just come into Capernaum, is a healer and a Jew. He also knows that his request may make life difficult for the healer. For Jesus to help one of the occupiers of his country could alienate the whole Jewish community. The centurion calls on his Jewish friends and asks them to make the connection. Their entreaties may not have met with a favourable response at first. Jesus knew the complexities and may have been hesitant. Luke tells us that the centurion’s Jewish friends appealed to Jesus earnestly.

Again, this army officer shows his decency and his sensitivity. He knows that it is technically a defilement for a Jew to come under his foreign, gentile roof. So the message sent to Jesus is carefully crafted. It avoids the ugly truth about defilement. Instead it pays a compliment. It graciously says: I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, therefore I did not presume to come to you.

Then in a single sentence it expresses what the centurion has sensed in Jesus of Nazareth – an immense natural authority. The centurion says: Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

The centurion continues, I also am a man set under authority. That one word ‘also’ has a special power. In all this, Jesus has missed nothing. He has become aware of the special kind of human being he is dealing with. The trust shown to him by this man astonishes our Lord, and so perhaps he is moved to say a potentially dangerous thing: ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’.

You could say that Jesus is playing with fire, that these words have the power of dynamite. Here Jesus is proclaiming Solomon’s generous, all-embracing vision, which welcomes the foreigner. The fact that those who surrounded Jesus were friends of the centurion probably prevented an angry reaction. It’s quite possible, however, that someone in the crowd duly noted what Jesus said and subsequently, quietly, reported it to those who were interested in gathering evidence against this man from Nazareth. This danger was never far away.

In conclusion, today’s scriptures give us an all-embracing, biblical vision of our extravagantly inclusive God. Through Jesus Christ, our God goes on challenging people of this and every age to break down barriers and resist all boundaries.