The Example of the Roman Centurion – 29 May 2016

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Rev’d Jonathan Gale – Te Pouhere Sunday


1 Kings 18: 20 – 21, 30 – 39

Elijah’s Triumph over the Priests of Baal

20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; 32with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ 34Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, 35so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ 38Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’

Galatians 1: 1 – 12


1Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the members of God’s family* who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

There Is No Other Gospel

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel* from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant* of Christ.

Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship

11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Luke 7: 1 – 10

Jesus Heals a Centurion’s Servant

7After Jesus* had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.



I wonder if you have come across the word “troika” before? A troika is an arrangement of horses as they pull a Russian sled through the snow. It involves three horses almost in a straight row, but with the middle horse being slightly ahead of the other two. It is the horse the driver communicates with and the other two horses are meant to follow it.

I have spoken before about the troika of licence, law and grace

These are three ways in which we relate to God. Any and every attitude one could possibly have towards God is encapsulated in one of these.

  • Licence means doing your own thing, ignoring or opposing God. It is characterised by rebellion against law.
  • Law is when you see God in terms of rules and regulations. It is a black and white approach and is characterised by obedience or conformity to how and when you think God should be obeyed. It is about duty and self-effort and flies in the face of grace.
  • Grace is an understanding that God pours out his love upon us whether we deserve it or not. It is characterised by joyful, loving response and by relationship that is driven by God.

Our Old Testament reading is about the problem of licence. It describes an encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah is flat out annoyed with the licentious people of Israel. He applies law to them. Of course you can apply grace to licence but you are, as Jesus discovered, in danger of being crucified if you do.

Listen to these words. 21Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word.

This is the black and white of law. It is confronting. It’s either one or the other. No half measures. The people are in rebellion so they don’t respond. The prophet is in law mode and so he thinks violence is about all that will convince a licentious person to acknowledge God. He calls down fire on the altar and afterwards slaughters the prophets of Baal.

Law of course has a purpose. Paul tells us that the Law is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7: 13) but he also tells us that the Law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3: 24). In other words, when we try to please God by our own efforts at complying with the law, we inevitably fail and are thrown upon God’s mercy in Christ.

Our second reading is about the problem of law. When Paul wrote to the Galatians his entire focus is on a massive frustration he has because they have begun in grace but are being persuaded by a group of people who are trying to introduce legalism – i.e. law – into their relationship with God.

Paul is astounded. He says, I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

In fact he begins Chapter 3 by yelling,  You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish?

Paul is at odds with a people who have legalistic tendencies when he introduced them to the Good News of grace.

Our third reading is about the healing of the Roman Centurion’s slave and is all about grace. Romans were not included in the Covenant with Israel. A Centurion was a senior officer and would have represented what was the strong arm of an extremely cruel society that conquered and oppressed God’s people.  He is a slave–owner who, on the surface of it, has a problem with his investment. His slave is seriously ill.

He would, under normal circumstances, have been a representative of a religiously licentious lot, pagan Rome. At best he could have been a ‘God-fearer’, a monotheist influenced by Judaism or even (given that he was living in Palestine) a devotee of the Law of Moses, for as the Jews say to Jesus, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’

But this man is characterised neither by licentious paganism nor by legalistic Judaism. What signs of grace do we see in the Roman Centurion? They were certainly there for Jesus said of him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’

In a passage that seems to praise authoritarianism, Jesus praises him for his faith. This is puzzling until you realise that the faith Jesus is talking about is the humility and trust exercised by this man on behalf of a mere slave. His care (and care is the focus of here because it shows his love) for his slave represents a praiseworthy attitude that is at the root of his trust and therefore his faith. Grace and faith go together because grace is appropriated by faith.

A significant characteristic of Gentiles who loved the God of Israel was the grace they exercised towards the somewhat narrow and certainly imperfect bearers of the faith – the Jewish people. Roman God-fearers in particular seemed to appreciate the vulnerability of the Jews and there is little evidence that they imposed themselves upon Jewish worship practices.

The Roman Centurion may have built the local synagogue because he had the material means to do so but you can be quite sure he did not make use of that synagogue. He would have respected the right of the conquered Jewish people to worship in a manner that was rooted in their own culture.

I wonder if you can see where I am going with this, on this Te Pouhere Sunday.

In May 1992, the General Synod / Te Hinota Whanui of the Anglican Church in New Zealand adopted a revised Constitution / Te Pouhere, which established a three Tikanga Church; a church structure that gave room for Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika to build separate forms of worship and govern their own affairs in a manner that best reflected their cultural norms of worship.

In 2002, on the 10th anniversary of that Constitution, the Synod/ Hinota thought it appropriate to commemorate the occasion of the revision of the Constitution / Te Pouhere of our three Tikanga Church on the first Sunday free from liturgical observance and nearest to that date. It was thus resolved that the second Sunday after Pentecost be adopted in The Calendar /Te Maramataka as ‘Te Pouhere Sunday’.

The grace of the Roman centurion and other god-fearing Gentiles serves as an example to Pakeha believers of the approach that we too should perhaps emulate.

It would be false to claim that this was the driver behind the establishment of the 1992 constitution. That driver came from Maori believers and was based on Treaty of Waitangi considerations as much as any. And it is worth remembering that the Treaty was largely drawn up by Anglican missionaries – people who cared for the wellbeing of Maori in body, soul and spirit.

The graceful example of the Roman Centurion is apt for we Europeans very easily normalise the current socio-political situation in New Zealand, forgetting that we too are conquerors.

We began speaking about a troika of licence, law and grace that represented a hierarchy of attitudes. In other words grace is where we want to be. Law only applies to the licentious and we certainly don’t want to be licentious.

We end with a troika that is more like the holy Trinity – co equal – and represents a co-existence that is characterised by grace-filled partnership in the Gospel.

Nobody is so naive as to think that when Jesus returns he will divide the world into culturally bound fiefdoms of faith. In the end our cultural biases which are part of the finite limitations we experience as human beings, will be superseded by the overwhelming culture of Christ himself. In the meantime, our exercise of a three Tikanga church, and therefore our celebration of it on Te Pouhere Sunday, reflect a gracious accommodation of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

From the Maori perspective we are welcomed to Aotearoa. From a Pakeha perspective we acknowledge that we brought more than the Gospel and the technology that attracted Ruatara in those early days: we brought our acquisitiveness too, and partnership on an equal footing is one way of acknowledging that.

Of course God has a sense of humour because it was largely due to an error made by the British Foreign Office in determining the lines of longitude and latitude that defined the jurisdiction of the New Zealand church, that saw much of the Pacific open up to our influence. And so our close relationship with the Pacific Islands was established, people of Pacific descent migrated to New Zealand in numbers, and we have a church structure that is not limited to Treaty of Waitangi dimensions alone, but to the realities of our life together in Aotearoa New Zealand. And so it should be.