Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 2nd June 2013
2 June 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
The brutal and callous murder of Lee Rigby just over a week ago by two men shouting Islamic slogans shocked the world. Our prayers and thoughts are with Lee Rigby’s family. Very soon after this initial shock had registered, the issue of our multi-faith and multi-cultural society was once again being discussed in the media, commented on (no matter how obliquely) by political figures, and wrestled with in talk-shows and radio phone-ins. Islamic leaders throughout Britain led the condemnation of this blasphemous and barbarous attack and, despite the concerning rise in reports of Islamaphobic attacks and the attempts of marginal groups to exploit the situation, on the whole the vast majority of people from all religions and cultures have shown a united front against extremism and violence. The tea and biscuits offered to members of the so-called English Defence League by muslims at a mosque in York, which diffused a potentially dangerous moment, is but one moving example of how people can discover a common humanity.
But the underlying questions about a multi-faith and even multi-cultural country are not just about common humanity – as if commentary on the human person or on human communities can be made in a vacuum. Tragic situations such as the murder of Drummer Rigby prompt people to ask fundamental questions, and all of this feeds into just how we, as western Christians living in a post-enlightenment society, longing to flourish alongside people thoroughly different from ourselves, take theological account of non-Christian religions. Contrary to some narratives, how we live in, how we structure, a multi-faith and multi-cultural society is a theological question, at least as much as it is any other kind of question. It really does touch on what we mean when we use the words God, communion, salvation, holiness.
I want to suggest that today’s readings can help us discern what we might make, theologically, of other faiths, with integrity and faithfulness. The difficulty – if I can put it that way, and I hope you’ll see what I mean – is hinted at by St Paul at the end of our second reading. He tells the Galatians, “I want you to know that the Gospel is not of human origin; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Christians believe that the central proclamations of the Christian faith are not collections of hastily constructed opinions, but rather that they have an integrity beyond that. The basis of our faith is revealed not tentatively suggested. And, for many, the fact that Christianity proclaims revealed truth, is a stumbling block to interfaith understanding, and to a positive theological understanding of other faiths. The theologically astute among you may point out to me that revelation is not a problem but a gift – but the issue remains the nature of Christianity as a revealed religion does pose some difficult questions about how we appreciate the theological identity of other faiths. People have dealt with this in different ways – some have become complete relativists, essentially arguing that there is no absolute truth, and that different truths develop in different circumstances, different groups. Others have simply hardened in their so-called orthodoxy, whilst yet more have forged through into often new and imaginative ground somewhere between these two positions.
Today’s Gospel offers a particularly interesting insight. The Roman centurion whose servant Jesus heals, was not a Jew. He was a pagan. He may have been one of those known as a “God-fearer” – a non-Jew who was nevertheless sympathetic to the Jewish religion; his building of a synagogue perhaps suggests this. But nevertheless he was not within Jesus’ circle and he was not a Jew. The Centurion does, of course, show interest in Jesus, but as he reminds him, he is a man “under authority”, the inference being, maybe, under obedience: obedience to another, not to Jesus. This is perhaps one reason why he neither invites Jesus into his house, and equally why Jesus does not go there. It is a complicated story, and seemingly contradictory in places: ultimately, moved by the Spirit, he does ask Jesus to “speak only the word” and his Servant shall be healed; but when Jesus praises the man’s faith, he also consciously excludes him from Israel. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith!” cries Jesus, rhetorically.
We don’t know anything else about the centurion, anymore than we do about the Widow of Nain, or blind Bartimaeus, or any of the other fascinating cameo characters in the Gospels. But this story does show Jesus’ openness to sharing his life and power with those who are outside his religious frame of reference. This story isn’t just fascinating because he is healing the servant of a representative of the Roman Regime, but also because he is responding to a Pagan – not over-treading the line, not entering his house, but yet somehow entering a situation of communion with him, meeting his servant at the point of need, and praising his faith.
I don’t offer this interpretation of the story to draw anachronistic conclusions from it. But today’s Gospel does just remind us just how comprehensive Jesus’ reach is, how Jesus does not seek to whip people in behind him before he loves them or answers them, and how he praises this Pagan Centurion’s faith. It is clear that the Spirit-filled Jesus sees something of God at work in this Roman Officer’s life. And it is to this basic fact that I want now to turn. In the passage we heard read from 1 Kings, at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon beseeches the Lord to hear the prayer of any “foreigner” (any non-Jew) who approaches, having heard of “your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm.” This list of Divine attributes is particularly interesting – the Name, the Hand, the Outstretched Arm, especially given the context. Solomon’s Temple was supposedly built at the exact centre of the earth, and it was to the Mount of the Temple that all nations would be gathered to at the end of time. It is this imagery which Jesus uses of himself, he speaks of the Temple that is his body. The Temple, although the focussed centre of the Jewish cult, had a potential reach which was broader than just the chosen people. Others would be summoned by the Great Name, the Mighty Hand, and the Outstretched Arm. Later Christian tradition would understand this as a reference to the Trinity – these three mighty attributes of God, distinct yet united in a perpetual mystery of interdependent love.
In thinking today about our multi-faith culture, I want to focus briefly on the Outstretched Arm, or as we call it, the Holy Spirit, which animates all we do and are. The Holy Spirit, although present with Jesus’ followers in a unique and distinctive way after Pentecost, was of course present since before the beginning of creation. The Spirit moves over the chaos – the face of the waters – at creation itself. In the Gospel, the Spirit often moves those who are in some ways outside the strict religious boundaries into Christ’s orbit. Through the Spirit we see something of God’s life in the poor, the sick, the outcast. The Spirit, as the old saying goes, bloweth where he will, but always leads to the Kingdom, always gathers to Jerusalem, always brings to fruition. In the mystery of creation and redemption, we can see the work of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration and worship of other faiths. There is a tendency in Western Christianity to see the Spirit as somehow subordinate to Christ – but this is something we must resist. The Holy Spirit has her own agency, her own identity in the unveiling of the Easter Mystery. So we can risk not only friendship, but also a theological sympathy with those of other faiths, not because of cheap grace, but because of the abundance of the Holy Trinity who summons all of creation more deeply into the Easter mystery of Christ’s risen life.
Because of the revelation we have received, we do not yet know the fullness of this mystery. Because of the Holy Spirit, with whom Christ was anointed in power; because of the Outstretched Arm which would gather the foreigner and the pagan to The Temple we must appreciate the integrity of those who worship in different ways, and with different convictions, in the hope that we will all be gathered to Christ’s New Creation, by the Outstretched Arm of God. The great Russian Orthodox bishop-saint Theophan the Recluse wrote,
God himself is complete and all-perfect, but not yet has he drawn mankind to Himself in final completeness. It is only gradually that mankind enters into communion with Him and so gives a new fullness to His work, which thereby attains its full accomplishment.
In commitment to this fullness, we must be open to those of other faiths who also search for it with integrity, not because we Christians believe so little, but because we believe so much.