Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 20th February 2005
Readings: Jer 22:1-9: Mt 8: 1-13
Quite often visitors to Westminster Abbey ask me what sort of church this is: is it Church of England? 'Very', I am tempted to say; you can't get more Church of England than Westminster Abbey! However, we should remember that this service now, Matins, is derived from the sort of worship there would have been at the Roman Catholic monastery which was here for five hundred years before the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Matins as it is sung this morning has now stayed the same for four hundred years, and has long been one of the jewels of the Church of England pattern of worship. Since there is a whole range of music that has been written especially for Matins and Evensong, these services in their sung form are not likely to be changed, certainly not at Westminster Abbey. However, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the service that follows this one, has changed considerably in recent years and now looks a lot more like a Roman Catholic service. Roman Catholic visitors are often surprised that our main service on a Sunday morning, the Eucharist, is so similar to the Eucharist they know in their local churches.
This similarity has come about for two reasons. The first is that the Eucharist has been revised in the light of new research on early Christian texts, and this has influenced the way things are done in all the Christian traditions. The same early Christian texts were used as background when the liturgy was revised in both the Roman Catholic and in the Anglican traditions. And, secondly, each tradition has borrowed from the other some of best ideas taken from new liturgical writing and practice. One of those new ideas is to use words taken from the story we heard in our second lesson and apply them to ourselves just before the sharing of the bread and the wine at the Eucharist.
What we heard for our second lesson were two stories. The first is of a leper who comes to Jesus and says, 'Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.' Jesus stretches out his hand, touches him and says, 'I do choose. Be make clean!' and immediately the leprosy is cured. Jesus then tells the man to fulfil the demand of the religious Law by showing himself to a priest with a thank-offering, so that he can be publicly recognised as no longer a leper. The key point is the power of Jesus' words to bring healing. Jesus says, 'Be made clean!' and the man is healed.
In the second story a centurion, a Roman officer, comes to Jesus and asks for help because his servant is seriously ill: 'Lord', says - addressing this Jew with great respect - 'My servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.' Jesus responds by saying 'I will come and cure him.' Then the centurion shows an extraordinary humility by saying, 'Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.' He explains that as a military commander, he knows all about authority: he is under a commander himself and has to do what he is told, and he expects those under him to do what they are told. Jesus is amazed at this simple soldier's faith. He has not, he says, found any such faith amongst God's people, the Jews. To the centurion he says, 'Go, let it be done for you according to your faith'. We are told that 'at that hour' the servant was healed.
The words of the centurion have taken on a special significance for those of us who use them in the Eucharist because we make them our own just before we receive the consecrated bread and the wine. The priest, echoing two passages of the New Testament, says, 'Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.' Then the people, echoing the words of the centurion, responds, 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.' This is one of the bits of new liturgical writing that has been borrowed by the Church of England from the new Roman Catholic Eucharist. These words have now come to have a special meaning for me.
Many times I have been at ecumenical meetings with Roman Catholics who are my sisters and brothers in Christ. We are there because we are working to overcome the divisions between our two Christian traditions. We know they are there and cannot be brushed under the carpet so we keep the rules and we do not receive the bread and the wine at the Eucharist when the celebrant is a priest of the other tradition. This means that just before the priest shares with the people the bread and the wine of the Eucharist - which are the sacrament, the sacred pledge, that in receiving this consecrated bread and consecrated wine we receive Christ's Body and Blood - we all say together 'Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.' When one cannot receive the Lord in and through the bread and the wine these words indeed take on a special significance.
The well-known north African theologian Augustine once called a sacrament a 'visible word'. A famous modern philosopher has called human beings not homo sapiens, but homo symbolicus. What distinguishes us, he argues, is that we are symbol-using animals - and many of the symbols that we use are physical objects or gestures. Other philosophers point to the unique way in which human beings use language to communicate, and sometimes all that we have is the word and not the visible object. Maybe all a prisoner can do is to smuggle out a message that he is alive; or there is only time to send a text message saying, 'I love you' before a plane crashes. What the story of the centurion reminds us of is the power of words to heal and sustain, even in the absence of sight or physical contact. 'Only say the word and I shall be healed.'
Right at the centre of the Christian faith is the belief that God speaks his word to human beings, and that his Word has become visible in Jesus Christ. What we have in the Gospel are worked examples of the difference Jesus makes in human situations of pain and need. When he speaks his words, he speaks the words of God. This is why his words create healing and hope. He is himself the visible word of the Creator spoken to needy human beings.
None of us knows the precise ways in which words of Jesus such as those we heard this morning may bring healing and hope in our own life-situation. The faith that our Gospel stories talk about is the faith to put ourselves unreservedly in his hands because we have nowhere else to go. Christians would say that when the barriers are down, and we know the situation is really serious, we can at last see clearly Jesus as God's 'visible word' for us - and that word of God is quite simply 'Yes'! Jesus is God's 'yes' to us, damaged and needy human beings that we are.
When the famous Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, he entitled his speech 'One Word of Truth' [London: The Bodley Head, 1970]. I think it's a wonderful title, because it expresses so concisely what each one of us needs to bring health in a world of lies and spin and deception and disillusion. Solzhenitsyn, like all the great writers, uses stories to speak the truth. 'One word of truth', says the Russian proverb, 'outweighs the whole world'. What the Christian faith teaches is that if we can only hear and receive one word of absolute truth we shall indeed be saved. More than that, it proclaims that Jesus Christ is that one Word of absolute truth and that when he offers himself for the world's salvation, those with the most acute sense of their own need are the ones who hear and receive the truth that he brings. Both the leper and the centurion are such people: they are open to the word that he brings to them, and the healing they experience bears witness to the truth that he speaks.
In this service we are not offered the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. We are offered the Word of Truth in the psalms and the readings, and we seek to be open to the way God speaks his word in the silence of our hearts. We bring to God our experience in the world; we bring our need for healing, for forgiveness, for deliverance from lies and deception, from hard-heartedness and cynicism. Hearing the story of the centurion, we can borrow his words, as we would in the Eucharist, and make them our own, 'Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.' In this service we can again discover how God's 'One word of truth' - Jesus Christ, God's 'yes' to us in our need - will 'overcome the world'.