Jesus as the source of authority for his disciples!
Ordinary Sunday 4: 28th January, 2018
Fr Greg Davies, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Deuteronomy 18.15-20, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, Mark 1.21-28
In these days of 'fake news' as they call it and as a result of the cloud being cast over just about every news source — we might all ask — well where do you go for 'accurate, authoritative and reliable information or news?' Where do we find 'truth' amidst the multitude of sources now available through the internet and social media?
Of course while these questions may seem especially relevant in our current social media context, I would suggest they are not new and have always been present in some shape or form throughout history. And as this has been the case for everyday life — it is in fact also very much the case in regards to faith — and for all people of faith as we seek not just truth but God's truth.
And for Christians of course — that has meant turning to the scriptures — and many would say that is all you need to do. The bible is the answer. If only it was that simple. But as history and experience testify — it is just not that simple.
The bible when you read, study and reflect upon it is not a solution book to the cross word puzzles of life and faith. You cannot just simply go and look up the answer. In many matters of life and faith the bible has nothing to say especially about our contemporary world. You will not find Jesus expressing a view one way or another on Darwinism or genetic research for example. And so, the scriptures need to be interpreted and to do that we look to scholars, institutions — the church or individuals to provide such interpretation but then when we do this — we find there is little consensus on what is meant — we soon discover that there is not one interpretation but many and that each interpretation may have something of value to say. Indeed we find that there may not be a single truth but many truths and of course amidst those interpretations false interpretations as well. In other words even the experts can be get it wrong. So we may feel — we are back to square one.
So what is the way forward for us as we search for 'truth and meaning' in our journey of faith? Is there a way forward? Yes, I believe there is.
The way forward I believe lies in the journey or process of 'discernment' as we seek God's will and strive to deepen our relationship with God. This need to discern is not new and we can see it clearly in the Hebrew scriptures themselves as God's people continually struggled to discern God's will. They looked to the God given source of their time namely the prophets and yet as we heard in our first reading that was no guarantee because not all of God's prophets were necessarily faithful to their duty or calling in speaking truthfully the word of God. Even back then discernment was required by the people and so the scripture in response to this reality sets out some clear criteria that should mark the character of a true prophet in contrast to a false one and thus form a guide to help the people in that process of discernment.
While all this issue of true and false prophecy might seem very removed from our time, nonetheless the issue is not so different for where or to whom do we look for truth, authority and God's word in matters of faith and life?
Clearly, as I have already noted the bible would be one dominant and logical response for most Christians. But then within our Anglican tradition there are two other important sources of authority that need to be held in balance. With the bible, there is tradition [that is the individual and collective experience of the church] and also reason or rationality. The temptation in our search for authoritative statements of faith and life is to opt or focus just on one of these sources that in the end proves to be unsatisfactory or unworkable.
In regards of the scriptures, while as I have said they are not a solution book, nonetheless there are sound principles for life and faith in the scriptures and particularly as demonstrated by Jesus himself. These principles or guidelines then have to be interpreted and applied to our own contemporary situation.
In our second reading we have an example of this from Paul in his own time. In the midst of a sensitive controversy over the eating of food sacrificed to Roman gods, Paul finds no direct answer to this thorny and contemporary issue of his time in the Hebrew scriptures — [an issue that has arisen as a result of the gospel of Jesus and its implications for daily living]. Paul has to do the hard work of discerning the gospel principle and then apply this to his own situation. So what we have in this letter is Paul's reasoning or argument based as he argues on the principle of love and not knowledge — based on a concern for a neighbouring Christian — again to be taken up out of love and not a sense of one's own righteousness.
As Paul had to discern and apply principles of the gospel to his own contemporary situation so do we as part of the church — we need to take the principles and values of the gospel of Jesus Christ and as best we can apply them to the various issues, problems and questions of our own contemporary world. This requires of us, as well as our biblical scholars, theologians and spiritual writers a responsibility to learn, reflect and study both the scriptures and our tradition. To hone our skills for discernment and interpretation as we together confront issues of justice, sexuality, technology and power within our society.
This struggle of the church to discern God's truth — to tap the right sources of authority and apply them to daily life and faith requires of us much prayer, reflection and commitment of resources — using the gifts of many within the church and even outside of it.
Finally though I think it is today's gospel that places this issue of authority in its proper context as we strive to hear and discern God's word and truth for our lives and faith.
That context is the affirmation that the ultimate authority for us as Christians is Jesus himself — not a book about Jesus, not the church, not the charisma or achievement of any one or group of individuals.
No, rather the authority for our faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ in human history. Jesus who not so much by word as by deed demonstrated power over the unclean spirit — symbolic of all that is against God. Jesus who does not always give the neat or slick answers to our ethical, political, economic or social questions — indeed sometimes we are left even more perplexed. What is critical is rather what Jesus has done and continues to do that makes him the one whose authority and teaching stand out as discerned by the audience in our gospel reading. Namely — his death and resurrection — the miracle of God's love and salvation to which all the miracles ultimately point and bear witness.
The ultimate source of authority I believe for our life and faith is not in special or great knowledge, not in a book or an institution but rather in a relationship — a relationship with our creator through Jesus — a relationship that invites us into mystery, adventure and challenge beyond our imagination — a relationship that invites us into life with God — a relationship that demands we take some risks, do some hard work and grow.
It is in this relationship with Jesus that we can discern the true source of authority and guidance for our life and faith.