One having Authority
Sermon preached at Enmore, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 28th January 2018
Readings: Deuteronomy 18.15–20; 1 Corinthians 8.1–13; Mark 1.21–28
George Campbell Morgan was a famous English preacher early last century and Pastor of the Westminster Chapel in London for many years. At the time of the loss of the Titanic in 1912 when 1,490 passengers perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic, a number of Christian leaders declared that the disaster was some kind of punishment from God because of human pride in attempting to build an unsinkable ship. As a prominent clergyman Campbell Morgan was asked for his opinion and he answered that we should be very hesitant to describe any disaster as an act of God and furthermore he noted that while the iceberg was God’s creation, the Titanic was clearly a creation of mans’. Sadly not all Christian leaders through the years have shown Campbell Morgan’s wisdom. Too many have been over zealous in speaking for God and claiming to know the divine mind. Television evangelist Pat Robertson in the USA suggested that God caused Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke as a punishment for conceding land to the Palestinians and Jerry Falwell claimed that God had allowed the 9/11 attacks on New York as punishment for the country’s acceptance of feminists and gays. Presuming to speak for God is a risky business but it has always been so. Today’s three readings all address in various ways the issue of discerning who actually speaks for God.
In the passage from Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing the people for their new life in the Promised Land. The two themes that appear in chapter 18 are the danger of idolatry and the need for valid authorisation of the leaders, especially the prophets. In Israel, prophets were the men and women who spoke for God- they were his mouthpiece. It was therefore critical that they be the genuine article. The prophet who spoke in the name of another god or who claimed to speak God’s words when they were really his own would be put to death. The test of the true prophet was whether his words proved true or false. Throughout Israel’s history there were numerous false prophets and not surprisingly they were usually found at court. They listened to the King rather than God and spoke words that fitted the political situation of the day. The real prophets were often unpopular with the establishment because they delivered uncomfortable words that failed to massage the egos of those in power. Frequently they dwelt at the margins of society and critiqued the injustices of society and called people back to the worship of Yahweh.
The epistle also deals with discerning truth and falsity in the Christian community. Within the church at Corinth there were a number of issues that divided people and there was no shortage of people willing to pontificate on these matters. How were you to decide who was right? The issue addressed in chapter 8 is whether it is okay for Christians to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. It’s not a hot issue in Sydney in 2018 but the principles Paul teaches are still very relevant. What we don’t realize is that in the ancient pagan world, temples were a bit like restaurants: every town had its shrines or temples to various gods like Apollo or Venus and in Paul’s day, shrines to the emperor and members of his family. When you visited the temple you took along an animal for sacrifice which would be killed, then cooked and eaten. It was a family outing and you all enjoyed the meal together. Often there was far more meat than could be consumed so the temple officials would take what was left over down to the market where it would be sold. There was of course a darker side to temple worship because there were always other entertainments available such as the temple prostitutes and as much wine as you could drink. The Corinthian Church contained both Jews and Gentiles- many Jews refused to eat any meat that had been anywhere near a pagan temple and some of the Gentiles were reluctant to partake of anything which reminded them of their old ways when feasting on meat was accompanied by drunken carousing and immorality. But there were some very enlightened Christians who argued that as there was only one true God, the one who revealed himself in the person of Jesus, then all other gods were just a figment of the imagination. They had no power to hurt them and could be safely ignored. Therefore it was fine to go to the market and buy the sacrificed meat. Others went even further and said it was fine to go to the temple and have a meal with your friends as long as you kept away from the dodgy stuff that went on out the back. So on this issue Corinth was a church divided.
How does Paul respond? First, he quotes the saying being bandied about, “all of us possess knowledge.” He acknowledges that knowledge — an understanding of the issue is important. He also concedes that the enlightened view, namely that idols no longer have any power over those who have declared that Christ alone is Lord has much to commend it. But he then adds the comment that ‘knowledge puffs up but love builds up’. In other words Paul seems to imply that knowledge is not the only thing to be considered when determining what is best for the community. It is sometimes more important to be loving than to be right. If I use my knowledge or my liberty in a way that offends the sensitivities of those with a weaker conscience then I have damaged rather than strengthened the body of Christ.
The Christian Church today is a very broad church comprising people with many different ideas and ways of doing things. There are numerous denominations and often factions within each of them. We have suspicion and sometimes real hostility between conservatives and liberals, to the point where some Christians refuse to have fellowship with those who differ from them and will not receive Communion together. It is very easy to have a contemptuous attitude towards those who think differently from us. Perhaps the words of Paul are relevant here- knowledge puffs up and love builds up. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid debate and discussion about the issues that divide us but it does tell us something about the way those discussions should be conducted. Paul gives us another clue for discerning truth and falsity in a person who claims to speak for God. The one who does so without love for the Christian community as a whole –the one who puts others down or who speaks in an arrogant manner is to be listened to with great caution.
The Gospel reading for today takes us into the synagogue in Capernaum where faithful Israelites have gathered to be taught and to be encouraged in their faith. They are in for a surprise because today the teacher is the itinerant teacher and preacher, Jesus. Even before he casts out the demon from the tormented man they are astonished by his teaching because he teaches ‘as one having authority and not as the scribes’. The scribes were not priests but laymen who studied the Scriptures. In synagogue worship they would translate the Torah from Hebrew into Aramaic and give some exposition of it, depending heavily on the writings and commentaries of people more learned than themselves. Jesus spoke with an authority that came from within. In the New Testament this kind of authority is seen as belonging to God. Even today we recognize the person who has authority. We sit up and take notice when we hear someone being interviewed who knows what they are talking about. Authority is not the same as power. Power is bestowed externally and comes usually with some office. In accepting the position of President of the USA, Donald Trump had enormous power conferred on him: how he uses that power will depend upon the quality of the man and the authority that comes from within him. The people in the synagogue on that Sabbath morning recognised the authority of Jesus. Mark rarely gives us much of the content of Jesus’ teaching but we know from our reading of the gospels that when Jesus spoke there was never any dissonance between his words and his actions. His teaching was conveyed by word and deed. Everything that Jesus taught was modelled in his life.
Gods still speaks today through the Scriptures and yes sometimes through his servants who with some fear and trepidation seek to explain those scriptures in ways we can understand. But as in days of old not everyone who claims to speak for God actually does so. We need the gift of discernment to listen to the voice of God above all the competing voices that threaten to mask his words. As we do so we remember Paul’s advice that knowledge alone, puffs up but love builds up.