“The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority” Mark 1:22
A friend in Northern Ireland belonged to a Christian assembly that would be described in England as “Plymouth Brethren.” In conversations, there would often be discussion of the differences in styles of worship between the various Christian traditions.
In the Brethren tradition, the pattern of worship at an assembly is intended to resemble the worship of found New Testament times. There is no formal structure. As in the days of Jesus in the synagogue, every man is entitled to stand up and read the Scriptures and to speak to the meeting. Every man was entitled to speak, women were to obey Saint Paul’s instructions to remain silent. In some exclusive assemblies there has been no relaxation of the rules, women must keep their heads covered and must not speak.
When the assembly goes well it goes very well. There’s a sense of the priesthood of all believers and people share with enthusiasm what God is saying to them through the Scriptures. But, as my friend would have admitted, there are often times, as in any church, when the worship falls far short of what it should be.
He used to belong to an assembly in a rural part of Northern Ireland. They were conservative to the point that they would not allow a piano to be used in the building. One Brethren preacher used to refer to the piano at another hall as “our wooden friend in the corner.”
The problem with the assembly was not just that they refused modern innovations like the piano, the problem was that it was a small assembly and the same men stood up and said the same things every Sunday. The Brethren have no lectionary for their Sunday readings. They have no church year in the way that Anglicans go from Advent to Pentecost, and they have no order of service to move things along when you have heard enough. So there was nothing to stop particular people pursuing their particular hobby horses every Sunday. My friend left the assembly because he felt he could no longer find God in what was happening. People were just repeating the same things every time they gathered.
My friend’s experience with that assembly was probably similar to experience of the people of Capernaum in their synagogue, in the gospel reading this morning. People were tired of hearing the same things every week. Much of the teaching in the synagogue wasn’t even the men’s own thoughts – it was often simple repetition of the teachings of the famous rabbis.
Then Jesus comes along and the contrast is astonishing. “This man teaches with authority”, they say. They weren’t used to such as speaker. The synagogue in Capernaum was a bit like that country Brethren hall. It was a bit out of the way. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d expect to hear a leading speaker.
Jesus was a huge contrast with the men they listened to week by week. He spoke as one who had authority. Why did Jesus teaching have the authority?
Firstly, because it is new. The people acknowledge this. They have had their teachers going over old ground every Sabbath. They must have groaned inwardly when certain men stood up to speak.
There used to be a clergyman in the Northern Ireland who, every time the bishop had a visiting speaker, would stand up and share his own thoughts with everyone there. Everyone would sink down into their seats with embarrassment. The synagogue was probably like that at times. You can almost hear them saying, “Oh no, not old Isaac again.”
Jesus offers something completely new and radically different. The people would have listened with close attention because Jesus was such a break with what had gone before.
Jesus taught what was new, but it was more than new teaching that gave him the authority.
The second reason why people were amazed was that he spoke with complete integrity – what he said was what he was.
People now are very cynical about those in the public eye. There can appear to be a lack of integrity in public life, power seems the priority. Jesus does not seek power, he has infinitely greater power than the leaders. Jesus seeks the truth. The power of evil is confronted by the truth and it shouts out, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”
Jesus teaches things that are new and startling. Jesus teaches with the voice of integrity and Jesus teaches with the power of God.
It is this third element that gives Jesus’ teaching real authority. Jesus could have offered new teaching, Jesus could have spoken with integrity, and still have been an ordinary human being. If that was the case then Jesus teaching would be no more than opinion. A much respected opinion, but, nevertheless, if he was not speaking with the voice of God, he’s expressing one opinion in a world within which there are many opinions.
The post-modern world is one where belief in the absolute has almost disappeared. Jesus’ listeners have no doubt that he was speaking with absolute authority. Does Jesus still hold the absolute truth for people?
The story of Jesus in the synagogue is a story that asks questions of listeners now. The people listen and they say this man speaks with authority.
The questions to be answered are about the authority of Jesus. If he speaks with the authority of a prophet, of great teacher, but no more than that, then the church is pointless. There are many great prophets and teachers down through history, and they don’t receive special attention.
If he speaks with the authority of God then there need to be questions about the response of Christians to him. This is not a man like the men in the hall who rambled on in the same way every Sunday – this man is new, he speaks with integrity, and he speaks with divine power.
How people respond?