St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

One having Authority

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.

Philip Brad­ford