Monday, February 2, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany - Fr Edward Dowler

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as one of their scribes.

Today’s gospel twice strongly emphasises the way in which, by St Mark’s account, Jesus’s hearers very early in his public ministry, recognise him as someone who has authority. I’d like us to reflect on how this authority might have particularly communicated itself to those who were around him as he began his ministry of teaching and healing? And what might this have to say to us, in particular those to whom the Church has entrusted or will entrust an authority to teach. I’d like to single out four particular incidents near to the start of Jesus’s ministry that might have especially conveyed authority.

The first of these is the account in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. As is often noted, his ministry starts with a period of isolation and quiet prayer in the desert, and it is silent prayer and contemplation to which he returns when he takes his disciples apart from the crowd to rest in prayerful withdrawal after their days of active ministry. It is in contemplation also that Jesus spends the night before his crucifixion in Gethsemane. One source of Jesus’s teaching and activity, then, and one reason why it comes across as authoritative is the fact that his teaching is rooted in silent prayer and contemplation. And that’s a lesson for all who teach in whatever context: in a culture of non-stop noise and hyper-active communication. Baron Von Hugel commented that ‘Man is what he does with his silence’. And surely it is evident that the most authoritative voices are those of people who know what it is to be silent, who have integrated within themselves a sense of contemplative space, which somehow manages to show through in everything they do and say. And therefore that what they speak and teach comes deeply out of it.

A second sign of Jesus’s authority comes at the Synagogue in Nazareth when Jesus in St Luke’s gospel reads to the congregation from the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor...’ Jesus’s authority is shown here in his faithfulness to the ancient sources of the faith: he speaks in radical continuity with the prophets and the ancient deposit of the faith. And yet, Jesus’s authority does not come across simply as a re-hashing of what has already been said. This is, the people comment, a new teaching, and its newness appears to be what makes it so striking; but it is a type of novelty that comes not from fads and gimmicks, but from faithful, deep and careful engagement with the scriptures: from loving them and living them, and being excited about their contemporary application, and how their insights and the lifestyle they generate might be lived out in the community of faith for the good of the world today. Jesus has authority because, like the householder in Matthew’s gospel, he can bring both new and old out of his store; because he can present to his hearers a wisdom that has a beauty that is both ever ancient and ever new.

A third sign of Jesus’s authority at an early stage of his ministry comes in the call of the first disciples. Soon after the account of Jesus’s temptations in Matthew, we hear of him calling Simon, Andrew, James and John by the Sea of Galilee. People have often remarked how striking it is that both of these sets of brothers immediately follow after he has called to them. This encounter, writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus’. There is no explanation of why they follow, and what made them do it, even without any words from Jesus apart from ‘follow me’. It seems that Jesus’s personality alone is, in advance of any verbal communication, enough to convey an authority that the disciples find it impossible to ignore. Authoritative teaching is not then just a matter of clever words well said, but also crucially of lives well lived. ‘For us to be listened to with obedient compliance’, comments one preacher of the early Church, ‘whatever the grandeur of the speaker’s utterances, his manner of life carries more weight’. The authority of any teacher is thus not only in the words they say, but what, in all sorts of ways, can be apprehended more deeply about their character, sometimes before they have even opened their mouth.

Fourthly, and finally, the Healing in Capernaum in today’s gospel shows us that authority comes from power well-used. As Fr Andrew reminded us last week, Jesus’s miracles, far from being arbitrary and freakish magic tricks, actually restore the creation to the fullness of what it was intended to be as well as, of course, doing the related task of pointing to the coming Kingdom of God. And so it is in today’s gospel, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority (they remark) He commands even the unclean spirits’. Jesus’s teaching is seen to be authoritative because of his ability to command evil spirits. One often hears that the people with whom Jesus was most at odds were the religious professionals of his day. But, although there clearly were tensions with them, that emphasis surely misses the force of gospels like today’s. The real battle of Jesus’s ministry, Tom Wright comments, ‘was not a round of fierce debates with the keepers of orthodoxy, but head-on war with Satan’. The most serious battle is against the forces of evil, the forces that overcome people, destroy them and make them mad. It is Jesus’s success in combating these forces, in the use of his power to raise up, to restore and to heal those who have been wounded by them, that gives him authority and compels his hearers listen to his words.

Jesus’s authority is, of course, different to that of a merely human teacher. Jesus teaches with authority because he is rooted in contemplation, but his contemplation, unlike ours, is the face to face vision of the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart. Jesus’s words carry both engaging freshness, and also appeal to the scriptural tradition, but of course they are authoritative, because the one who utters them is himself the Father’s eternal Word. Jesus’s teaching demands attention, because, as with the call of the disciples, before he even opens his mouth, his presence and persona command attention, but then you could say, he would, because he is the Christ, the son of the living God. Jesus’s authoritative teaching is recognised because of his wise use of power to raise up, restore and heal; but he can do those things precisely because he is the one through whom all things came to be. Is it possible that even if we tried to follow the blueprint, we could be anything like so successful? Well, yes it is because Christians are not just friends of Jesus, or imitators of him, but members of his body the Church. And this means that if we stay close to him, our own efforts, poor though they always are; fraught with enormous amounts of difficulty and ambiguity though they always will be; will be caught up into him, so that we too will teach with an authority that will come not from ourselves alone, but from ourselves rooted and grounded in him.