The great and mighty Roman empire stretched across the known world, from England to Egypt all the world lived under the peace and prosperity of Roman god-men, Emperors who were called lord and saviour. Who would doubt their divinity? Their reign was absolute and binding. Their army marched across Europe, holding back the forces of chaos and barbarism. Their images mediated trade and controlled the economy.
Who could deny that these Caesars were sent from the gods for our benefit?
This massive economic, political and military machine ran the world and kept the peace.
Yet this machine ground to a halt before the spectre of death.
In 250 AD a plague swept through the great cities of the Empire, the likes of which had never been seen. It killed thousands and the only sure way to survive was to run. And so the cogs in the great machine, the politicians and nobles, the pagan priests and philosophers, the wealthy and the powerful abandoned their great cities and left the infected to die.
The great Roman Republic left the sick to save itself.
But the sick were not alone. Alexandria. Carthage. Numerous other times and places. It was the Christians who would bring bread to those who were too poor to eat, who would wash those too weak to wash themselves, bury those who had no-one left to bury them. Such love cost many their lives, even as they were condemned by the Romans as Atheists, who refused to pay homage to their gods and as dissidents who would not bow to the Emperor’s power.
Christians stared death in the face to be the messengers of Christ’s kingdom.
Were they thanked?
“How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained? … What else are they than fighters against God?” – Porphyry, Philosopher.
These Christians, these “Impious gallileans” were deviants who were undermining the Roman way of life. They were sectarians, winning converts by manipulating the poor and turning the masses against the Old Ways, as Emperor Julian would say:
“Nothing has contributed to the progress of the superstition of the Christians as their charity to strangers…the impious Galileans provide not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.” – Julian the Apostate.
It’s a familiar story. One that has been true of God’s people for generations and generations. We heard this morning the story of the prophet, Amos, who preached against the greed and sin of the Kingdom of Israel. We heard how he was told to go away, to go and preach somewhere else, to stop disturbing the way of things in Bethel, the king’s sanctuary.
And Paul, who writes from prison, to a young church just as they are beginning to discover the ways of the Lord for themselves. He tells them to he strong, to endure and that they have now become part of Christ’s kingdom of light. What is that, if not a declaration that the Roman Empire is the kingdom of darkness?
The story of the Church seems to be a story of sectarianism, hate-preaching and subversion! No wonder the great powers of the world have long despised and rejected those who proclaim Jesus is Lord.
Despite whatever good the Christians did, perhaps the Emperor was right to hold them in contempt? Why must they insist on the worship of their God, having their feasts, saying their prayers?
Couldn’t they just fit in, do good and be at peace?
Isn’t that what Jesus taught?
This religious leader comes up to Jesus and asks him what the most important command is. Jesus tells this shocking story of a Samaritan picking up a Jew who had been left for dead and ensuring his complete recovery. Who could disagree with the story of the good Samaritan? It’s Big Society. It’s faith in action. It’s a blueprint for our communities. No talk of secret sects, or superstitious beliefs, or of undermining the powers-that-be.
This must be the real truth.
The truth of each person doing their very best for others. This is the agreeable truth we can teach to our children and demonstrate to the world. Let us lay aside this talk of judgement, of kingdoms and of darkness and light.
Isn’t this what our world wants? Isn’t this the role Christians are being invited to inhabit in this new century? The muted helper, the do-gooder, the community organiser. This is the space afforded to Christians.
A year ago I took part in a pilot scheme for the Nottingham Probation service. It was focused on recruiting mentors from faith communities. You see, the Government knows people with a strong, supportive moral community can be a great influence on people who are trapped in a world of crime. Our role was to befriend and help the offenders reach their goals. We were given all the training and sent out with a suitably matched offender. I heard the story of a young man who had broken into someones house to afford drugs, who found it too easy to get into fights and who struggled to live at peace with his family. We talked through some of these issues and we went looking for a job together.
I was sent out with a clipboard and a lanyard with an identification badge. I was the long arm of the government for this young man, sent to ensure the system worked.
Yet the question which constantly begs is whether the system works at all. That is the question I was never allowed to ask. As arbitrary policies were handed down from Cabinet, policies which tore this young man from his young son, which distanced him from his family and isolated him in unemployment, I was to make sure he still attended all the meetings he was assigned.
I was to make sure the cogs still turned.
But I suppose that’s what Jesus means by being a Good Samaritan, right? Just doing nice things, just helping out, just keeping things in order?
If Jesus came to make us all into Good Samaritans, then let us all go home now.
You see, this morning we have not gathered for a Radio Four ethics lecture, nor some guilt-trip or an assurance that we’re all nice people after all.
We have gathered for a feast.
As the church since the very beginning has done, we have gathered for this meal.
This remembrance of body and blood, this sharing in Christ’s suffering.
The eating of flesh and the drinking of blood. The sacrifice which creates the Church.
In a few short minutes we will gather together to hear the invitation of Jesus to ‘take, eat’ and to share the cup.
You don’t need to be here to be a Good Samaritan. Honestly? If that’s all you want, then you could have stayed in bed longer this morning. You see, this gathering can only be understood as obedience.
It is the same obedience which we heard from Amos, who spoke truth to power, who was threatened and cast out, shut up and ignored.
It is the same obedience of the church in Colossai, who responded to the preaching of Epaphras and discovered a whole new world had opened to them which made the trials they would suffer look like sand in the wind.
And it is for obedience’ sake that Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan who takes pity on a Jew.
Remember, he was asked what must be done to be part of God’s plan on the earth. Nobody asked him what it means to be a good person. He was asked what God requires.
We will say the ancient words again, pray the old prayer again and join with the saints at all times and all places who have shared this meal.
We will declare to the powers of this world that we are united under one Lord, held together with one Spirit as messengers of a new Kingdom.
We will remember that this world needs more than for nice people to be just a bit nicer.
It needs a people who will hear The Lord and obey him. It needs a people who will hear his invitation to the Table, a people who will come and take their place in the world to come.
The story of the Church, woven from ancient times through empires and rulers and distant lands, is one of the courage of faith, the audacity of obedience in the face of misunderstanding, objection and hate. The bread we break is part of that story. The cup we drink is the cup drank by those who have to do it in secret. As we eat and drink, we say “yes” to this story, we say “yes” to Christ and we say “yes” to his kingdom on the earth.
And maybe if we can, altogether, obey our Lord in this one act, here on Sunday Morning, maybe we can learn to hear and obey him tomorrow morning, and the next morning and the one after that, too.