Saturday, 1 June 2013

Authority: a sermon*

I wonder how the word authority makes you feel? I guess it makes some of us squirm, some feel secure, some feel trapped, some feel important. 

It is one of those words where context is all, isnt it? Authority. It can mean everything from bureaucracy to justice, security to tyranny, expertise to abuse.

We all rely on authority every day, one way or another. At perhaps the more trivial level, we use it in conversation and gossip: I have it on good authority.... as a conversational gambit.
Do you remember when sat navs were still relatively new, and there was a spate of lorry drivers getting stuck in tiny Devon villages, or grounding out in fords? We rely on the authority of maps, and get very annoyed when they are inaccurate; or laugh when someone else follows them too blindly without using any common sense; or have our hearts in our mouths when someone nearly dies because of a map reading error or mistaken instructions.

We rely on the authority of experts or supposed experts for much of our day to day lives. Im sure I cant be the only person who buys at least one guide book to the area whenever I am about to go on holiday, and then relies on the authority of the guide book authors to tell me what to do, where to eat, what I mustnt miss. And how annoyed I get if the guide book messes up! If Im outside a museum and the book said it was closed on a Monday but its now Tuesday and the doors are firmly locked, I take it as a personal affront how dare the guide book waste my time and risk ruining my holiday by getting it wrong!
We rely on the authoritative ingredients list on the back of the food packet to tell us whether the food contains something we are allergic to or not and many people would be prepared to sue if the packaging company got that wrong.

In fact, so many of our current scandals are at root about authorities not being trustworthy, that it is not surprising if we are ambivalent about authority. The Leveson enquiry showed us that not only could we not rely on the authority of our newspapers, we couldnt even rely on the honesty of their authorities information we assumed they had come by legitimately could have been tapped from a dead girls phone, or bought from a crooked cop. The MPs expenses scandal showed that we couldnt rely on the people who are meant to be guaranteeing the rule of law, on which all of our safety and security rests, to not be using our money to enrich themselves. The various banking scandals weve endured showed us that we couldnt rely on the banks to be solvent, to be safe places for our money, to keep our pensions safe, or even to know where their money was. We can no longer rely on authoritative pronouncements about the economy and prevailing interest rates, as we now know that these can be fixed between the banks for their own profit. We cant even trust beef to be beef.
The Bible is as ambivalent about authority certainly about human authority as we are. Its rather less ambivalent about Gods authority, but even there the writers explore how different human beings might react to Gods authority, or know about it, or learn to trust it given how flawed so many of our experiences of human authority are. All three of this mornings readings highlight and reflect on different aspects of what Gods authority means for us.

Lets look at the gospel reading first. At least three different kinds of authority are explored here.

First, the centurion chooses with care the people that he sent to Jesus asking for a cure for his ill slave. He chose Jewish elders, people with authority in the Jewish community that he is asking for help from. And when those elders get to Jesus, they spend some time giving the centurion a character reference, telling Jesus that he is someone they vouch for. He is worth helping, they say: and their authority for saying this is based on solid evidence: he is good to the Jews, and has demonstrated that by paying for the building of a new synagogue. Here, authority is based on reputation and esteem the speaker is authoritative, he is an authority and on evidence.

 Secondly, and at the heart of this passage, notice what that centurion says to amaze Jesus. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me. The key word here, the one that amazes Jesus and makes him exclaim at the centurions unique faith, is under. It is of course true, when you think about it, that authority over others is normally hierarchical, part of a system of authority with people above you and beneath you. If you are a manager, or a teacher, or a sports captain, or an army sergeant major, you have authority to direct the actions of others because a higher power has given you that authority. If people ignore your orders, they are answerable not just to you but higher up the chain of command.
Authority over others usually comes from being under authority ourselves. So the centurions statement is not simply about Jesuss power to command: it is a recognition that Jesuss power comes from God. In his simple, direct army analogy, the centurion makes a clear and unambiguous statement of faith in Jesus.

Thirdly, though, the reading doesnt end there. It ends with those who had been sent returning to the house and finding the slave in good health. So thirdly, authority is found in proof, or rather in corroborative evidence. The story wouldnt mean much if the slave hadnt, in fact, been healed. This is authority as the proof of the pudding or, as the Bible puts it more eloquently, taste and see. This, incidentally, is one way in which the long-running debate about whether science and religion are incompatible misses the point. The Bible positively encourages us to experiment and to assess the results.

This try it out and see for yourself approach to authority is also the emphasis of the first reading from 1 Kings. So too is the fact that in practice, our actions and beliefs are based fist of all on supposedly authoratative hearsay. Solomon prays to God that when a foreigner, hearing of Gods great reputation when the foreigner, on the authority of rumours and travellers' tales - comes to see for himself whether this God of Israel matches up to his billing, that God will answer his prayers, giving the final evidence that yes, this God is the real thing all right. Gods action will be the definitive authority, and will convince all who experience it.

Paul, in todays reading from Galatians, is in something of a dilemma over this. On the one hand, he is convinced that God spoke to him directly, in that amazing Road to Damascus conversion, and gave him the definitive gospel message which he is dutifully and busily passing on. On the other hand, he is so furious that others are corrupting that message that he insists here that nobody else, not even him, not even God,  can do something similar again. Even if I even if an angel from heaven told you something different, let them be accursed! Even by the standards of rabbinic exaggeration for effect, cursing an angel, a messenger of God, if they were to dare to bring a new message is a bit extreme.

Pauls outburst could be read as saying something about the authority of scripture. But of course, we need to bear in mind that scripture as we know it didnt exist at that point. When Paul says the gospel he means what I told you about Jesus. Remember?’ And when he says I did not receive it from a human source, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ we are back where we started. Pauls authority is grounded in the fact that he is utterly convinced that what he is saying was told to him by God.

The letter to the Galatians is urgent and impassioned it really matters, Paul is sure, that they get this right and he is distraught that the church he started, that was running well, is now going off the rails. He is in full flow telling people off, and he doesnt stop to consider that he was equally certain that he was doing the right thing, the thing God commanded, when he was busily engaged in persecuting the early church.

However, Paul has calmed down somewhat by the end of the letter, and once again the theme of evidence, the proof of the pudding, comes to the fore. The whole letter builds to a crescendo as Paul offers the concept of the fruits of the Spirit as a guiding ethical principle. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. There is no law against such things. 

The proof of the pudding is whether whatever you are doing, whatever you are believing, produces such fruit. Paul of course is no liberal he cant conceive that any teaching other than that he has given them could possibly produce such fruit. He tells them very firmly what to believe, and what to do, in the circumstances he has heard about. But his own experience has taught him that we cant rely on the religious formulations and traditions of yesterday. And Paul knows that the church he is writing to will face in the future all sorts of trials and questions he cant imagine. By the time his letter has arrived, they may well have lurched on to the next crisis. He will have to trust that this guiding principle, this litmus test, will pull them through.

Our faith, our lives, are built on a messy combination of different kinds of half-trusted authorities. Even when we dont trust the authorities the banks, the supermarkets, the MPs, the papers we have to rely on them for our day to day functioning. And the more we trust the people that tell us about something, the more we trust the information they tell us enough to base our actions on it. Whether that is wearing short sleeves because the weather forecast said it would be sunny, or trying a restaurant because a friend said they had a good meal there, to risking faith because we trust the accumulated wisdom of the centuries. But ultimately, we make our decisions based on our experiences of those actions. One too many weather forecast failures and we carry a mac everywhere we go. If we like the food, we go there again and are more likely to rate that friends recommendations in future. If we meet God, in prayer, worship, sacrament and friendship, we carry on doing what we were doing, and trust the Bible or our traditions more because they have been tested and found reliable.

In my first job at Proctor & Gamble I was responsible for doing quite a few marketing mailshots. We often included a money off coupon or a free sample to encourage people to try our products, from nappies to washing powder. The wisdom was that if the product was noticeably better than the alternatives, it was worth sending a free sample, even though that was by far the most expensive option. Because people would try it, see it was the best, and be far more likely to buy it after that experience. If you couldnt really tell the difference, then a free sample was pointless.

God is confident enough in his love and in the deep joy that knowing about God brings, to encourage us to give it a go. The ultimate authority of anything rests in our experience of it: today's readings are clear-eyed about that. The Bible writers know that the practical test of  whether authority measures up to experience applies to faith as much as to anything else in life, and they are confident that God will live up to that test. 

Authority is ultimately only worth anything if it is recognised as such by others. The centurion recognised it in Jesus. Paul recognised it in that voice on the road. Solomon recognised it in answered prayer. Let us pray that we will recognise it when we see it.

* For 2nd June 2013: Lectionary Readings 1 Kings 8:22-3, 41-3; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10.

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