Today's reading from the Epistles (which we habitually call “the Epistle” for short), contains the familiar picture of “the whole armor of God.” Literally volumes have been written unpacking this metaphor. But we should not neglect an equally striking expression, when Paul describes himself as “an ambassador in bonds.”
An ambassador is the international representative of a government. In Paul's world, an ambassador was the representative of an emperor or at least of a king. As such an ambassador was a man of high rank, who dressed and carried himself as one who represented royalty. Even in our world with only a few kings or emperors left, ambassadors are people of great dignity. Ride along “Embassy Row” in Washington DC and you will survey elegance and opulence not many of us experience daily.
In the ancient world the dignity and fine manners of an ambassador reflected both on the king who sent him and the city to which he was sent. The Athenians once sent to Sparta an ambassador who was a tongue-tied man with a club foot. The Spartans understood the insult and responded accordingly. (The Greeks were not famous for humane-ness.)
So Paul calls himself “an ambassador in bonds,” as he was making his way to Rome as a prisoner appealing his case before Caesar's court. The expression is striking in two ways. First, he claims that the Christ, on whose behalf he speaks, is nothing less than a king, far more powerful than Caesar, “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” This claim was unflattering to a man who was in the habit of being flattered. The only thing to save Paul's neck was that Caesar probably did not take this seriously. We recall the dismissive way in which Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “Art thou a king then?” Pontius Pilate probably thought it was some kind of a sick joke.
The other prong of the expression was that the very chains and manacles Paul was wearing were the message he was bringing to Caesar. Paul wrote elsewhere (1 Cor. 1:27—29) “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world ... so that no man might boast in the presence of God.”
We too are ambassadors of Christ. It is not ours to parade and preen ourselves like worldly diplomats, relying on ordinary strength. Whenever we do, we fail. We are the heralds, both humble and bold, of a crucified Prince and risen Saviour. LKW
Today's Gospel reading bears some interesting relationship to other passages from the Gospel. The story of Our Lord's healing the son of a "nobleman" (a functionary from the court of the despised King Herod Antipas) is almost parallel to the incident found in Matthew 8 and Luke 7, the healing of the centurion's servant. In both cases, we see an unlikely person making a desperate request on behalf of someone else. The similarity has even led some to imagine that these are two different versions of the same incident.
But that can hardly be. The differences are as striking as the resemblances.
A nobleman and his son are not a centurion and his servant. But it is interesting that both stories affirm in different ways the power of Jesus to heal at a distance. The centurion story tells us that Jesus was actually approaching the man's home, but the man protested, "Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof," and asked Jesus to heal from afar. In the story we read today, the nobleman begged Jesus to come, but Jesus refused, using His divine power to heal someone who had never seen him.
In today's passage from John, we have the remark of Jesus, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." At first blush, this seems to be something of a rebuke on the part of Jesus, a rebuke which seems hardly appropriate for a man whose son is at the point of death. But we must resist the temptation to interpret this saying in terms of that ugly scene in Luke 11, "And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven." The "signs and wonders" remark in today's Gospel is no rebuke at all to the nobleman, but an observation of Jesus regarding the crowd looking on.
At John 2:18, after Jesus had cleansed the Temple, we find the crowd asking, "What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?" At 6:30, the question came up again, "What sign shewest thou then, that we may see and believe thee?" It was ironic that this question was asked immediately after the stupendous miracle of His feeding 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fishes, evidence of hardness of heart and mental blindness.
The amazing thing, the Gospel for us in the Gospel of the Prayer Book, is that Jesus truly grants the signs and wonders which sinners need in order to believe. We are not required to make some blind "leap of faith." We have before our very eyes the continuing miracles of the Church's sacramental life and the wonders of many transfigured personalities, already raised up into God's New Creation. "And the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him." Do we believe the word which Jesus has spoken unto us?