Sunday, 28 September 2014

Trinity 15: By whose authority...?

A friend of mine told me he was once arrested by the police for impersonating a priest. This was somewhat ironic because he was, in fact, a priest. It was back in the 1970s and to be fair his long hair and probably rather scruffy jeans were quite unusual among the clergy at the time. I can understand why the lady he was trying to visit was a bit dubious and dialled 999. I assume that eventually someone vouched for him, because he went on to have a long and successful ministry, but it was a dodgy moment.

Most us these days at some point have to prove our identity and our right to be in a particular place or do a particular task. Many workplaces issue ID of some sort , even if the Church has still not got around to it.  I do have a Seal School governors’ badge, though, which I am supposed to wear in school, like all the other governors. It not only tells people that we have that particular role, it also reassures them that we aren’t strangers who have wandered in off the streets and might be up to no good. In a previous parish I had an unpaid role as a chaplain to our local Asda store. I would stand with the welcomer at the entrance to the shop and chat to people who wanted a listening ear. And just like the welcomer, I was given my own official Asda name badge, emblazoned with the cheery greeting “happy to help!” It told shoppers that I was a bona fide member of staff, albeit unpaid and part time, if they should wonder what a vicar was doing hanging around in the foyer – which they often did.

The badges we wear say to anyone who might question us “this person has a right to be here, the authority to be doing what they are doing.”

In the Gospel reading today Jesus is asked for his “badge” by the chief priests and elders as he stands in the Temple, teaching the crowds. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”

This incident takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, and the battle lines have already been drawn with these religious leaders. They know Jesus is going to be trouble. He’s ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, in a deliberate imitation of an ancient prophesy from the book of Zechariah which looked forward to the time when God would send a new leader for the people.  He’s overturned the tables of the traders in the Temple precincts. He’s annoyed a lot of powerful people. Who does he think he is to be creating such a stir? After all he’s just a carpenter from the province of Galilee. He’s not a priest. He’s not from some recognised rabbinical school. He isn’t a member of the ruling council. There is nothing about his external appearance or his background which says “Messiah” as far as these temple officials can see. He doesn’t have the right badge. And yet he’s acting as if he has a right to be there, proclaiming what he says is God’s word, doing what he says is God’s work.

I can see why his presence made the Temple authorities nervous, not just for themselves, but for their nation too. The Romans didn’t look kindly on anyone who seemed to be whipping up a revolution. If the Jewish authorities couldn’t put a stop to Jesus, there was every chance that the Romans would come down on them all like a ton of bricks. These Jewish leaders probably wanted God to act – of course they did - but they wanted him to act in ways that they were comfortable with, ways that preserved the status quo as far as possible. And so, probably, do most of us. We have just prayed in our collect that we might be “fervent in the fellowship of the gospel” . I said the words but you said the amen, so you agreed to it. My guess is, though, that we would prefer it if that fervency didn’t disrupt our routines too much. After all, we have jobs to do, cars to wash, lawns to mow, families to look after. We don’t want to miss Downton Abbey, or the golf, or a quiet nap with the Sunday papers or whatever else is on our agenda for today… I don’t think most of us would have welcomed what looked like a revolution either.

There’s another way in which these religious leaders are probably more like us than we’d like to admit. They struggled to know whether Jesus was the  genuine article or not, and so, I think would we. It isn’t always easy to tell whether we should follow this person or that, take this route or that. We look back at Jesus with the perspective of 2000 years of Christian faith. We think of him with a halo gleaming round his head. We don’t see the ordinary, poor, provincial preacher that the Temple authorities saw, someone who’d been on the road for a while and probably hadn’t had the chance of a decent wash or a change of clothes.

I can understand why my priestly friend found himself answering awkward questions from the police. How was that woman supposed to know if he was genuine? Anyone can make themselves a dog collar – all you need is an old washing up liquid bottle…

So why should these religious leaders have been able to tell a real Messiah from a fake? Jesus’ response gives us a clue. Instead of answering the question he throws one back. “By what authority did John baptise?” If these leaders say John the Baptist had God’s authority, why didn’t they follow him themselves? The answer is that it would have angered Herod, who’d had John killed. If they say, though, that John was just acting on his own misguided initiative, Herod might be happy but the crowds who had flocked to John will have their guts for garters. Jesus’ question exposes how they are trying to distinguish which path they should take in life. It is all to do with which badge they will find themselves wearing as a result, how others will see them, what will be happening on the exterior. It has nothing to do with the reality of the work John did at all.

That’s why Jesus goes on to put to them another question, this time in the form of a parable, which is all about reality.
A man has two sons. One says he won’t do the work his father’s asked him to, but then does it anyway. The other says he will do it, but then doesn’t. Which son would you rather have? The first son, of course, because at least at the end of the day the work has been done.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Ultimately it’s not the badge you wear, but the work you do that matters, says Jesus.
That applies in all walks of life. You can call yourself an architect, but if everything you build falls down, someone will soon be disputing your right to the label.

“The tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you,” says Jesus. It sounds pretty offensive to these leaders, but that is because they are thinking of the kingdom like some royal court room into which you might process in order of precedence. But for Jesus, God’s kingdom was simply the place where he was at work, wherever that was, changing, forgiving and healing people. The tax collectors and prostitutes who had come to him were already in that kingdom because God was already healing them, changing them, forgiving them, doing the work they needed him to do. That’s why they flocked to Jesus. It wasn’t just his words but his whole way of life that transformed them. He came and ate with them when no other respectable person would. He insisted that they were equal members of his new community, and stood up for them when others questioned that. Ultimately he died rather than going back on that message. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… He became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” says Paul in our first reading.

Jesus didn’t need a badge that said “Messiah” on it, because it was written right through him. It was his authenticity that convinced those who followed him. You can’t fake that, and you can’t disguise it either.

But now comes the really scary part, because that beautiful hymn of faith that Paul writes is introduced by these words: “Let that same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Paul isn’t writing to the Philippians to tell them who Jesus is. He is writing to them them who they – and we – are meant to be. He is calling us to live with the same authenticity, the same love and trust and humility, that Christ himself displayed. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he says. He doesn’t mean “work out” in the sense that we might “work out” a sum or the answer to a crossword puzzle. It is more like the “workout” you might have at a gym. It is about putting into practice the message of God’s love, living what we believe.

Do this “with fear and trembling” he says “for it is God who is at work in you”. When we let God do his stuff, heal us, change us, love us, as he wants to and as we need him to, something awesome can happen – something that really might make us tremble. That is what those tax-collectors and prostitutes, and all those others who first followed Jesus discovered. People who felt like nobodies discovered they were children of God. Lives that seemed to be heading for a dead-end were transformed.

If all this sounds challenging, then I think that is because it should.  Either our faith matters - this faith we come together to celebrate and ponder week by week – in which case we should be doing everything we can to live it, working it out in our lives, or it doesn’t matter, in which case why do we bother to come at all?

Badges and labels have their uses, but it is the testimony of our whole lives which ultimately tells others who we are, and whose we are – people in whom God is at work, citizens of his kingdom, part of his family, growing in his likeness day by day. Let us pray that it will be so for us.


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