Text: Deuteronomy 18. 15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8. 1-13; Mark 1. 21-28
According to Mark’s gospel, when Jesus began to preach in Galilee the local people were astonished at the authority with which he delivered his teaching. They made a particular point of contrasting the authority of Jesus with that of the scribes, who were the official theologians of Judaism at the time. Now the scribes were not stupid or ignorant men. On the contrary, they were very well educated; and literate not only in the theology of their own faith, but also with regard to the Greco-Roman culture in which they lived their daily lives. They knew the philosophers, they knew their history, they knew their politics. Consequently, they could always be counted on to say something intelligent about being a Jew in the first century. But for all their study, and all their knowledge of the faith, it seems that the ordinary people of Galilee were not particularly impressed when the scribes opened their mouths. Somehow their words lacked the authority which they now discerned in the message of Jesus.
So what is this authority thing, anyway? How does one person have it and another not? Well, in the Greek of the Mark’s text, authority is a kind of power. It is a power which is given to one person by others - because they see in that one person, Jesus in this case, a distinguishing integrity between who that person is what that person does. Let me tell you a story.
Beginning in the 1930s, someone began writing the word ‘Eternity’, in perfect copperplate script, all over the footpaths of inner Sydney. For a great many years, nobody knew who was doing it. The word simply appeared. People saw the word unexpectedly, as they stepped off their trains in the morning, or as they left a coffee-shop, or a business meeting. Everyone wondered what the word meant. And, in wondering, many considered questions concerning the meaning of life, questions they had never given their attention before. After many years, the identity of the author was revealed. His name was Arthur Stace, who worked as a cleaner at the Red Cross. His story was compelling. Stace grew up in squalid poverty, sheltering under other people’s houses and stealing food from their doorsteps. His sisters were prostitutes and his father an alcoholic. For many years Arthur himself had wandered the streets of Sydney in a drunken stupor. But one night he staggered into a men’s meeting at the Church of St. Barnabas in Paddington. And there he heard a sermon about eternity. It changed his life. From that moment he gave up the grog, because he felt that God had called him to a special task. To write the word Eternity. And that is what he did for the next forty years.
TODAY, in Sydney, Arthur Stace is a legend. He name commands great respect from people at every eschalon of society. His one-word sermon was traced onto the harbour bridge in lights at the close of the new year’s fireworks display at the turn of the century. And the city of Sydney has inscribed the word permanently onto the footpath of Martin Place. Why? Because people can see that there was an integrity between who Martin Stace was and the message he proclaimed. He was a simple, uneducated man who was saved from dereliction by his hearing a single word. Eternity. And he dedicated his life to placing that single word before others. Not in a pushy way. Not in a preachy way. But in the way of a simple, uneducated man who knows, from the depths of his own life, what Eternity means.
Authority, you see, comes from deep within a person’s life. It comes from their experience of an encounter with Jesus Christ, and from the integrity Christ creates in them between who they are and what they do and say. This is the kind of authority which the people of Capernaum saw in Jesus. Here was one who acted and spoke not as one who had no personal experience of the promise he proclaimed. He spoke not theoretically, but existentially. He spoke about God and about life as he knew them to be in his own life and experience. The people of Galilee saw that, and so they listened as to one who speaks with the authority that comes from integrity.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he upbraids them for mis-locating their authority in mere head-knowledge. These were people who believed that it was the complexity of their theology which would save both themselves and their hearers. But this is not the case, says Paul. What empowers our lives is not what we know, but how we love:
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 . . .
Paul’s point is this. If you love God, then you will love other people. You will build them up and support them at that point in their lives where they need support. Why? Because that is what God does in loving us! And it is only out of that experience of being loved by God, most usually at a point when other loves fail, that we gain the authority to act with love in the lives of others.
If Paul is right, friends, then we have no authority as Christians to tell others how it should be for them. Because we don’t actually know how it is for others, or should be, not at least with any degree of certainty! Our only authority is that which comes from our particular experience of being known and loved by God. In that authority we are called to love and support and serve, and to bear witness to God’s love in our lives. But no more. Beyond that we have no authority. Beyond that we are pretending. And people see through that.
Thomas Merton wrote that the point of our Christian journey is not to know God in the abstract – in general, as it were - but to love God with our entire beings - even as God loves us, and knows us by that loving even more than we can ever know ourselves! People of God, because God loves you, and because you have known that love in your life and experience, you now have the authority to love other people. That is your calling, that is your vocation as God’s children. That is your special dignity in life. It is no more than that. But it is no less either.