Sermon - 27th August 2017
When in Rome...
Romans 1:18-19, 24-27; Matthew 8:5-13
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
We have two readings today, the second one comes a little later.
Those of us who walked in the Pride Parade yesterday in Manchester passed by a group of people holding placards with various bible texts on them. The texts were odd sentences, taken out of their original context, and intended by the protestors to prove that homosexuality is a sin and that God will visit his anger upon everyone in the parade because of their sinfulness.
These people are there every year. And every year, when our Christians Walking With Pride group goes past the protesters, the crowd gives a huge cheer for our message of love and affirmation, in contrast to the protesters’ messages of hate and condemnation.
The whole thing is a bit of a pantomime with cheers for the goodies and boos for the baddies. But this annual ritual hides some deeper prejudices against diverse sexualities; prejudices which are held by some less ridiculous people than yesterday’s protesters - people who would argue that their prejudice is supported within mainstream Christian thinking.
The tide is slowly turning, and mainstream Christian thinking is coming round to a more affirming view of same-sex relationships. But we still see occasions when bible texts are used as weapons intended to exclude people from the LGBT communities from certain faith communities. Today’s first reading is one of those texts which often gets used as a weapon.
In fact, both of today's readings bring us squarely face to face with the culture, values and practices of ancient Rome. If Paul had used subheadings in his letters, our first reading could easily be labelled, “When in Rome, DON’T do as the Romans do!”
Roman society was built on concepts of power, status and wealth. Today’s concepts of equality, personal dignity or human rights were entirely alien to Roman ideas of governance or social structure.
Privilege and the beginnings of basic personal rights started with your birth as a male, and came to fruition when you achieved the adult status of Roman Citizen. As a Roman Citizen you had power over your household. You were entitled to demand dominant sexual intercourse with your wife, your slaves (male or female), prostitutes, freedmen or freedwomen, and any young man who had not yet reached adulthood (normally thought of as a “boy” between the ages of 13 and 20).
To be the dominant partner in a sexual encounter was a mark of honour and a sign that you were exercising the rightful power which your citizenship gave you. To be the submissive partner in a sexual encounter was a sign that you belonged to one of the social classes which were expected to satisfy the needs of the privileged and powerful ruling classes whenever required to do so.
Provided you took the dominant role in whatever activity took your fancy, you were not judged by your fellow Romans about whether you were having sex with your wife, your slaves, professional prostitutes, or your neighbour’s teenage son. And if our Roman Citizen happened to spread his favours quite widely across a varied selection of recipients, he was just considered to have more of a sex drive than any single element of his sex life could fully satisfy.
So here is Paul, a classically-trained Jewish scholar who understood the laws enshrined in the Hebrew scriptures. He watched the way in which Roman communities indulged their sexual desires; he saw the way power and privilege were used by the few to dominate the many; and he saw how the bodies of women, slaves and young boys were abused to satisfy the rampant sexual appetites of powerful men; and he went into overdrive when he wrote to the Christian community in Rome about his expectations for their behaviour as followers of Jesus.
The tragedy for LGBT people over the past two millennia is that, while Paul’s condemnation of abusive and power-driven sexual exploitation is still a valid message to any society in which such abuses occur, the context in which he was writing has generally been lost from view. Paul’s words, taken so completely out of context as they frequently are, do not relate to what our society today recognises as same-sex relationships built on love, mutual-respect, and the companionship of equals.
We don’t measure today’s social policy and moral judgments by any other aspects of life in ancient Rome: but this text of terror continues to be used as a weapon. Paul was responding to the conflicts he saw between his beliefs and the Roman culture of his time. We have moved on: in this church we are bold enough to say that God has called us forward into the sanctity of love as we encounter it today.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Matthew, writing around the year 85 CE, and Luke, writing around ten years later, both include in their gospels a hugely prophetic encounter between Jesus and a Roman soldier: an encounter which promises that all people who are motivated by love - no matter who they may be, no matter how it is expressed - have a place in the Kingdom of God.
[Reading: Matthew 8:5-13]
Thinking again about the culture of the time, and knowing what we do about Roman attitudes to social class and structure, why would a Roman soldier, a man of status with power and authority, approach an itinerant Jewish preacher and beg for the healing of a servant boy?
If the servant had just been one of many in the soldier’s household, he could easily have been allowed to die and would be readily and cheaply replaced. So what was so special about this particular boy that his master would go to such lengths to have him healed?
A clue to the answer is there in the text, but our English translations all tend to obscure it. The original Greek is more revealing.
In Matthew's account of the story - the earlier of the two gospel versions - the "servant" is described by the Greek word "pais". In the Greek of the time, "pais" had three possible meanings depending upon the context in which it was used. It could mean "son or boy"; it could mean "servant"; or it could mean a particular type of slave — one who was "his master's male lover."
Often these lovers were younger than their masters, even teenagers. And returning to the Roman culture we’ve previously mentioned, yes, they were a form of slave property. The relationship would have started as a commercial transaction and would always have been unequal and based on power and probably the abuse of that power. But we know from other sources in the Greek language of the time that a slave purchased to serve this purpose was often called a 'pais'.
Now, this is not the model for a loving relationship between two men that we would celebrate today as fair and equal. But as we learned from Paul’s letter earlier, we can’t simply transplant today’s values into the culture of any other age or society and form simplistic judgments based on our modern outlook.
Jesus would have known only too well that, within the occupied territories of the Roman Empire, for men in positions of power and influence, if you were heterosexual and wanted a wife, you basically bought one and then owned her; and if you were gay and wanted a male lover, you also bought one and then you owned him. And there were plenty of options to mix and match those arrangements. And whether love developed between you and your wife, or another woman, or between you and your male lover, was just as unpredictable then as it is today.
But the message of the story in Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus saw something more than a property transaction. He saw, in the non-Jewish soldier who commanded troops of the hated occupying force of a foreign power, a profound grief at the thought of losing his lover which brought that man to his knees. And he also saw the soldier’s committed faith in the healing power of God.
And whatever judgment Jesus formed about the domestic situation - one that he would have recognised only too clearly - he rewarded the faith and love that he saw with his blessing, his healing, and his promise of welcome within the kingdom of God.
What you choose to take from this gospel story depends on where you focus your attention. If you focus on the soldier, the story confirms that the message and teaching of Jesus was spreading far into the non-Jewish communities of the region and that even a Roman soldier was prepared to affirm the power of the new movement.
But if you focus on the seriously ill servant for whom the soldier seems to be prepared to go to any lengths to save his life, an emotional dimension to the story opens up which is easily overlooked unless we explore the Roman customs and practices of the day.
At the introduction to each bible reading in this church, we invite you to ‘listen for the word of God’ in each passage that is read to us. In this passage about the Roman soldier and his boy, when I listen with understanding, I hear no word of condemnation, disapproval or exclusion: I hear only words of faith, love, blessing, healing, and a promise of welcome within the kingdom of God.
I hear in this intimate story a love that I recognise, a relationship that I have seen between others and that I have experienced myself, where despite the circumstances of age, background and status, there was love. I see boundaries coming down and the love of God being shared rather than the anger of God being invoked.
Yesterday’s protesters threatened us with a God of destruction. Yesterday’s cheers spoke to me of a God of love.
Perhaps a few hundred people saw the messages of anger and condemnation. But thank you to everyone who shared, with around 40,000 people along the route, the invitation to encounter a God of love and inclusion, and the promise of welcome within the Kingdom of God.
Boundaries are coming down, and God is working a purpose out.