Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
8 June 2008, 09:45 (Trinity 3)
Hosea 5.15 – 6.6; Ros 4.13-25; Mt 9.9-13, 18-26
One of the marks of present British society is the collapse of authority. Perhaps for some this is actually more of the loss of respect we have for those who in the past were considered to be people of some stature in positions of responsibility. The teacher, the doctor, the policeman, the priest, the politician and so on, were all people for whom others held some respect and to whom were looked for a sense of authority. Whether this golden age actually existed in truth rather than in the imagination or folklore maybe at times hard to judge, but there is a perceived sense that authority as it was and as it was held by certain people has gone. Now is not the time to go into a long analysis as to whether and why this happened, but one aspect may be that for many people the ones who held authority have been placed on pedestals that have since been knocked over. They have not been able to live up to what has been expected of them nor what they have even expected of themselves. I suppose the obvious example has been the decline in respect for the politician. But it is not only those called to the high office of parliament who fail to maintain the expectations of the public. We all fall short of what we would wish to be and indeed what God calls us to be. What we say with our lips we do not always carry out in our lives. And with this loss of consistency goes a loss of authority.
That word ‘authority’ is what closed the part of the first section of teaching we find in Matthew’s Gospel and which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Jesus taught with a note of authority’.1 This is the first of five sections of teaching recorded in the Matthew’s Gospel and each one is followed by some form of action carried out by Jesus. Following the Sermon on the Mount are three groups of healing miracles, and the reaction of the people is that they saw Jesus as one with authority. Perhaps this is the reason for Matthew when challenged and called by Jesus to follow him he seems to do so immediately, up and away! If you think of the consequences for Matthew and his family this was going to be momentous. As a tax-gatherer for the Roman empire he was not exactly popular with the locals. He probably also took a bit extra for himself to line his own pocket. All this was to change. So it had to be someone with authority, with presence, with a command of words but also a consistency of action that would make a man like Matthew suddenly change his mind and his whole life style.
But what Jesus taught he carried out. None of this is so clearly drawn than when in Matthew’s Gospel we come to the final fifth section of teaching which is then followed by Jesus most testing time of his own teaching – his arrest, betrayal, trial, torture, crucifixion and resurrection. He was utterly consistent. That’s why he was perceived to be one with authority by all who met him. Of course John’s gospel spells this out further. His authority comes from who he is – ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father’2.
In our story today we heard, too, of the leader of the local synagogue asking Jesus to come to his daughter who had died. Again someone has recognised that what Jesus taught he himself lived. He was life, and the kingdom is about life and not death.
Again someone from the crowd had enough courage to interrupt him on his way and tugged at his cloak for attention. She too received healing. What ever the person, what ever the demands Jesus responds and the kingdom comes.
In contrast to this utter consistency I came across some rather challenging words. I was at table for a staff lunch and I thought I was being given the menu showing which dish would be accompanied by what sort of garnish. It wasn’t the menu. But it was a card which read:
Wealth without work;
Pleasure without conscience;
Science without humanity;
Knowledge without character;
Politics without principle;
Commerce without morality;
and worship without sacrifice.
These were the words of Mahatma Ghandi’s list of seven sins.
They point up the painful inconsistencies that still today are very obviously part of our public and indeed our private lives. They gnaw away at the way we are with each other and they begin to erode authority in all its forms.
These would make a good study course for Lent. But the more I reflect on the balance of each of the phrases the more I realise their truth they are getting at. The one without the other is empty. The one with the other has the power of being authoritative.
And that last line ‘worship without sacrifice’ is a haunting one for us Christians. For our service as Christians is, I believe, about sacrifice. It is about that because of the Lord we love and follow who gave himself to others in his concern for them when they needed to be healed and when they needed to be listened to, when they needed guidance and when they need accompanying, when they need consolation and when they need challenging. His sacrifice is all summed up on the cross where he gave himself totally that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. Perhaps I could add three further phrases:
Life without Love,
Humanity without God, and yes
God without Christ.
For what people saw in Jesus was the face and purpose, the creative and redemptive action of the God the Father. Put simply – Love in word and action. Now – there’s authority.
1 Matt. 7.29
2 John 14.9
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