Sermon (iii) preached on the Fifteen Sunday after Trinity (28 September 2014) by the Reverend Dr Jeremy Morris, The Master, Trinity Hally, Cambridge

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Sermon (iii) preached on the Fifteen Sunday after Trinity (28 September 2014) by the Reverend Dr Jeremy Morris, The Master, Trinity Hally, Cambridge

I love the popular carol, ‘Jesus good above all other, gentle child of gentle mother’. But words like that can be profoundly misleading. Our gospel reading, from Matthew, lays before us a perplexing, difficult, contentious side of Jesus, and I want to take just three words from it to think about this morning – ‘by what authority’. This phrase occurs three times in just five verses.By what authority do you do these things? the chief priests and the elders ask Jesus. I will ask you a question, Jesus says, and if you answer it, I’ll tell you by what authority. But they can’t answer his question, so he refuses to tell them by what authority he does what he does.

We’re so conditioned by the sheer familiarity of the gospels, as we hear them read over and over again in church, or repeated in other contexts, that we forgot how strange Jesus’s behaviour and teaching must have seemed to his original audience. A relatively unknown, humble Jew, sleeping rough, probably dishevelled, possibly smelly, with a small peasant following came from a distant province to Jerusalem, as from nowhere, full of the most inordinate claims about his relationship to God, came to the great temple of Herod, mimicking the triumphal entry of a king into his capital, and caused a scene in the temple courtyard, overturning the traders’ stalls. It is hardly surprising that the chief priests and elders, no doubt in their own way wise, experienced, influential men were shocked, and demanded to know what he thought he was doing.

Their question ‘by what authority’ is the central question sober-minded, thoughtful people will put to any new development in faith, any new teaching or doctrine. By what authority do you claim this thing? Who says you should do this? Who are you to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do? The abolition of circumcision, the doctrine of the Trinity, the marriage of clergy, separation from Rome, arguments about evolution and science, cohabitation, the ordination of women, same-sex relations – these are all issues which have presented themselves as new developments in the history of the Church, and have raised the question ‘By what authority’ do you tell us these things. It’s a perfectly natural and reasonable question, and the chief priests and elders don‘t really stand only for the wilfully perverse and malicious side of humanity, but for all of us, confronted with something as startling and astonishing as Jesus of Nazareth.

If it’s a perfectly natural question, Jesus’s answer is nothing short of bewildering. He simply won’t say. He won’t prove his case. He won’t produce a list of authorities, of texts or interpretations, to show just who he is and how he can say and do such outlandish things. He answers with a question, and then with a riddle, or parable, which says everything or nothing, depending on your point of view.

In Jesus’s refusal to face the question of authority head on, there is something almost surreal. Question: ‘How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?’ Answer: ‘A banana.’ We, out of our own nature, characteristically cautious, characteristically concerned to establish things without any shadow of doubt, often simply can’t grasp that the answer faith gives is not an answer to a question put out of the ordinary reasoning of the world. Faith doesn’t tell us why pain occurs, why we lose what we best value, why us, rather than others. It can only say, as it were, ‘a banana’. There is a radical reversal of logic, and a dispossession of all that aspires to the certainty of logic, running through Christian faith from the very beginning.In the life of Jesus himself what faith now sees as kingly and redemptive was experienced as betrayal, refusal to fight, defeat and anguish. As Paul put it in our reading from Philippians, Jesus emptied himself into our nature, and into the conditions of this world, so that through him, what we are might be raised up to God.

But Jesus’s refusal to answer the question directly doesn’t mean that what he commended was simply meaningless or worthless, without its own intrinsic authority. The parable he tells in this gospel reading points to the importance of enacted love, of deeds done for others despite what we want to do or have happen ourselves. His own sacrifice and death were a making real of that principle of enacted love, so that what he did for others, as a man who poured out himself for others, established its own intrinsic authority. There is no easy proof text, no incontestable path of logic, no scientific evidence to make all this obvious for us – only a life lived in the light of love.

Christians threatened by the innumerable challenges around us, either in the relatively comfortable and indifferent West, or in the more violent antipathies of the Middle East, would do well to remember that.We cannot resolve even our own internal divisions by decisively answering the question ‘By what authority’; we can only live as Jesus bade us live, and in that life lived following him others may see the authority of the God of love, and we may be convinced of it ourselves.

When we come to communion, there we see - even more starkly – the contrast between the certainty we naturally seek and the apparent poverty of the means the Church can bring us to face the world around us. The most potent thing the Church can give us is bread and wine, tokens of Jesus’s own sacrifice for the sake of the world – not wealth, not arms, not temporal power, but only a little bread and a little wine, a surrealist response to the world’s suffering if ever there was one. But Jesus emptied himself into our world, and into that bread and wine, and in him, as we receive it, or we pray in and through him, we find life and love, and God gathers us up and sets us on our feet again. And so to him be all glory, now and ever. Amen.