By what authority?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 25th September 2005:
“By what authority are you doing these things?” Matthew 21:23
I spent the first ten years of my ministry in diocese where the bishop placed great emphasis upon clergy studying. In his scheme of things, mornings were meant to be spent reading and studying, afternoons were for pastoral care, and evenings were for meetings. It was never an easy pattern to follow. There is always the feeling that you want to be seen to be doing things; if you are out visiting the sick and the housebound or if you are regularly seen at meetings, then people will think better of you than if you are at home studying the Bible or reading books.
The bishop was wiser than the curates in the diocese would have given him credit for. What happens if you don’t study is that the mind becomes lazy; the sermons on Sunday go over the same ground time and again, the pastoral care lacks spiritual depth; the life of the parish rolls on without newness or freshness.
Being naturally inclined to laziness, I find I only really study if I’m forced to do so, which means being on a course of some sort, so last year I began a part time Master’s degree with Trinity College in Bristol. The degree is in Applied Theology, which, as it sounds, is about applying what we learn from the teaching of the Church to the reality of the world in which we live.
There are two weeks of lectures each year, and the reading and essays to do during the year. The week before last I went off to attend one of the lecture weeks. The course this year is called ‘current global issues’ and the lectures were very heavy going. We looked at genetics, stem cell research, genetic modification, abortion, the right to die, justice in health care, and other medical ethical issues.
As the week progressed, it became more and more clear that the Church had little or nothing to say about many of the decisions that are being made every day: partly because the issues are very complex, partly because we seem almost afraid to speak. When it came to the issues we were facing, we were not like Jesus, we had nothing to say with any authority.
The failure of the chief priests and the elders in Jesus’ time was that they devised hundreds of rules to govern people’s lives, but they didn’t touch people’s hearts. Jesus spoke with authority because he spoke to people’s hearts.
If we are to respond to the sort of issues raised by medical ethics, we are not going to do so by proposing rules and regulations that are simply rejected by secular authorities. Sometimes we are more concerned with being seen to be doing right, rather than doing right. We have to speak to people’s hearts.
The genetic and embryo screening technology available now in Britain means that it will be eventually possible to ensure that no-one is born with any disability. What does that say about the value we place on human life? Are we only of value if we are all like Olympic athletes? Does it mean that people like me, born with the high probability of serious asthma and therefore likely to be a burden on the healthcare system, don’t get the chance to be born because the geneticists say there’s too high a risk?
Speaking with authority would surely mean that we say everyone’s life, whatever their condition, is of infinite worth—of infinite worth because Jesus came for every one of us.
We live in a world where everyone is measured by their economic worth. What does a person have in terms of material things? What can a person contribute to the material wealth of the country? Decisions are made on the basis of money.
Even abortion, introduced in England in 1967 as an intended response to extreme medical need, has become often an economic decision. It is a choice frequently made because of considerations of livelihood or employment prospects. In 2001 over 6,600 women from the Republic of Ireland had abortions in England.
How do we respond to that situation? There is no prospect of a secular English government repealing the 1967 law. If we want to respond we have to appeal to people’s hearts; we have to persuade people that human life is not a commodity; we have to say that human beings matter more than anything else in the world.
We know ourselves that laws by themselves achieve nothing. If we don’t believe in our hearts that we should obey a law, then we find it very difficult to obey it.
I won’t ask, but I suspect some or even many of us have been in a pub after hours. I was once in a pub with a colleague and the local divisional commander of the RUC at around midnight when the landlord came over and said, ‘Excuse me gentlemen, do you mind if I close the shutters behind you? We don’t want any country coppers peering in the window.’ We duly moved out of his way and continued with our drinks.
The local police chief and two local clerics completely ignoring the law that said we should have been out of the door by 11.30, because we simply didn’t believe in our hearts that the law should tell us when we could sit down for a pint.
The Jewish people had the Law for more than a thousand years—and it had not worked. The chief priests and the elders come to Jesus, furious at him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ They could expound the Law, but they did not possess his authority because they did not speak to the heart.
There are big, pressing issues out there that the Church is simply not addressing, and when we do respond we frequently get it wrong.
If we want to be God’s people in God’s world we need to respond to that world as God responded to it in Jesus—to say that each of us matters, that each of us is infinitely important because of his love for us.
By what authority do we say these things? By God’s authority.
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