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.

Do not be Afraid.

August 7, 2011

(1 Kings 19, 9-18; Romans 10, 5-15; Matthew 14, 22-33)

I spent all of the early part of my childhood living near the sea. My mother was also brought up at the sea side, and we spent our holidays with my grandmother and my aunt – who both lived by the coast – so I was always at ease in the water. I can’t remember learning to swim – I just always could, and in those days I did things I’d never dream of doing now. When we lived at Dover, I used to jump off the breakwaters into the sea; when I look at them now, as we go through Dover to join a cruise ship, I wonder how I ever had the nerve.

I swam and played in the water with confidence only because my mother was nearby, and I was sure she would not let me get into difficulties and would rescue me if I did. But coming from a family with seafarers in my ancestry, and spending so much time near the sea taught me a respect for the power of the water, especially when it was rough weather.  That means I would never have dreamt of doing anything as stupid as getting out of a boat into a rough sea, as Peter is shown as doing in our Gospel reading.

But we are not meant to take this story literally. As the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, pointed out in his book “The Meaning in the Miracles”, trying to find out what actually happened when these incidents took place – or even if they did – is pointless. What is important is what the Gospel writers are trying to tell us through the miracle story.

First of all, the miracle is telling us about Jesus. There is a strand of the Old Testament that sees the sea as the place of chaos, inhabited by sea monsters who cause storms and the deaths of seafarers. But one strand of the creation myths, echoes of which are found in the Psalms and Job, tells how Yahweh defeated the sea monsters to form the earth. So, when Jesus calms the storm, the text is telling us that God is present. There are also passages in the psalms which talk of God walking on the surface of the sea. So when Jesus walks on the water, the story again is telling us that God is present in him. And just to confirm it, Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, I am” ( using the name of God given to Moses in Exodus).

The miracle is also telling us that Jesus is at hand to help, even when he appears to be far off. Perhaps the church for whom the Gospel was written was going through a time of troubles, when they thought their very survival was in question; and as their troubles continued, they felt that God in Jesus had deserted them. Everything, represented by the waves and the contrary wind, was against them. The story tells them, and us that on the contrary, though unseen, Jesus is keeping watch from far off, and will come when they really need him – and that when he is there, the storms will be stilled, and they will reach their  safe harbour quickly. In this, the miracle story echoes our Old Testament story. Elijah, too, thinks God has deserted him, and sinks into depression and despair; but it is only when he has reached this lowest point that he is able to hear the ‘still, small voice’ of God, commissioning him to undertake the impossible in God’s name.

Secondly, the miracle of walking on the water is telling us something about the life of the Christian disciple.  It is telling us to trust in God’s care and presence, even if we cannot feel him close. It is telling us to trust that his help will be there when the storms and troubles are at their worst, when we most need it. It is telling us to keep our eyes upon Jesus if we want to succeed in following him.

Peter, the story tells us, was able to walk on water so long as he kept looking at Jesus. It was when he looked down, and let his trust be overwhelmed by fear, that he began to sink. In the same way we need to keep Christ at the centre of our thoughts as we live out our discipleship, and to trust in the way of love and acceptance he showed us, however difficult it may seem. We follow the path of discipleship not in our own strength, but in the strength we get from Christ. That is why being part of the Body of Christ, the Christian fellowship, is so important for us. If we try to do God’s work in our own strength, through our own limited resources, we will not succeed. This is also the message of Paul in our passage from the letter to the Romans. It is through our faith in Jesus that we will be saved, not through our own actions, however righteous.

But this miracle story also tells us that sometimes God in Christ will call us to get out of the boat, and do something amazing for him. Too many of us live our lives firmly sat down in the safety of the boat, firmly enclosed in our own comfort zone. In our church life, in our daily lives, we are not willing to take risks for God. But sometimes Jesus asks us to metaphorically get out, and  into dangerous waters to meet him – because Jesus is not often to be found sitting where it’s comfortable and safe!  So, the story is saying, be ready to leave your comfort zone if Jesus calls, and willing to do things you would not normally do – you will never walk on water until you do.

Of course we will sometimes fail; but that should not deter us from making the attempt. What people tend to remember about Peter is that he sank – they forget he was the only one of the disciples to be courageous enough to make the attempt. Just as they remember that he denied Jesus – and not that he was the only one  of the Twelve who came out of hiding and followed Jesus to the High Priest’s house.

Taking risks and failing is as important as succeeding. We cannot live our lives without risk. Our present day society tries to minimise risks, especially with children – and as a consequence we are raising a generation who don’t know how to judge when a situation is really dangerous, or how to cope when things get difficult, or how to judge who to trust. With our children, and with ourselves, we have, sometimes, to face difficult situations in faith, even if we fail.

The story reassures us that, when we do try, and when we sometimes fail, God in Jesus will be there to catch hold of us and keep us safe. If we keep trusting in God, he will not let us go under.

The final and most important message to Christian disciples from this miracle is contained in Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid”. As Bishop Gene Robinson said in his sermon at Putney before the last Lambeth Conference, we live in a world and in a church which is paralysed by fear. Much of it is unrealistic, a fear of things and situations that are not really so much of a threat as they seem. But whether the fear is realistic or not, the effect of being afraid is to prevent us from loving, and loving is what we are commanded to do in Christ’s name.

“Do not be afraid. I am” said Jesus. And the storm ceased and the wind dropped.

When I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, I was sent a prayer in the Celtic style, one of a collection by David Adams. I found it a great help in keeping me calm and unafraid when things were difficult. Perhaps it will help you to stay confident in the midst of the storm, and even to walk on the water, if Jesus calls you to do so:

Circle me O God.

Keep peace within.

Keep turmoil out.

Circle me O God.

Keep calm within.

Keep storms without

Circle me O God.

Keep strength within.

Keep weakness out.