Toorak Uniting Church

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Reclaiming Personal Authority

Mark 1: 21 26
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Epiphany 4
1 February 2015

I have had an interesting couple of days which will continue until Thursday next week. When I was accepted as a Minister in the UCA I was required to do four courses. Understandably, there were two intensive courses in Uniting Church studies, which I completed before I began at TUC so that I knew which way to hold the hymn book and had at least a cursory knowledge of the history of the Uniting Church. But I was also required to do a course in liturgy; and two reading courses, one in ethics (I think they suspected something about me) and one in Church Ministry and Sacraments.

I was under the mistaken view that if I just kept my head down and did the best job I could the officials in the Uniting Church would just forget about the courses I hadn’t completed. I underestimated their attention to such detail. So this weekend from Friday evening, yesterday, today and until Thursday afternoon, I am doing an intensive course on the liturgies associated with Lent and Easter. Let me say, it is probably not something I would have chosen; however, I have found it quite interesting. It is very time-consuming and the readings have to be done at night after class. The course will be finished on Thursday; then I can start reading for the other two courses which should be finished by the middle of the year.

My grandmother had a saying that the lightest baggage you will carry with you is a good education. Now, that was said by a woman who left school at grade 4. But she was right. While I was reluctant to study the liturgy of Lent and Easter, I have found that being open to new insights and information can be interesting and helpful. It is that most important characteristic of being open-minded.

I googled a few quotes on the advantage of being open-minded:

Albert Einstein said, "The measure of intelligence is the ability to change." And the great playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote "Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." "Your assumptions", says the cosmologist Isaac Asimov, "are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." And to finish with one of my least favourite authors, Richard Dawkins, "By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out."

We live in a time of tremendous change - really bewildering change - and there are possibly two responses. Hunker down, stay with the familiar, close the doors and windows and put your hands over your head and eyes. That is very appealing. But I suspect most of us know that that is not a realistic possibility. A better approach is to recognise that change is inevitable and as we embrace it, it becomes less threatening.

Jesus Encounters Change
There have been many periods of upheaval and change in human history. I think Jesus lived through such a period and also contributed to it. Of course Palestine in the time of Jesus was not politically stable. The Romans were the rulers and the Jewish authorities knew that they must bow the knee to Caesar – whichever Caesar was on the throne at the time. And most of all they wanted to keep the peace and that meant keeping the status quo. Unfortunately for them, Jesus was not a status-quo man. He was about change. Not just political change, but the change of the human heart. Perhaps the most dangerous change there is.

But from what we read in the narrative penned by Mark, Jesus held a balance between what he valued in his tradition and what he didn’t:

Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. All were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

There is an interesting sign as you enter the town of Capernaum in Northern Israel. It says, Capharnaum the Town of Jesus. We associate Jesus with Nazareth, but his ministry was primarily in Galilee, around the town of Capernaum. The remnants of the synagogue where Jesus may have preached still remain today, although we can only trace it back to the 4th Century. Anyway the point of the story is that Jesus "changed" the way people were used to hearing the "sacred" story. What did he say? How did he say it? If I knew, I would use the knowledge today. What we do know is that he reclaimed what I will call a personal authority.

The great 19th-century preacher Philips Brooks said that preaching was "truth through personality." I think that still stands as true today as it did in Jesus’ time. The recitation of overworked clichés, beliefs, opinions, ideas and judgments will never substitute for a word from the heart! And I think that is what caught the imagination of the audience.

Ah! But not just the regular audience. There was as usual "the unusual and the odd" who were attracted to Jesus, and why not? The old message had failed them and this breath of fresh air gave them new hope.

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."

In this ancient world view the bizarre was often seen a coming from another world. What was this man’s problem? Who knows? What is important is that the personal authority of Jesus and his new way of strong compassion had something to offer this man that the past ways did not.

Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. The people were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching - with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Reclaiming Personal Authority
I think what Jesus does for us in this narrative and in so many other stories is that he liberates us to reclaim our personal authority. I don’t mean by that that we can do whatever we want to do, I mean that we must take responsibility for the religious and spiritual decisions we make. It gives us more freedom to explore and even play with the ways we understand God and the spiritual life. In these great epochs of change, when the ways of the past are being blown away, isn’t there a wonderful opportunity to reclaim the power to find a new way?

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2015

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