St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 1 (29.05.2016)

Tony Dickinson

The Gospel is “good news” but it is not about “living happily ever after” – even though passages like this morning’s reading from St Luke may feel like that. The slave is seriously ill. The centurion, his owner, sends prominent members of the local Jewish community to ask Jesus for help. They put pressure on Jesus, insisting that the centurion is a good egg. Jesus goes with them. The centurion sends another deputation telling him not to bother – either because of the centurion’s humility, or because he was worried about inviting a Jewish teacher into a Gentile household, but expressing his confidence in Jesus’ power to heal. Jesus is amazed by the man’s faith and heals his slave at a distance. And all lived happily ever after, or so it would appear. “When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

But the slave’s healing isn’t actually the main focus of this story. What matters to Luke, as we can see by the way he tells it, is the authority of Jesus, and the realization that the response of faith can be found in the most unlikely quarters. In an odd sort of way that applies to what we are doing this morning. When we pray for healing a few minutes from now, when we lay hands on those who come forward, when we anoint those who come forward, we are not going through some sort of magic ritual that will bring about an instant “cure”. What we are doing is on the one hand affirming God’s power to heal and his authority over every illness and infirmity and on the other hand acknowledging the faith of those who come forward, as Jesus acknowledged the faith of that centurion. Our slogan is not “expect a miracle”. Our slogan is “expect to encounter God”, who meets us at our point of need, whatever that need may be.

That does not mean that we can somehow manipulate God into doing what we want. An encounter with God is not like an OFSTED inspection, where we can gain approval by ticking the right boxes and jumping through the right hoops in the right order. That was the mistake that the Christians of Galatia made. We heard in our first reading what St Paul thought about that approach. He was, I think it would be fair to say, not impressed.

An encounter with God is an encounter with Being (capital “b”) and with Love (capital “l”): so it’s about much more than playing by the rules. That means that it is also an encounter with hope and with mercy. But for some reason, in the experience of many, that encounter cannot take place until we find ourselves in the place of suffering, either our own or the suffering of someone we love. It was only when that slave whom he valued highly was ill and close to death that the centurion placed himself in the hands of Jesus. It was only in the emotional turmoil after my father died that I began to explore seriously God’s call to ordained ministry.

That is, perhaps, inevitable. Our life in Christ is focused on death and resurrection – ours as well as his. That is why the Eucharist is so central to the life of the Christian community. Death and resurrection, the paschal mystery, is at the heart of every single Eucharist – even Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It is in tasting the death of Jesus that we enter his risen life. Each time we do that, we become part of and receive nourishment for what has been called “the transformational journey of death and resurrection”. As we come to terms with our own mortality, and the mortality of those we love, the spiritual journey really begins and we discover that real life, God’s life, is running through us and in us. It’s there already. But we don’t find it easy to allow it to flow freely. We are too keen on being in control – and when we try to retain that control, we dam up the divine potential that there is inside us.

In Capernaum then, in Terriers now, the human situation is the same. We are limited, fallible, inadequate beings who have within us the potential for glory. To realise that potential – or rather to let God realise that potential in us – we have to give up the fantasy of being in control and hand ourselves over, as the centurion did, to that greater Authority which wills our ultimate good and which meets us today at our point of need. We have to face the darkness and enter it in order to reach the light beyond. That there is light beyond is the good news. That is it the light of God’s presence is the best news of all. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit …