St John the Baptist Parish Church

Where a warm welcome awaits you

Sunday Sermons

Sunday 1st October 2017 - Trinity 16/Proper 21

Theme: The question of authority

Readings: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

                  Philippians 2:1-13

                  Matthew 21:23-32

Isn’t it annoying when you ask someone a question and instead of answering it, they respond with another question! Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees seems to degenerate into a series of word games. The Pharisees were uncomfortable with Jesus throwing his weight around. They asked Jesus a clear question:

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

Good question. By what authority was Jesus teaching and performing miracles? If we read carefully, the gospel passage does give an indirect answer to the question. Although the question about the origin of John’s baptism seems like a red herring, it was leading somewhere. Jesus’ right to challenge the whole Temple system stemmed directly from John’s ministry, a counter-Temple movement with a counter-Herodian edge. John had dug the field, Jesus had sown the seed, and now it was harvest time. It was when John baptised Jesus, that the voice from heaven had named Jesus as Messiah, God’s beloved son.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

The question is answered again in the parable of the two sons, which has at least two layers of meaning. Firstly, it is better to do what the father wants after first refusing, than to say you will and then change your mind. Secondly, there is a deeper meaning beneath the shallow moralistic surface. Those who appear to be flouting God’s will ended up being baptized by John and those who piously gave the impression of following God’s instructions to the letter refused to do so. Jesus was following through John’s warnings. His authority came from the God in whose name and power John had prophesied. But the parable has a further twist. Now that the chief priests were in a rebellious state, they too, like the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, could have changed their minds and obeyed after all. The challenge contains a coded final appeal.

 “By what authority are you doing these things?”

By a more than human authority; the historical Jesus was not simply a “good man” as many would like to believe. As God the Son, he had been given all authority under heaven and earth to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to bring God’s love and justice to bear upon the world. Who Jesus was and the question of his authority are inextricably bound up together. Concerning Jesus’ identity it would be difficult for him to be other than who he said he was. C. S. Lewis put forward the argument:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

Perhaps the most profound statement in response to this question is encapsulated in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. The middle section of the passage we heard from Philippians is traditionally understood to be from a hymn sung by the early Christian church. It is a telescopic statement about the nature and work of Christ. We glimpse who he is outside of space and time in his eternal existence. Jesus Christ pre-existed as part of the Trinitarian Godhead. We see what he laid aside in order to enter into our time bound world, to become incarnate. In becoming human, Jesus did not cease to be God. It was a divine condescension; a voluntary relinquishing of his power and status.

It is a statement of Jesus’ humble yet triumphant authority. Jesus succeeds where Adam failed, refusing to take advantage of his equality with God. He accomplishes the task given to Israel, God’s servant-people, dying under the weight of the world’s sin. The prophet Ezekiel rails against Israel for their iniquity and calls them to repentance. The righteous ones have become unrighteous.

Jesus is revealed not only as the truly human one, the true Israel, but as the embodiment of the God who is Israel’s only saviour and Lord, to whom they need to turn to live.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

How might we answer that question if it is directed at us? Are our words and actions carried out by Christ’s authority or under our own steam? We all have certain levels of authority in the realms of our work, home and community. We are granted authority in human terms but ultimately all authority comes from God. Are we living in the way that Christ would have us live or are there areas of our lives in which we are blind, like the Pharisees, to God’s call upon our lives?

The letter to the Philippians was set in a practical context. Paul is encouraging his readers to model their daily life on the attitude and example of Christ. The closer we get to Christ, the more in tune with Christ and Christ-like we will become. Christ gives his disciples, which is every single one of us who follow him, the authority to speak out in his name. That is, the authority to proclaim the gospel and show God’s love and compassion to a broken world. For this we need confidence in Christ and his promises. He will lead us if we choose to walk with him.

On Monday evenings some of us have been learning about how closely attuned the Christian mystics were to the way of Christ. The practice of contemplative prayer enabled them to connect with Christ in the depths of their being, at the centre of their true selves. Talking of our life in Christ, Thomas Merton writes: “Dwelling in us He becomes as it were our superior self, for He has untied and identified our inmost self with Himself... a supernatural union of our souls with His indwelling Divine Person gives us a participation in His divine sonship and nature.”

Make time to participate in Christ; to recognise his voice amidst the clamour of all the other voices demanding our attention, including the self-serving ego.

By what authority? Let it be Christ’s own.

Rev Lisa Cornwell