Who Do You Think You Are?
Words for 16th Sunday after Trinity – 27th September 2020
A cyber sermon from the Vicarage
Text: When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21.23-24)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
When a couple arrange their wedding in church I try to be fairly precise, because the Registrars ask this of us, when it comes to describing their own and their father’s profession. We are discouraged, for example, from using slang and abbreviations. So an HGV driver has their job title written in full and Taxi drivers only ever drive Hansom Cabs.
I tell couples this is needed so that, in a century or so’s time when their descendants are famous and make it on to ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ the presenter will have something interesting to speak about as, in cultured accents their white gloved hands run down the pages of our Marriage Register. This also reminds me that I do need to try and improve my handwriting. Something which caused Mr Burbage to tear his hair out every Monday morning during Penmanship lessons at the Royal Hospital School!
When people ask, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ they are not always interested in your ancestry or your name but are instead questioning who gave you permission to do what you are doing. And so the play on words in the title of the TV programme comes about.
We live in, or we used to live, a society in which some people, because of their office or status or birth, had authority over others. We are expected follow the commands and edicts of the authorities because it is for the Common Good. In a Covid-19 era we seem to have fallen into an in-between time where, as in the Book of Judges, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.’ Which led, then and now, to a society which had the mantra, ‘Blow you, I’m alright Jack!’ All authority, save my own (!) is questioned.
So too in the time of Jesus authority was, and remains for those who choose to wield it today, a slippery thing. The Chief Priest and the elders thought they had authority, the Pharisees and the Sadducees thought they had authority. The Romans thought they had authority when in fact all that they had was military might which itself waxes and wanes.
Authority is not taken it is received. It cannot be grabbed. Authority figures only have as much power as those around them bestow on them. Our nation aims to be built on a permissive authority in which our government is elected by the people and not a dictatorship, our Sovereign represents the nation and not herself, and our Police enforce laws by consent and not by force.
No one is born to hold authority, not even the Son of the Living God. Authority, especially the authority that is shown to us by Jesus, is earned by deeds that match words and service that calls others to follow.
For this reason Jesus refuses to play the word games of the religious leaders of the day and instead goes to the nub of the matter. It is not what you say that is important but what you do. In the tale of the Two Sons Jesus lays down a challenge to those who belong to ‘the establishment’ and to ‘the great unwashed’. Simply because one has been in ‘authority’ (the elder son) and one has been bossed around with little hope of being ‘in charge’ (the younger son) does not mean that either is more righteous than the other.
Jesus has authority because, as the Book of Philippians reminds us;
He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death –
his death on the cross (cf Philippians 2.6-11)
Do you seek authority?
Do you want power?
Do you want to have more influence?
Do you wish people would do what you asked them?
Then learn to serve, and that humbly.
When a priest is ordained they are handed a Bible with these words;
Receive this book,
as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day
to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.
This authority is not an authority to boss the people of God around by shouting at them the demands of Scripture but a commitment to serve others. A commitment to ‘walk humbly the path of obedience’. Each time we – Laity and Clergy alike – choose this path people will be tempted to imitate Christ. And each time we ‘take authority’ we will make a shipwreck of their and our faith.
It is so easy to be tempted to take charge. You will by now know me well enough to see that I am rarely backward in coming forward. To give up on this empty earthly sort of authority is hard. It tickles the ears, it makes you feel important, people defer to you and it is deadly dangerous….
To find an authority that comes through humility and obedience is much more difficult. It means we must stop thinking that we add up to much at all and see joy in rejection (James 1v2) and greatness in service (Mark 10v35-45).
So, who do we think we are? We are not endowed with worldly authority nor should we be impressed with earthly riches. We find our identity in giving all away and serving those who malign or reject us. The apostle Paul says it all:
As God’s servants, we try to recommend ourselves in all circumstances by our steadfast endurance: in hardships and dire straits; flogged, imprisoned, mobbed; overworked, sleepless, starving. We recommend ourselves by the innocence of our behaviour, our grasp of truths, our patience and kindliness; by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God. We wield weapons of righteousness in right hand and left. Honour and dishonour, praise and blame, are alike our lot: we are impostors who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know; dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10 – New English Bible)
[This blog ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2020 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]