Third Sunday of Epiphany, 26 January 2014, St Mary’s, evening

Reading: Matthew 8: 1-13

Preacher: Canon Robert Titley

I was too young to do National Service and have never had a job abroad, but if any of you were posted or ever got a job away form these shores, then you may have found that, while some see a spell in another country as a gift full of promise and discovery, others regard the ordinary people of the host nation as quaint, inferior, benighted or even contemptible.

That can be especially the case when the expats are in positions of power over the natives, as the Romans were in the eastern Mediterranean. And the Romans saw empire not only as a means of bringing wealth and glory to Rome but also of taking civilisation to the ‘barbarians’.

The Roman officer in the gospel reading is therefore quite remarkable. We don’t know where this centurion is from, but he’s not Jewish, let alone a native of Galilee, yet he is respectful towards the foreign culture in which he finds himself. Indeed, he sees in it possibilities that he has been unable to find in his own: his servant is sick and he will look anywhere for help.

Actually, though, his respect is not so much for a culture in general but for one person, a wandering peasant, a freelance rabbi, who on the face of it is a pretty unlikely person to impress a Roman, for he is the inversion of all that is respected in the centurion’s world of uniforms and rank and the military machine. Even so, the soldier sees in the rabbi a power that mirrors his own: he issues a command to his men and it is done; surely Jesus can do the same with his servant’s illness. 

Here we come to a perplexing aspect to this story, for God does not always make military-style interventions to order away the ills of the world (and how we wish he would sometimes…), yet, there are energies in God that the machinery of our world cannot comprehend. Here, tonight, God reminds us of them through the words of scripture; and now God offers them to us, under the unlikely forms of ordinary bread and wine.

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