Sermons from St
Authority. The whole idea of ‘authority’ has changed radically over the last fifty years, and I’ve certainly seen some changes in my lifetime as a doctor. Gone are the days when the consultant was God, and when every word he spoke (and it was usually ‘he’) was treated as gospel. The growth of consumerism and the internet has undermined our respect for authority, for politicians, for science, and particularly for so-called ‘experts’: with Google at our fingertips we’re all experts, aren’t we? My view on life, and my opinion, are now as good as anybody’s – or so I’d like to think!
Recently we have seen this change at work in many different ways. Discontent with the educated elite and the establishment contributed to both the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. People power made itself felt vociferously, even stridently, when it came to the leadership of both the Child Abuse and the Grenfell Tower enquiries: and there was the whole tragic business of Charlie Gard. Neither have the beleaguered Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England been spared their share of stick.
Of course a moment’s thought will tell us that not all spurning of authority is helpful or desirable. Children need both rules and boundaries at home and at school, as they grow up and learn how to live in the world alongside others. And our whole system of law and order depends on consent, and on accepting the proper powers and responsibilities of the police, and the authority and independence of our magistrates and judges. I’m sure you can think of many other examples. Trouble is; we’re much happier when the weight of authority falls on someone else, and tend to resent it and feel it’s ‘unfair’ if it falls on us. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves Ezekiel’s question – ‘Is it not your ways that are unfair?’
So what, as Christians, should be our attitude to authority? When, and how, should we recognise and respect it? We have of course only one perfect model of authority, and that is Our Lord. And in the wonderful hymn to His crucifixion and resurrection quoted by Paul in the letter to the Philippians, we learn the nature of his power and authority. Every knee should bow at his name and every tongue confess that He is Lord because he emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and was obedient. Obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. A strange sort of authority, this obedience. Far from being servile or populist, it comes from heaven itself, from God. As this morning’s gospel reminded us, it is not of human origin.
It’s helpful here to look at Our Lord’s friendship with St. Peter as a guide to how Our Lord’s authority works, as far as the church is concerned. Peter was the first disciple to recognise that Jesus’s authority came from his status as Messiah, the Son of the living God. But when Jesus explained that this meant he had to go to Jerusalem to face the opposition of the religious and military authorities, and to be tortured and killed, Peter couldn’t take it. Peter ignored his Lord’s authority – he knew better – ‘God forbid it Lord!’ he said. God forbid that you should go the Way of the Cross – but Jesus knew that this was the will and purpose of his heavenly Father. Peter was a good man, and his love for Jesus was deep and genuine. At the same time everything that he had been taught told him that the Messiah was to rule in triumph over his enemies, and would restore the lost Kingdom of Israel. So on a human level his protest was understandable and justifiable. It was just that this was not God’s way, God’s plan, for the salvation of the world.
Soon we are to have a new parish priest, and we continue to pray for God’s blessing on John Reed, and on Ruth, Alan and Emma. We pray because all priests need the gift of the Spirit. They stand in a difficult place, in the middle, between God and his people. They have to be, like Jesus, servant-leaders, and from this derive their authority. And they have to preach and live the gospel, which is the way of resurrection – but also the Way of the Cross. I don’t really know what the future holds for us here. It would be lovely to have proper catering facilities, a full church with lots of children, lots of servers up front, lots in the choir, gorgeous music and gorgeous ritual – and I pray for all of these. But if I’m honest I have also to acknowledge that this is not necessarily where the Lord will lead us. And so I also pray that we may be given the gift of discipleship, that under Fr. John’s authority and guidance we may follow our Saviour along the path that the Lord, and the Lord alone, will choose.
This would be a good time to reflect on our future, and on what Our Lord’s priorities for us might be, as servants of the servant-King, in a world that is so needy, a world that so much needs loving. And we are all tired; we need some refreshment and restoration. Perhaps above all we need to be reconciled and healed from past hurts, and finally to put behind us any residual resentment we feel for past wrongs and criticisms. So let’s pray that with Fr. John’s help we may be renewed through and through. As Ezekiel might have said to us ‘Get yourselves a new heart, and a new Spirit’!