LUKE, CHAPTER 7, VERSES 1 TO 10 :-
WHEN Jesus had finished addressing the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a servant whom he valued highly, but the servant was ill and near to death. Hearing about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to ask him to come and save his servant’s life. They approached Jesus and made an urgent appeal to him: ‘He deserves this favour from you,’ they said, ‘for he is a friend of our nation and it is he who built us our synagogue.’ Jesus went with them; but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends with this message: ‘Do not trouble further, sir; I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, and that is why I did not presume to approach you in person. But say the word and my servant will be cured. I know, for I am myself under orders, with soldiers under me. I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; to another, “Come here,” and he comes; and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was astonished, and, turning to the crowd that was following him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When the messengers returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.
The reading partly I chose provides a good example of what it means to have faith. The centurion was so confident that what Jesus ordered would happen that he sent his servants to turn Jesus back; he didn’t need to enter the house, his word would be enough. As a non-Jew, the centurion felt he was unworthy to have a Jewish rabbi enter his house. But as an officer in the Roman army he knew all about giving orders, and he knew that once given, any order he gave would be obeyed.
And the reading also reminds me that there’s a sense in which the machine age has potentially turned us all into officers. The machinery we celebrate at this fair greatly empowered its new owners. For the most part, it did in the end also empower and ease the lives of the workers. But perhaps we’ve lost touch with the wonder of that these days.
After all, this is how we live today. We walk into a room, flick a switch, and the room’s lit up straight away. We sit down, pick up the remote, point and press, and immediately we’re watching Corrie or East Enders, or maybe University Challenge or Mastermind if you prefer. And when I sat at my desk to write this, I didn’t need a pen, thanks to the wonders of Microsoft Word.
Technology gives us an easy life, but we no longer see the workings or understand the process, and that’s a shame. Now that everything’s digital, you press a button and you’re really not always sure what will happen. Microsoft Word is a good example of that, Mr Gates: I press a button, and a poster prints with the border only half the size it should be. That’s not how it was on the screen, and I’ve no way of knowing what glitch in the machinery caused it to happen.
But that’s my problem. Here you have real machines, and the workings are very visible. You pull a lever, turn a wheel, and a whole army is at your disposal, with the different components working together, supporting, controlling and co-ordinating with each other, making you the possessor of power. Steam especially has that sense of being alive about it, which is why it continues to thrill those who’re easily bored by boxes filled with microchips.
The apostle Paul came up with the great image of the Church as the body of Christ, each part working in harmony, making its own distinct and special contribution, under the control of Christ as the head. If only Paul had seen a traction engine - I feel sure that would have been his image instead: each part in good fettle, doing what it should, under the control of Christ as the driver. The Church as a machine, achieving what it needs to because every part is working well.
Of course, even the best machines do break down; for that matter even the best armies will probably have the occasional grumbling or rebellious soldier. But just as the Roman centurion naturally understood the authority of Jesus, so should we who have machines at our disposal. We give the command, and it is done. And of course, our making of machines is our creative response to the creative power that made us.
And when he gives the command? Well, every part of the complex machine that is us needs to be working well, needs to be taking orders. Each part needs to be in the right place, doing the right job. Machines don’t work if you replace one part with a totally different one. If things aren’t working as they should, the machine will lose power, and it’ll maybe break down altogether. So if we’re serious about being God’s people, we need to be a well-oiled machine, which is not, by the way, a reference to the beer tent; we need to hear and obey the orders given, to respond as we should to the pull of lever or the turn of the wheel; we need to know our place and play our part, so that, in all of his people together, God’s will is done. Amen.