Sunday, 27 September 2020

On authority

Address given at All Saints Stradbally (Castleconnell) on Sunday 27 September 2020, the 16th after Trinity

 All three readings today are about authority, in one way or another.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32), the Temple leaders ask Jesus who gives him the authority to do what he is doing. In the Epistle reading (Philippians 2:1-13), Paul tells the Philippians that it is God who has given Jesus authority over everything in heaven and on earth and under the earth. And in the OT reading (Exodus 17: 1-7), the Israelites question the authority of Moses to lead them through the wilderness when they find no water at the oasis of Rephidim.

This question about who has authority in the congregation of the faithful, and from whence it comes, has troubled people of every religion, not just Christians and Jews, but others too. This is why every faith is divided into competing antagonistic sects, I think.

So let’s examine what we can learn from todays readings, and see how we might apply it to our own circumstances today.

The background to the Gospel reading is this.

The previous day, Jesus had ridden on a donkey into Jerusalem in triumph to the cheers of the crowd, many of whom hoped that he was the promised Messiah. He had entered the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers, and quoting from scripture, he had declared, ‘It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’. In this way he directly confronts the authority of the chief priests and the elders, and they are furious. Jesus threatens their power and authority, and they begin to plan how to do away with him.

Now, they ask Jesus a trick question, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ If he claims the authority of the Messiah, they will charge him with blasphemy. If he doesn’t, he will disappoint the crowd, making it easier for the Temple leaders to move against him in another way. But Jesus spots the trap. He tells them he will not answer their question until they answer a question of his: ‘Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ The chief priests and elders see that if they reply ‘from heaven’, Jesus will accuse them of not believing in John’s baptism, while if they reply ‘of human origin’, they will incense the crowd who believe John was a prophet. Caught in this dilemma they say, ‘We do not know’, justifying Jesus in his refusal to answer their question.

In his epistle to the Philippians, St Paul answers those who query the authority of Jesus.

Let us hear his words again:

‘Christ Jesus … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

For Paul, the answer to the chief priests’ and elders’ question about the authority of Jesus flows from his divine nature and complete obedience to God, even to the point of crucifixion. Paul’s words are really a creed, one of the earliest statements of Christian faith that we know about.

In the Old Testament reading Moses faces a crisis of confidence among the Israelites.

They challenge his authority to lead them when they fail to find water for themselves and their flocks in the arid wastes of Sinai. Moses recognises that their quarrel is not just with him, but with the Lord, their God.

The Israelites seem to have forgotten how God through Moses had led them away from Egypt through the Red Sea, and how God had already provided them with food when they were starving by sending bread from heaven in the form of manna, as we heard last week. But despite their persistent lack of faith, God himself is faithful, and once again comes to their aid by sending Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff – the staff with which he parted the Red Sea – to reveal a spring of water.

In this way God shows the elders of Israel that Moses is the agent of God’s care for his people, so confirming Moses’ authority to lead the people.

The issues which sadly divide us as Christians have at their root this question of authority, where it comes from, and how we may recognise it.

The second part of the Gospel reading is relevant here, Jesus’s parable about the two sons. The father asks them both to go to work in the vineyard. The first refuses, but later changes his mind and does as he is asked. The second agrees to go, but never does. Which did the will of the father? The first of course, the chief priests and elders agree. Then Jesus turns their answer into a cutting indictment of their own refusal to respond to John the Baptist’s ministry. The outcasts and marginalised – tax-collectors and prostitutes – who responded to John, will enter God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, who didn’t respond.

The truth is that all authority comes from God, our loving Father, and belongs to those who hear his call and act upon it. Anyone who hears the call, but does not act on it is useless. 

But how do we know when such a call is truly of God and not a false call? Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (7:15-16), Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets, and tells us how we may recognise them: ‘You will know them by their fruits’.

This is the test each one of us should apply when we must decide whether or not to accept a person's authority in the congregation of the faithful. For, as St Paul advised the Philippians, we must ‘work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in (us), enabling (us) both to will and to work for his good pleasure’.

As a diocesan reader I have been entrusted with a small measure of authority to lead worship and to preach the word within this diocese.

This ministry is a great privilege which I enjoy. But where does this authority entrusted to me come from?

This is my story. During a parish vacancy, when sometimes there was no priest to lead worship, I realised that this was something that I could do, and I felt called to offer myself. The new Rector encouraged me and began to train me, and later I had informal sessions with the Archdeacon. Nowadays training is more formal, involving an 18 month part-time course, which those who have taken it, as John Jarvis in your own congregation has, tell me is very worthwhile. The Warden of Readers then recognised my vocation to reader ministry, and recommended me to the Bishop, who commissioned me as a diocesan reader in a service in my parish.

So it is the Bishop who has given me the authority to lead worship and preach, after a period of training and discernment. But ultimately it is up to you, through the power of God at work in you, to decide whether or not to accept my authority to minister as being blessed by God.

The Sunday before last was marked by the church as ‘Vocation Sunday’, where we were asked to consider how God is calling us. Maybe someone here today feels called to reader ministry as I was, and as John Jarvis was. If so, I would heartily encourage you to follow it up, by talking to Dean Rod about it in the first instance. I can assure you it is a most rewarding ministry, and it is one that is increasingly needed.


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