Sermon -- Epiphany 4 (Ordinary 4) Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
He taught with authority
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." -- Mark 1:27
If you believe the gospel you are inclined to accept the authority of Jesus as a teacher. Sometimes we might rebel against it; and more often we try to rationalize it to suit ourselves; but for Christians our basic belief is that we should be guided by what he said as well as we can understand it from scripture. Indeed we go a little further and say that when we struggle in the fellowship of believers to understand the scriptures we put Christ at the centre of our beliefs and interpret all the rest in the light of our knowledge of him. For believers, he is the supreme authority on our relationship with God and how we should live in that relationship. We accept his authority because we believe that he came from God, and more than that, he not only came from God, he is God. For us believers, acceptance of the authority of Jesus follows from our acceptance of him as Lord, the Messiah, the holy one of God, the Word who was with God at the beginning, who was made flesh, who died a sacrificial death and whom God raised up and gave authority over everything in heaven and on earth. [Romans 9:10; Mark 8:29; Mark 1:24; John 1:1,14; Romans 5:8; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 28:18.]
People of faith believe him, or at least know that we should, because of who we believe he was and is; but what about people who do not believe in him, or who wonder about his true nature, or even for ourselves when our faith weakens: what then can be made of his teaching with authority? When he is heard as one who teaches with authority, as one who knows what he is talking about, and he expects people to accept it and to obey his commands, what are people to make of it; how are they to judge how well founded that authority is? You might then say, 'Who is he?', or even, 'Who does he think he is?' When we ask that sort of question, we are in much the same position as those who first heard him teach in the synagogue at Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee so long ago.
There was no doubt in their experience that he was no ordinary teacher. They were amazed at how different his teaching was:
Then they saw the strange encounter with the evil spirit. The point of the story is not anything about whether we should believe that such demons exist as the people of his day understood the world; but about the way that Jesus dealt with a power of evil. The existence of evil as a spirit which possessed, or influenced a person from within, was simply assumed. What excited the people who saw it was his authority in that confrontation. The way he dealt with evil, was the same as his teaching: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching--with authority!
Our modern hang-up with authority
What a bag of trouble we have with the idea of authority! It is easy to go to extremes. Some people hate the very idea that anyone or any power could ever tell them what to do. It is typical of young people especially that they test authority and try to establish their ability to live independently, taking control of their own lives, deciding as much as possible for themselves. In most things we accept that striving as part of growing up. I fear, however, that in our society it is an attitude that lingers far too long. Besides that independence in which we are our own authority on much that we do, we need to acknowledge that we are interdependent -- we depend upon each for most things that are important to us, and we depend upon God.
It is one of the sad things about church life today that people tend to divide
into those who prefer a liberal way of living a Christian life, making allowances
for modern ways of thinking, and others who want the gospel proclaimed with
authority and without compromise. They are both right in their different ways,
but the liberals are wrong when they compromise the gospel to
make it acceptable, and the conservatives are wrong too when they use simple theories and threats of punishment to force their limited understandings on everyone else. When either of them talks of the authority of the Bible, they mean their own limited interpretation of it. Any preacher who is prepared to teach with that kind of uncompromising authority will have quite a good following in these uncertain times, either by telling people what they want to hear or by daring to challenge accepted ways. So called conservatives who teach dogmatically have quite a strong appeal in the face of modern unfaithfulness when they clearly put God first, for that is right, and much that is wrong in our world comes from not putting God first, failing to accept his authority, and putting ourselves in his place. Giving God his due, however, does not excuse anyone behaving in an authoritarian way: as in 'Its right because I say its right, and people who disagree with me have no part with me!' Attitudes of that kind tend to belittle the value of other persons, to divide the world into 'us' and 'them', and foster fear and hatred. Equally, and perhaps even more damaging, is that excess of so called liberalism in which anything goes as long it feels right to the individual.
Most people in our society do not need to be reminded of the value of liberty or the dangers of authoritarianism that can lead to the excesses of communism or Nazism, to the gulag and the gas chamber. We in the West are all liberals in that sense. But it is not out of place to point out that there is a form of liberal opinion, which for a few years was commonly called 'political correctness', that can itself become a tyranny and a cover for self-serving libertarian orthodoxy. There are sophisticated versions of this ideology in which reaction against authority is taken to the extent of denying all ideas of objective truth or of what is right or wrong, that is of denying every claim apart from what we each of us feel is right for ourselves. Though it is sometimes presented as 'postmodern', and people who don't go along with it are dismissed with contempt by the sophisticates as being behind the times, it is not a very new idea It was Shakespeare who had Hamlet say 'there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.' His remark was make in a mood of cynicism about life, humanity and the world in general that is common enough attitude today [Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.] Cynicism about there being any kind of objective truth and goodness leads to a new kind of arbitrary authoritarianism -- ultimately a nihilistic attitude to one's own life and the lives of others.
The biblical view
Let me that leave present day struggle aside for now and come back to the way authority is dealt with in the New Testament. For the people who expressed surprise at the way Jesus taught 'with authority', to wonder about his authority was to raise question of who Jesus was. The point of Mark's telling the story is to say, 'He is the Messiah!' At this stage of the gospel, in this story, only the demon is able to recognize him, for the power of evil knows its adversary, it knows that the time of its defeat and destruction has come. It will no longer have power over people when the power of God in this man is on the side of the people. The question of how Jesus could have such authority comes back to who he is, after raising the question without saying what he is doing, Mark goes on to pile on one example after another of how Jesus exercised his authority. There are many examples of healing, because this is one of the ways of demonstrating his use of the power of the coming kingdom of God for the welfare of people who were suffering or oppressed. Then the next time the word 'authority' is used by Mark is when Jesus dares to forgive sins:
This would have reminded some of his hearers of what the later prophetic writings in Daniel had to say about the authority of the Son of Man:
So you begin to get the picture that the authority of Jesus, is not just about the way he taught in the synagogue or in the Sermon on the Mount, though there too they noticed that he taught with authority (Matthew 7:29). His authority is being shown in a more dramatic way. It is the kind of authority with which a good batsman strikes the ball and sends it to the boundary -- with precision and good effect. Jesus was engaged in a conflict with the powers of evil, the enemies of humankind, and he was banishing them. This a great cosmic battle, clearly demonstrating what he said:
That was another way of declaring the good news. The people were being set free from their enemies, the powers of evil. They need no longer be afraid. They could begin to enjoy the glorious liberty of being children of God, which was the purpose of his coming.
Authority and liberty
It is an interesting thing that the same word [Greek 'exousia'] which is translated 'authority' in Mark 1:22 and 27 also occurs in the epistle for today, where it is translated 'liberty'? --
How can authority be the same as liberty? It is when you have the power to order your life within yourself. Now that is a very modern and appealing idea. All sorts of gurus will tell you that you have the power in yourself to decide, to do, what is good and right for you to achieve your potential. So it is important to see how this comes about in our understanding of Christ and his work.
Along side indwelling power I would put the fact that in the Bible the meaning of authority ['exousia'] is not limited to that internal personal kind of authority that does not rely upon any external source. Its usage in the New Testament includes also examples which are clearly hierarchical.
The great commission to go out with the message and make disciples of all nations, through which we share in the authority of Jesus, begins with Jesus having had authority given to him:
And it was a gift to celebrate, to wonder at:
The early creeds such as we have in scripture in Philippians 2:6-11, and the whole language and worship of the early church were full of praise for the way that Jesus, even though he had emptied himself of his heavenly power, exercised the power that had been given to him. It was shown in his authority to overcome evil, to win a victory over sin and death, for all our sakes:
What we and the observers at Capernaum are witnessing is a cosmic drama in which we are blessed with liberty to share in the power which his victory over evil has won for us. But you say, can't we give a modern psychological explanation of healing miracles and the casting out of evil spirits. That is a serious and honest question for many people which needs to be studied in depth, both psychologically and theologically. Let me now just give a short answer. Psychological explanations no more remove the power of God from acts of redemption than does a good scientific account remove the power of God from creation. Such explanations are not competing alternatives to faith, nor are they merely the same thing in a different language. However it is done, it is the power of God at work and it is the privilege of scientists to discover a little of how it was done. What comes out clearly from the scriptures is that a battle was being fought with evil, however you understand evil. It was seen as a power, or many powers, of a spiritual nature, apart from human beings, and in conflict with God:
So when Christians give thanks for liberty, we are not so much thinking of human self sufficiency and the authority of our own experience, but of the liberty we have in Christ, which we believe depends upon that external source of power Jesus had from God, the power which he exercised in decisively changing the objective balance of powers in our favour. So however we can express it, it is proper to acknowledge the source of our liberty as outside ourselves:
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