May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Gospel reading today relates the miracle of the healing of the Centurion's Servant. And as a former military man myself, I find a particular resonance in his words: “But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I 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 he does it." These are the words that are Lord marvels at, the words which cause him to say: "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." His words are of great importance because of the high praise they earn from Jesus; and the praise our Lord gives them show that they are a model for us to be followed if we are to show such faith for ourselves.
Being a soldier, he expresses that faith by way of a military analogy. He is himself under authority and has others under his authority. When he gives orders to those beneath him, he expects them to obey; and equally, though he does not say it, when he is given orders by those over him, he must also obey. And he recognises Jesus as also as a man having authority – a man with such great spiritual authority that not only can he heal the sick, he can do so at a distance, curing a man he has never seen at the behest of another man whom he has also never seen. And, of course, it is shown that his great faith in the authority of Jesus is well founded – for his servant is indeed healed of what ails him. We would do well, I think, to consider the implications of this military analogy: the one in authority gives orders; those below obey – Jesus is the one in authority; and we are the ones therefore who must obey; and those who are below must obey all the commands of the one who gives them, not some – for the soldier who does not, is subject to be disciplined, with the severity of the punishment due to him being based on the seriousness of his failure.
There is a hint of this military analogy in our Epistle today. St Paul says to the Galatians: 'I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel -- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. ' Deserting is of course what soldiers do when they abandon their post and it is one of the most serious of all military offences, meriting a severe punishment even under the best of circumstances, and punishable by death during a time of conflict. Sometimes when soldiers desert it is to run away because they are cowards; others because they are traitors who seek to join with the enemy. The deserters St Paul speaks about here are in the latter category, abandoning the Gospel he brought them for a another – which is foolish indeed, for there is no other Gospel. They are deserting the truth for a lie. And he is quite explicit as to the consequences of their actions – they are accursed. And so that no one can be in any doubt, he says this not once, but twice. Those who preach a false gospel which is contrary to the one that he preached is accursed.
Why would anyone risk such a fate and do such a thing? Well consider why St Paul says that he must preach the truth, and only the truth: 'Am I now seeking the favour of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.' If St Paul says he preaches not to please men but God, then it follows that those preaching the false gospels he condemns do so in order to please men. It is not just in the present age that people have found Christ's teachings hard – it was ever thus. And just as today we hear calls that the Church must change what she teaches to be up to date, to be relevant to the current age, so it was from the earliest times. But St Paul makes it very clear – such calls must be seen for what they are: the temptation to follow a false gospel, to turn from the one that was revealed to us by Christ himself. The consequences of doing so are, to repeat again what St Paul himself said, is to be accursed.
Resisting false teachings is no easy battle – fighting against what is popular, against what the 'itching ears' want to hear, as the second letter to St Timothy puts it, is not easy. For people want it both ways, to have their cake and eat it too – they want to lead lives in which they indulge in all the temptations that the world, the flesh, and the devil has to offer … and then they want to be told that not only is what they are doing not sinful, but that it is good, that they are in fact living out the Gospel … even when what they are doing flies in the face of all that is written there. But the love that we as Christians must have for all people prevents us from letting our brothers and sister fall prey to these temptations without at least warning them, again and again, of the dangers they face; that they are going down the path of what St Paul called the accursed. It is a hard calling for us to live out; just as, no doubt, it was hard for Elijah to have to face down all the false prophets as we read in the Old Testament today. But just as he could not let their falsehoods prevail for the sake of the people of his time, so neither can we let false teaching prevail today. We must be like the Centurion – soldiers under the authority of Christ, and lovingly bring the fullness of his truth to all we meet. To the eternal and Almighty God, Creator of all things, and source of our Salvation, be praise and honour and glory, both now and to the end of the ages. Amen.