BIBLE READING Luke 7:1-10
Let’s start with an outsider. His chosen name is Ball Bearing. Ball Bearing. At one time he was leader of the Victorian division of the notorious bikies “Hell’s Angels.”
During that time there was a rock festival held in the town of Broadford, in the State of Victoria. Ball Bearing was there, along with many members of ‘Hell’s Angels.” Also present was a group of Christians manning a Gospel outreach bus. It had its tyres slashed.
When Ball bearing heard of this, he strode to the stage, stalled the concert, seized a microphone and roared at the very large crowd:” Those people in the church bus are good...... they are here to help us......Leave them alone. If I find the guy who slashed their tyres he’ll be history.”
On hearing this surprising announcement, a minister who was present came up with the crazy idea that maybe Ball Bearing might sometime be one of “heaven’s angels” in a most effective disguise. Perhaps he would do a tour of secondary schools in his suburb in conjunction with the renowned John Smith of the “God Squad.” Maybe a word of commendation from this outsider might help some of the kids to listen to the Gospel when John spoke to them. Maybe he would agree. After consulting John Smith a letter was sent to Ball Bearing at the headquarters of “Hell’s Angels.”
Having posted the letter, the minister asked himself: “What have I done? Will this tough guy just use the occasion to promote the bikies’ doctrine? Let’s face it; he has nothing to do with the church. He is an outsider.”
Now, another outsider: A Roman army officer, a centurion stationed at the garrison at the town of Capurnaum, on the shores of Lake Galilee. Not a Jew. Some other nationality.
Capurnaum was on a busy commercial, Roman road which came from Damascus in Syria, joining up with the famous road which led to Rome itself. That is why Roman troops were placed there. The Centurion had been there long enough to become a valued part of the community. We read that He loves our people and he himself built a synagogue for us. This is an outsider who is both open minded and big hearted. The Jews were not accustomed to being impressed by their invaders. They were generally dismissive of all foreigners. Yet this centurion had won their loyalty and affection.
Stop and think about it. In this story we have some upright Jewish elders, the public face of Jewish faith in Capurnaum, actually coming to Jesus and begging for his help. Not for themselves, but for this big hearted pagan, the Roman officer in charge of the military occupation force in their area.
We read: A Roman officer there had a servant who was very dear to him; the man was sick and about to die. When the officer heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to ask him to come and heal his servant.
They came to Jesus and begged him earnestly, “This man really deserves your help. He loves our people and he himself built a synagogue for us.”
We are told that Jesus responded immediately. Yet as they neared the house, friends of the centurion came up with a message from the army officer: “Please sir, I don't want to make trouble. I know I am not worthy to have you come inside under my roof. That’s why I did not presume to come to you myself. You just say the word and I know my slave will be healed.”
Have you noticed how sensitive this centurion is to Jewish customs? He is a remarkable man! He knows a rabbi was not supposed to defile himself by giving a handshake to a pagan, nor was a good Jew permitted to enter the “contaminated” house of a Roman soldier. He does not wish to either offend Jesus or make him do something that will make other Jews reject Jesus.
This outsider is really something else. Jesus responded to the faith and love in the mind and soul of this centurion. I tell you, I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel!
When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave had been healed. Jesus didn't have to physically come to the house and touch the dying servant. The centurion’s faith had been enough.
This Gospel story brings us face to face with a truth the church might rather evade: There are some people outside the church who have a faith which is greater than that of many of us within the church. This Roman soldier, an outsider, had a faith which was as strong, or stronger than that found among God’s special, Jewish people. Today there are non-church goers through whom God does Christ’s thing, achieving healing, reconciliation, and winning social justice for others. Their faith can sometimes put ours to shame.
Maybe we do not consciously intend to be superior, maybe we have a spiritual blind spot, but we are inclined speak and act as though we are the only ones with faith. Some imagine they have exclusive rights to God, as if the Almighty is their private chaplain. And there is a tendency to delude ourselves that if the church does not do the works of faith, nobody else on earth will.
Jesus says: I tell you this: Not even in my holy church have I found faith like this outsider.”
The Gospel isn't “God so loved the church” but “God so loved the world.” The Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the world, creating faith and optimism in unexpected places. Some of these outsiders are cooperating with God even though they do not express it in our religious language. Other outsiders believe in, and cooperate with, God although they have no formal Christian connections. This is God’s world, where some outsiders are in spirit more truly insiders than we might care to acknowledge.
This becomes a stumbling block to some church members. Some attempt to get over this block by arguing: “Well they are of course good people, but not believers. Their’s is not a faith but just that they were born with a generous nature.” This sounds to me like the elders who came to Jesus with those patronising words: “He deserves your time, Jesus. He likes our people and has built the synagogue for us. We owe him one.”
But Jesus went much further: I tell you this: Not even in my holy church have I found faith like this centurion. Faith, you will notice. Not just some inherent generosity.
If Jesus was walking the streets of Sydney today, he might say a similar thing about some non-church teacher, truck driver, cafe sho waitress, fire fighter, flight attendant, unionist, publican, politician, plumber, secretary, psychiatrist or street sweeper. He might comment: “I tell you this. Not in any congregation of Baptists, Anglicans, Uniting, Roman Catholic or mega-church, have I found faith like this.”
Let's return to the story of Ball Bearing. He accepted the invitation to speak in schools alongside John Smith of the God Squad. Let it be said that the minister was anxious the first time he spoke to a school.
It is true the big biker did not pretend to be a Christian. He made no claim to be one of heaven’s angels! Nor did he hand out stickers extolling the Hell’s Angels. Though its true than in talk back time he did push John Smith very hard on some issues.
What he said at the time was this: “Listen, you fellas, listen to this guy John. He’s on the level. He’s been praying for me for years. I don’t know if it’s done any good. But he’s worthwhile. Why is he worthwhile? Because I respect him. He won’t let you down.”
After this opening commendation by the tattooed biker, the students were intent as they listened to John Smith. At the end of the first assembly, when John had finished preaching and question time had ceased, Ball bearing went to John on the platform, publicly embraced him and said “I love you.”
Outsiders? God loves the world, not just the church. We do not have exclusive rights to spiritual truth. Hell’s angels may sometimes be heavenly angels. Observe what happens around you, observe the healing (physical, emotional, social and spiritual) when and where it happens, and listen carefully. If you are attentive you may hear a voice of supreme Love saying: I tell you this: Not even in my holy church have I found faith greater than this outsider.
Acknowledgement: Rev Bruce Prewer