Authority is a touchy subject. Those given authority can be quite protective of it and resentful of anyone who might presume to challenge it. It was inevitable that Jesus would cause problems with the chief priests and elders of Israel with his teaching and his actions. On Palm Sunday he completely disrupted the work of those who changed money and sold animals in the outer court of the Temple in Jerusalem. The chief priests had no problem with this selling but Jesus did. God’s house was to be a house of prayer but it had been made into a den of robbers. When Jesus turned up to teach in the Temple the next day, the chief priests were on hand to question by what authority he was doing so. An interesting piece of verbal sparring took place which Jesus won, as you would expect.
The readings at our noon SLT service on Sunday were Psalm 25:1-8, Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32. My reflection follows:
As you can imagine, I often have conversations with people who come to Epiphany Island. Some are just passing through, taking a look at the architecture, enjoying the peace and beauty. Others have begun to get involved with our community, coming to services, posting prayer requests etc. They often want to get to know more about us. I suppose it’s only natural to want to know more about a church you are joining. Some are familiar with Anglicanism and feel at home straight away. Others ask questions about what it means to be an Anglican as they come from other denominations or none, which is where it can get rather complicated! Our Anglican tendency to always choose both/and in any situation can make it hard to define what we are like.
One question I am often asked is whether I am a priest/minister/pastor in RL. The title I wear is ‘Lay Pastor’ but I think new members often want to check out just what that might mean. I have no wish to hide anything and tell anyone who asks that I am not ordained in RL, so not a priest like Able Shepherd, or a minister like Gareth Janus who are both on our Leadership Team. In RL I act as a pastor to many people, but I’m not a pastor who leads a church in RL.
I suspect that the question is asked because we like to know that the person leading a church has the right to do so, the authority. Am I allowed to lead worship, to preach, to offer pastoral care? Who says so? It’s not unusual now for lay people, those not ordained, to lead churches, especially Fresh Expressions (or Emerging Church) such as ours. So in answering the ‘Are you a priest?’ question I usually go on to explain that I am called Lay Pastor with the express approval of the bishops who look after our ministry: Bishop Christopher of Guildford England, and Bishop Tom of Wellington New Zealand. That seems to reassure most people. It reassures me! I am glad to work with their approval and under their authority. Being accountable to the bishops protects me and protects those who participate in our life as a Christian community. I have people there in the background who will give advice if I need it. I very much appreciate having bishops around. Of course, it also fits with what it means to be Anglican. We work in a church which recognizes deacons, priests and bishops ministering in the church.
In the first century inIsrael, the worshipping community was led in a recognized way. The chief priests and elders mentioned in today’s Gospel passage were responsible for the running of the Temple as well as being a major part of the ruling body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. I have no doubt they wanted to make sure everything ran well in the Temple. Having large crowds gathered round an itinerant rabbi who happened to sit down to teach in the Temple was not something they were happy with.
This wasn’t just any itinerant rabbi. Only the day before, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds cheering and calling him ‘The Son of David’ – a king’s son. He’d gone to the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and those selling animals for sacrifice, causing chaos and outrage. In the context of the first century Temple, Jesus had acted as a full blown griefer, destroying the way the ministry of the Temple worked by his actions. He would be classed with those who piled up burning crosses in our SL Cathedral courtyard on Easter Day, risking overloading and crashing the sim.
Like those who wish to learn more about my authority to preach and lead here, the chief priests and elders wanted to know what right Jesus had to challenge their way of doing things. They were in charge and decided what happened in the Temple but Jesus seemed to take no notice of that at all. We might feel the same if we came here to find someone else ready to lead the service, or busy telling everyone to do things differently from the way they normally happen.
Jesus, of course, saw beyond the actual circumstances and the question asked. He was more than capable of running rings round these well educated leaders, and he did, by asking a very clever question of them in his turn. It seemed a simple enough thing to ask: Did John’s baptism come from God or from a human source? The leaders were astute enough to see the implications of either answer. It’s obvious that if the baptism of John was sent by God, these leaders should have been there listening to every word John said and taking it very seriously indeed. As God’s people they should have listened to God’s messenger. If the baptism of John was just a human idea they could dismiss it. However, if they dismissed it the people would be outraged. They had flocked to John, hailing him as a prophet. Many would have seen John baptize Jesus and would have been aware that John pointed to Jesus as God’s anointed one, the one the crowds had just acclaimed the day before. To deny John’s status as a prophet was to risk a riot.
Jesus knew that the answer of ‘We don’t know’ really meant that the leaders were simply not open to considering what they should do, which was to embrace this new move of God in their midst. They wanted to carry on doing things as they always had. It was comfortable, predictable, nicely under control, and WRONG. To show just how well he understood the working of their minds, Jesus told the parable of the two sons.
The second son represents these leaders in God’s vineyard which is a way of talking of the people of Israel. Like the second son, the leaders had said ‘yes’ to God. They no doubt made sure to the best of their ability that they kept all of the Law scrupulously. But when it came to believing the one sent by God, they were not prepared to consider it. Their ‘yes’ to God was not followed with action. The outsiders of society, the tax collectors and prostitutes, had rejected God’s rule in their lives. They didn’t follow the Law and they were looked down on by the elders. They were no-hopers, the dregs of society. However, they had proved open to what God was saying through John and later through Jesus. Having initially said ‘No’ to God, they had allowed themselves to be changed. They had repented of their former ways and as a result were at the front of the queue of those entering the kingdom of God. The elders had no choice but to choose the first son as the one who did the will of his father, but in the process they condemned themselves for not doing so.
Those who were sinners, who didn’t expect to be acceptable ever, found themselves in an encounter with God’s grace which included them in all that was good. In responding they changed for the better. The chief priests and elders couldn’t see their need. They were self-sufficient, they knew how to live and they were not open to change. They missed the opportunity offered to them.
St Paul was a Pharisee and he had a similar attitude towards Jesus. After Jesus’ death, Paul spent huge amounts of energy trying to eliminate this new teaching which went against everything he believed in. Fortunately for him, God was not prepared to accept that and gave Paul the opportunity of a face to face encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road which turned his life around completely, just as it had turned around the lives of the tax collectors and sinners. He went on to be a wonderful apostle to the Gentiles.
When we read what he wrote to the Philippians there can be no doubt that he knew by whose authority Jesus taught and acted as he did while on earth. In the face of Jesus’ humility, the arrogance of Paul had faded completely. He saw Jesus as the supreme authority, who was highly exalted by God and given ‘the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
As individuals, as a ministry, we can never take the risk of staying as we are, presuming we have everything right. God has a habit of challenging our certainties and checking if our promise to follow Jesus means we will go where he leads. He’s not interested in empty words but in our actions.
The Leadership Team met yesterday and one of the issues we were looking at was how we can develop from purely a ‘come to us’ model of church in SL to also include a ‘go to them’ model. We could carry on as we are but God appears to be calling us to open ourselves to his leading. There is so much need in SL, so many broken and hurting people. We have a message of hope and healing. How can we keep it to ourselves, however comfortable and familiar it feels to do just that?
We will be inviting this community and any who want to join in, to have conversations about what we should do, where we should go, how we should fulfil the Great Commission to go into all the world and make disciples. I hope you will feel you can be part of this as we listen to God together.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor