The Authority of Jesus (a sermon on Mark 1:21-28)

Jesus Preaching

An Icon of Jesus Preaching in the Synagogue

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

When I studied theology at university (over 20 years ago!) the accepted wisdom was that Jesus was probably formally trained as a Rabbi.  The idea of Jesus as a carpenter was thought to have been a later invention.  (To be fair we wouldn’t know Jesus connection to carpentry if it wasn’t for the story where he is rejected in is own home town, recorded twice in the Gospels in it Matthew 13 Jesus is dismissed as “the carpenter’s son” and in Mark 6 he is dismissed as “the carpenter.”)

Scholars thought (and I’m sure some still think) that only someone with scholarly training cold be so wise and teach with such authority.

I find this offensive to both my socialism (which as a student was bordering on Communism!) and my working class upbringing.

But learned academics could not bring themselves to imagine that the person they had devoted their lives to studying was not also a learned academic like them.

Knowledge is important.  The truth sets us free, but as that cerebral over-thinker St. Paul admitted “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up!”  knowledge is not enough, being correct isn’t enough, it’s not enough to be right, the Christian life is less about knowledge than it is about a way of life, less about facts than it is about relationships, less about doctrine all about love.

The wisdom of Jesus does not rely on academic training, to follow Jesus doesn’t require an R.E. A Level or even a G.C.S.E….

The wisdom of Jesus is profound and deep and life-changing, but it is as simple and as difficult as learning to love.

Jesus’ teaching was not designed to show off his knowledge and scholarship, his teaching was accessible:

  • No one can serve two masters
  • A city set on a hill cannot be hidden
  • A camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle
  • You cannot pluck figs from thistles

Yet these words and parables had more authority than the rulers and teachers of the day.  I wonder if there are some parallels to religious leadership today?

I think the Church of England is obsessed with authority. It comes across in our hymns, our liturgies, in the discussions we have a General Synod, in conversations with and about bishops… The Church used to have real influence, real authority in the life of the nation and of individuals… This influence has not just disappeared, it is simply no longer focussed around splendid buildings like this one or people with funny collars or pointy hats…

Christians played a key part in education (as the number and success of Church Schools demonstrates), in healthcare, in charities from Christian Aid to Amnesty International, in the trade union movement.

Our influence has dispersed, decentralised, secularised, but a lot of what is good about our culture comes from the Church.

However, many churches are in decline and the sexism and homophobia demonstrated in the structural life of the church is very off-putting to people of good conscience.

This week it it marvellous that we saw the consecration of our first women bishop – but it’s kinda embarrassing that it’s taken until 2015 to appoint one.

Please do pray for Libby Lane, she has joined a boys club (and while “macho” may not be the best word to describe a bunch of men in fancy hats and dresses, it is a very ‘male’ environment)

Libby Lane joins a House of Bishops that has lost its practical and moral authority.

But we shouldn’t despair – this is where the church should operate…

All of the good things the church has given our culture were not enforced by authority, they were created by a Christ-inspired love for justice, or a Christ-inspired compassion for the poor, or a Christ-inspired desire for all people to reach their full potential.

We have lost our practical and moral authority.

This is where  Jesus operated.

Jesus did not reinforce his words with authority, he did not say “listen to me, or I’ll tell my daddy on you!”  He did not say “listen to me, or God will strike you down!” (A popular tactic with Prophets of all religions!)

But Jesus’ authority was not backed up by power structures or based on threats (which is ironic for a church that has used both in his name).

I suspect that part of the sense of authority that Jesus has to do with him not being inside these structures that care about themselves than the message they are supposed to transmit.

Jesus’ authority is the authority of truth, the truth often visible only to the outsider, who can have a perspective that insiders lack.

Ouida said “familiarity is a magician that is cruel to beauty but kind to ugliness” – and outsider reminds us of what is beautiful and what is ugly…”

The American comedian Ellen DeGeneres said, “Sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.”

So what does the outsiders wisdom look like?

Well, our reading gives an example: in the Synagogue at Capernium a man creates a scene.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” he screams, “Have you come to destroy us?”

If, like me you grew up watching the Exorcist and the Evil Dead you will have a clear idea of what this could have looked like!  But I think it is more helpful to think of as someone who was sick, broken, isolated, unloved, who had lost their dignity and lost their self-worth.  Someone who, despite the grim state of their life, was stuck and feared change and what new terrors change could bring.  “Better the devil you know” seems to be a saying written for this occasion…

In the man’s shout of “leave me alone,” Jesus heard a cry for help – and he accepted him in his brokenness and healed him.

Jesus could see beyond the stagnating power structures to the need of a man in deep need.

The authority of Jesus was a rejection of the power structures, based on the power of truth, and the power of love.

Jesus authority is not demanded, not enforced.  Jesus invites us to follow, to voluntarily follow.

And the more authority we give Jesus, the more we will transform our lives.

Amen.

Psalm 111

Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,

in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the Lord,

studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honor and majesty is his work,

and his righteousness endures forever.

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;

the Lord is gracious and merciful.

He provides food for those who fear him;

he is ever mindful of his covenant.

The works of his hands are faithful and just;

all his precepts are trustworthy.

They are established forever and ever,

to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.

Holy and awesome is his name.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

all those who practice it have a good understanding.

His praise endures forever.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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