Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
I’m always glad to reach this stage of the church calendar. Today, we begin a long period of what is called ‘Ordinary Time’. Our Common Worship liturgy explains, in just three words, what that means: no seasonal emphasis. The major festivals of Christmas, Easter, Ascensiontide and Pentecost are over for another year. The liturgical colour will remain green from today for many months, with only an odd exception, until All Saints’ Day in November. This is the season of ‘green for growth’ when we focus on how all those festivals we have observed impact on what we might call the ‘ordinary’ time of our everyday lives. Put simply: what difference does the Jesus story make to the way we live and how we relate to one another ?
‘Ordinary’ can be a misleading term. C.S. Lewis once wrote, ‘There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal’. He was referring to the ‘overwhelming possibilities’ of humanity in the light of eternity. After the heightened emotions of Lent and Eastertide, culminating in Pentecost, it is possible to lose touch with the power the ordinary possesses. To look at the church in Ordinary Time is sometimes to see it as benevolent secularists do: gentle, decent, well-meaning, but without much intensity. As Alain de Botton writes in Religion for Atheists, religion ‘teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober’; it can help the non-religious learn ‘how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper’. No harm in any of that, I suppose, but it misses the point that the Christian faith has higher expectations.
When the poet George Herbert tried to capture the essence of prayer, one phrase he used was, ‘Heaven in ordinary’. For the Christian, there is a vast ‘Otherness’ we routinely refer to as ‘God’, existing in eternity, or heaven – the God beyond us, who passes all understanding. Yet the Christian thinking on God is that the divine is in some sense also domesticated, because Jesus has entered into our humanity. In the Eucharist, we see this mirrored in the taking up by God of ordinary things – bread and wine – as a means of reaching out to us ‘ordinary’ people, and infusing all of that ordinariness with divinity. Likewise, the church must reach out beyond itself and practise the reality that there is something of eternal value in people’s transient and ordinary lives. God, in Christian belief, is in the kitchen, in the pub, at the checkout, at the bus stop. Celtic Christians had prayers for making the bed or doing the washing. ‘If you are Christians’, the famous Anglo-Catholic Bishop Frank Weston said, ‘then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and – crucially – Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country’. Ordinary Time has no seasonal emphasis because this is the time for the church’s seasons to bear their fruit.
This principle is made very plain in this morning’s Gospel story. It is important not to miss the extent to which the Centurion represents the foreigner, the oppressor, and worse. This may sound overblown, but in Jesus’s Jewish context, the Centurion was a creature with supernaturally evil connotations, as well as being a symbol of all-too- real earthly barbarism and cruelty. For three centuries, Gentile soldiers had been thought of by Jews as sub-human. Yet Jesus warmly commends the Centurion for his faith, because, for Jesus, the weight of inherited group hatred counts for nothing. His immediate welcome of the man is just one instance of his constant refusal to approach or judge people as members of a class, race, sex or category of any kind, but rather only as an individual. He deals with the human being, ignoring the label. This is the heart of Jesus’s ‘inclusivity’: to the disgust and consternation of those around him, he is completely non-tribal and prejudice-free. When I read this story, I thought of some of the undertones of the recent London mayoral campaign, as well as both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim aspects of other recent political controversy. And those same resonances still find a place in the current referendum debates.
But the lesson to be drawn from this is not simply that we should take others as they are and all will be well, because the powers of group self-interest are not so easily tamed. Jesus did approach individuals as individuals, which is the start of the solution, though not the end. The processes of tribalism are so ingrained in us that to challenge them is always to risk your own exclusion and to court hatred from all sides. In the Gospels, the Centurion at the cross who first proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God may well have been one of those who drove in the nails. The Centurion in today’s story, whose servant was healed, may well have been another ‘acting under orders’. Most of those who ran Nazi camps counted themselves as Christian family men, ‘acting under orders’, but I would suggest they were also acting under the compulsion of an evil set of complex circumstances which enabled them to suppress their conscience and their humanity. So prejudice may rely on intimidating the members of our own group as much as the outsiders. Think of those who have attempted to cross the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland and who have gone on to pay a heavy price of ostracism, exile, violent punishment or even death. Obeying one’s conscience in such circumstances can prove too costly. Many of us recognize how that same mechanism operates, albeit in less dramatic ways, in ourselves, silencing us when we should speak out, making us toe the wrong line, keeping us within the wrong boundaries.
So in this miracle story Jesus commends the faith and meets the needs not only of a political enemy and a member of an unclean race, but of one of the very group who put him to death. What marks Jesus’s response, though, is his refusal to play that same game of group prejudice by refusing to hate in turn, or to retaliate, but instead determinedly, patiently and persistently loving even the warped powers that degrade our humanity: loving them to the bitter end, until he loves them from enemies into friends, and into what they were created to be.
In a way, Cameron is today being baptised into an ordinary community, in Ordinary Time. He is being baptised not into St. John’s, or the C of E, but into the whole Church of God. And today’s gospel story urges the Church, the followers of Jesus, to become something quite extraordinary. Not for the first time, Jesus subverts our tendency towards the quiet life and the easy option by turning our expectations upside down. It seems this green season, used well, may turn out not to be as quiet and undemanding as we might have supposed. I don’t know about you, but, in the light of the story of the Centurion and the slave, I reckon I, for one, have got a lot of growing to do in Ordinary Time.