Speaking with Authority

January 29, 2012

(Deut. 18, 15-20; 1 Cor. 8, 1-13; Mark 1, 21-28)

When I was licensed as a Church of England Reader 25 years ago, the Bishop handed me a New Testament and said “Receive authority to exercise the ministry of a Reader in this diocese”. Very similar words are used when a Local Preacher is admitted and commissioned in the Methodist Church. What we are given is the delegated authority of our particular church to preach and lead worship in their name.

Max Weber, the sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, identified three sorts of authority. The first was traditional authority – the sort that is exercised by monarchs or tribal chieftains, which goes with a particular rank and tends to be hereditary. The second is rational-legal authority, in which the rules define who should be obeyed. This is the type of authority exercised by the government and police and judiciary in a modern society, and also in voluntary organisations, such as a church, where the participants agree to obey people who have been elected or appointed to certain positions.  The last is charismatic authority, found in a leader who inspires others by their personality and their vision. Very often, new religious movements begin with a charismatic leader, but when that person dies, their successors – either immediately, or in the long term, tend to be appointed through a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, or a mixture of both.

These different sorts of authority may overlap – and there is also the sort of authority based on knowledge or skill, to add into the equation.

The Bible readings we have heard this morning face us with the question of who or what authority we should obey.

In Deuteronomy, we read of the Israelites in the desert, who have been led by Moses in their journey from slavery in Egypt. As the people approach the Promised Land, Moses authorises various leadership roles, which will guard the distinctive faith of Israel once they are living among pagan neighbours. There will be judges, priests, kings as well as prophets; and we can see each of these groups taking over the main leadership role, and failing in it, during the history of the Jewish nation.

The authorisation of the prophets contains two warnings. First a warning to the people to obey the prophets, who, though human, will be speaking the true word of God, and communicating the divine will to the nation. No matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient the prophets’ words, they must be heeded above the voice of the military leaders, the monarchs or the priests. The later history of Israel demonstrates how often the people ignored this authoritative voice, and the Old Testament spells out the consequences.

The passage, also contains a warning to anyone who is called to be a prophet. They must remain faithful to the voice of God which was heard at Sinai. They are not to moderate the covenant when life gets difficult, or be tempted by the easier or more seductive rules of the pagans among whom they settle. They are not to give up when things get difficult, when they are persecuted, or when people refuse to listen to them. Authority must remain true to the one who gave it, and is not to be abused.

Behind the reading from 1 Corinthians is a question about which authority should take precedence. Paul’s converts, and especially the Jewish ones, are struggling with the question of whether they are still under the authority of the Jewish Law code, especially in relation to what sort of food they may eat, or whether salvation in Christ has released them from that obligation. Paul usually stoutly defends the authority of freedom in Christ, but in this instance, he reminds the church that there is a higher authority: that of love and concern for their individual fellow Christians. Though some may know that the gods to whom the meat was sacrificed before being sold in the marketplace are non-existent, others may be troubled by any association with pagan practice. Concern for them must always take precedence over individual freedom or principles. Later in the same letter, Paul spells out in details just how love is shown in Christian behaviour (1 Cor. 13)

This is a guide to what has ‘authority’ when Christians disagree. It ensures that the Christian community can stay together even when members disagree over interpretation. It argues that the diversity of the church is to be maintained even when its members have deep differences. It is not saying that injustice should be tolerated, or conflict avoided, or difficult discussions shelved, nor that no-one should ever expect to be offended by what another Christian believes or does. It does say that the opinions of each individual Christian are to be taken seriously, and that even if you consider another Christian weak in faith, or misguided in interpretation, they are to be treated with respect as a person for whom Christ died as much as he died for you.

And perhaps there is also a message for us as we modern Christians struggle with the question of whether the Bible, or reason, or the guidance of the Holy Spirit speaking to us now has the highest authority.

At first sight, the Gospel reading appears simply to describe a healing miracle. The healing is from demon possession, and that makes some modern day Christians feel uncomfortable. We are not very sure that demons exist, and tend to think that healing of the symptoms described as ‘demon possession’ are actually the province of doctors and psychiatrists, not religious professionals. That is perhaps a question for another time, although it is also about who has ‘authority’ in different areas of healing.

The Gospel writer, however, shows very little interest in the healing. What Mark is concerned with is authority. The story contrasts the authority of the scribes, the religious teachers of the time, and guardians of authority based on knowledge and tradition, with the authority of Jesus. Those who hear Jesus teaching acknowledge his charismatic authority, and the contrast between his teaching and those who have ‘book knowledge’. The crowd’s appreciation of his authority is reinforced after he heals the demon possessed man. His authority has been shown to be greater than that of a servant of Satan.

The story demonstrates that the unclean spirit knows the source of Jesus’s authority, but not all the people who hear him teach, or who witness his miracles, do so. They don’t make the connection between the teaching, the actions and the God from whom they come.

The Galilean crowd had to decide whose authority to obey. The people of Israel and the early Church had to do the same; and so do we, as we try to live as Christians and as citizens and as individuals in contemporary society. The communities to which we belong can give us guidance.  Some may even try to force us to make certain choices. It’s not easy and ultimately, it’s up to us.

We have to make these choices about things which are external to us, political choices and choices about who we associate with and how we behave.

We also have to make choices about things which are within, moral and spiritual choices, where our own desires, and even sometimes our own demons, drive us one way, and God, through the teaching of Christ and the influence of the Holy Spirit, drives us the other.

We will differ in the weight we assign to traditional, knowledge-based, and legal-rational authority, and no-one else can make our decisions for us. I offer two thoughts that you may find helpful as you decide what and whose authority  speaks best to you of God’s will.

The first is a traditional native American story.   A chief was telling a gathering of young braves about the struggle within.   “It is like two dogs fighting inside of us,” the chief told them.   “There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog always wants to do the wrong.  Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and is winning the fight. But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight.”

“Who is going to win in the end?” a young brave asks.

“The one you feed,” the chief answered.

The second is based on language and the origins of words. The words authority, authentic, authorise and author all derive from a Latin word, ‘auctor’ which means origin or creator. True authority comes from the Creator; that’s how we recognise it.

Amen.

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