Sunday, 28 September 2014

By whose authority?

Who has authority? A tricky question for us Brits nowadays. The old authorities have fallen into disrepute - the bankers in the financial crisis; clergy, media figures and even social services in sexual scandal; politicians in both of the above and more. We're rapidly becoming a country that doesn't trust any authority at all.

The Russians, in contrast, have fewer doubts, according to a recent poll asking them to name their highest moral authority. At the bottom, about 1 percent named a revered journalist, a Soviet hockey star, a Chechen leader and the Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Kirill. Next up the list came the Defense Minister, scoring 5 percent. In second place, with 9 percent, came Russian cultural figures, such as the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But guess who came top of the list? With 36 percent of the vote, none other than that beacon of morality and personal integrity, President Vladimir Putin. Russia, amazingly, puts a great deal of its trust in the authority of her political establishment.

I want to argue that neither of these positions, whether British skepticism or Russian nationalism, answers the authority question. But for now, let's wind back two thousand years and focus on the situation Matthew describes in Jerusalem.

Jesus has just entered the city. The crowds have welcomed him with palm branches and clothes thrown at his feet, proclaiming him the son of David. He's been into the Temple and caused catastrophe, turning tables and casting out the sellers of sacrificial doves. He has healed the blind and the lame there. The priests are not pleased. They'd managed to get rid of him overnight, but now he's back causing trouble again. So they ask a question, a question of our times just as much as theirs: "what is your authority for doing these things?" You're not one of us, you haven't got the authority of the priestly bloodline. You're not sent by the Romans, you haven't got the imperial authority of Caesar. You're not a demagogue, leading a political body, you haven't got the authority of the people. So whose authority have you got to do these things?

And these of course are questions that we still ask. A lot of people don't trust bloodlines and birthrights; people don't much trust the democratic process or believe that politicians really represent their interests. Sure, a certain level of cynicism is a sign of a healthy society, but it seems nowadays that whenever anyone tries to do anything, the initial response is one of skepticism and distrust. What's in it for you? Why should we trust you? And then scepticism turns into anger and self-righteousness, like the self-righteousness of the priests in the Temple. We get defensive. Who are you to preach at me?

It's easy to see why we want to ask these questions. But the obvious problem with our attitude is that society cannot function without some sort of authority. Where old authorities are thrown away, new ones quickly arise to fill the vacuum. At an extreme level, we can see this happening in countries like Iraq where old and oppressive political structures are destroyed, and Islamic radicalism comes in with the resources to take over — the so-called Arab Spring is part of the same story. But it happens here, too. Where people come to believe nothing, they will start to believe anything. There are all sorts of people and organisations offering easy answers to difficult questions. You can find your own preferred authority on the Internet, on soap operas, in celebrities, in Tarot or horoscopes, in the BNP - in short, in anything which offers a message conveniently conforming to one's particular prejudices. If nobody's opinion has any authority any more, my opinion is just as valid as anyone else's, no matter how ill-founded and unexamined it might be.

Jesus in the Temple does not offer an easy answer to the question of authority. In fact, when the priests ask him whose authority he works under, Jesus refuses to answer. Instead, he asks them a question about John the Baptist: by whose authority did John baptise? Not from a birthright, not from the Temple, not from Caesar, that much is clear. The priests have accused Jesus of expelling demons using the power of the Devil before, but they are sensible enough not to say that in front of his followers. Nor, though, can they possibly admit the truth, because that would be too much of a challenge to them. The truth is that John baptised by the authority of the one he baptised, Jesus the Messiah. And so it follows that Jesus is acting on no other authority than his own.

That seems straightforward. But before we start thinking that the authority of Jesus gives us an easy solution to the problem, let's think about what Jesus' authority involves. It's the authority of a God who empties Himself of His divinity to be born a baby in a stable. The authority of a God who rides into the city on a donkey, who teaches but never coerces, who refuses to assert that authority but invites us to join Him in His weakness, His self-giving, His humble service to others. The authority of a God crucified who even then makes no show of power but the power of forgiveness and the saving grace of love. It's not the sort of authority the world is looking for, not in ancient Jerusalem, not in sceptical Britain or nationalist Russia. It isn't the authority of a Putin, and it undercuts scepticism with its humility. But it is the authority the world sorely needs.

This is the authority Jesus has given the Church in its action and teaching. It doesn't come from being the Established Church of this country - we can't rely on the gift of Caesar, or rest on our laurels like the priests of the Temple. It doesn't come from the number of bums on pews every Sunday, or the percentage of people who identify themselves as Christian. It's the same authority by which John the Baptist baptised, that is, the paradoxical authority of Christ Himself, the humble authority of self-sacrificial love, of surrendering our lives so that Christ might live in us - the authority of a crucified God: and it is by letting Him act in us and through us that people will see and know and trust Him.

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