What I said this Sunday – Epiphany 4

Here – a little late this week – is what I said on Sunday

Deut. 18.15-20; Rev. 12.1-5a; Mark 1.21-28

I’ve never been a great one for joining protest marches and rallies though, over the years, I have been on the odd one or two. But I’ve always been glad that I live in a country where we have the right to protest. One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the right to protest about things over which we feel strongly and the right to speak out against those in authority when we believe they are wrong. We believe that in a democratic society people have the right to speak out about issues that they disagree with, and the right to do that by gathering in public.

Sometimes those protests might be on a small scale – as when a number of us from the local community protested over the closure of the Marie Curie Hospice in 2009. Sometimes, of course, they can be on a bigger scale, such as the protest against student fees last November, which marched through the streets of London to meet up with the protest against corporate greed in the City of London – the notorious camp outside St Paul’s cathedral.

On one particular occasion I took part in a rally on Blackheath. This occasion, though, was not a protest but was a rally held to mark the anniversary of a protest. And I was there on the May bank holiday, 4th March, 1981. It was the 600th anniversary of the greatest and most widespread protest in English history. It led to the murder of Thomas Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the Exchequer – executed after the rebels stormed the Tower of London where he was hiding. And if, like me, you have been watching the latest series of Michael Portillo’s railway journeys on BBC2 you’ll know immediately what the protest was, as he visited Thomas Sudbury’s birthplace at Sudbury in Suffolk and told us all about it. It was, of course, the Peasant’s Revolt – also known as the Great Rising of 1381. Famously led by Wat Tyler and the priest John Ball, against Richard II’s attempt to enforce a poll tax – what was perceived as injustices against the poor who made up much of the population – the protest was at the time a failure, but it heralded the beginning of the end of serfdom in this country. And as the camp at St Paul’s shows people are still protesting over what they see as unjust distribution or control of wealth.

Protest, it seems, is a feature of our world. And often against a decision or policy imposed by government. Protests are sometimes clearly political, sometimes violent, protesting against abuses of power, as we have seen across the Arab world over the past year or so – and still going on in Syria. We see protests against authority from those in power by people who find their own authority elsewhere – perhaps in religious texts or in their own national identity. And often it can seem not at all clear where true authority really lies. And while some may question it others may accept authority without question. We talk about authority as Christians. The authority of the Church, the authority of the Bible, the authority of tradition, all represent “good authority”. They are all regarded as being the guardians of our faith.

Jews at the time of Jesus had just the same struggles with authority as we do. On the one hand there was the authority of the Romans – which most Jews were unhappy about to say the least, though many kept quiet because it was safer that way. On the other hand there was the authority of the Law, the Torah – and the authority of the religious leaders who explained it to the people and expected it to be obeyed.

Today’s readings present us with three examples of authority. In Deuteronomy, Moses foresees that a prophet will arise to succeed him as leader, as the people of Israel requested. They must obey him, but equally, the prophet must be genuine and true to his calling. The reading from Revelation appears to be a prophecy, but was more probably an allegory depicting the persecution afflicting the early Church. The great beast is threatening to destroy both mother and child, but God intervenes. It is his authority that ensures their safety.

The question of authority is at the heart of the Gospel reading. The Jewish Law enshrined, then as now, the ultimate expression of the Jewish faith. It was not to be altered, only read, examined and considered, leading to a deeper understanding and personal devotion. The scribes had no authority to do more than that. By contrast, the episode in the synagogue at Capernaum shows Jesus claiming for himself the authority not only to preach, but to heal in God’s name. It constituted an enormous challenge to authority, for Jesus was prepared to act illegally, to defy the authority of the religious leaders – by healing on the Sabbath. A risk that could only have one outcome. It’s worth notice that the very presence of the possessed man was itself a challenge to the authority of the Law – he was impure and should not have been in the synagogue, particularly on the Sabbath. Presumably someone had let him in. And Jesus himself challenges the authority of the Law and the Jewish religious leaders by healing him – on the Sabbath, and in the synagogue. When necessary Jesus was only too willing to challenge authority, not to simply accept it.

But in this challenge to authority, Jesus is calling on his disciples to look beyond the word. He urges them to discover, or rediscover even, the real spirit underlying the Law. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a prime example. The Law says, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But how is the Law to be applied? Does it only apply to fellow-Jews, or regardless, to anyone in need? So who is my neighbour? The decision has to be made by the individual faced by the practicalities of the situation. It is this that Jesus points out to the lawyer who asked him the original question. Decisions may have to be taken on our own personal search for truth. “The truth,” says Jesus, “shall make you free.” It is this discovery which lay at the heart of Paul’s dramatic conversion from orthodox Jew into radical Christian. “The letter kills,” he wrote, “but the Spirit gives life.”

As Christians, much later in time, we too are to know that freedom and that life in the expression of our faith. We recognise that there is a very real part of us that seeks certainty, needs certainty. We look for rules, guidelines, the confirmation of what we believe. Authority has its attractions. By contrast, freedom can be, and often is, scary. Tramlines disappear from the expression of our faith, comforting marker buoys vanish. But these losses, if losses they are, are part of our pilgrimage of faith, a journey through the unknown, into the unknown. Sometimes, often even, the way is unclear. Yet we go on in the name of Christ, exploring, weighing the options, challenging the options, and from time to time, protesting against them. “What is this?” they asked in the synagogue at Capernaum. “A new teaching – with authority.” To all who follow him Jesus gives the same authority to explore and discover our faith. And when necessary to speak out, to challenge the authority of those whom we perceive to be acting unjustly, or contrary to the will of God.

Sometimes that can leave us feeling that we are not following a clearly marked out road – always easier, of course, if we know exactly where we are going. The freedom Jesus calls us to means that is not always possible. But we are not exploring in a trackless waste, a desert with no markers. We are following in the footsteps of Jesus, and of the countless others who have made this journey. We have companions along the way of Jesus Christ, sharing our exploration, testing our decisions, helping us to balance our freedom to challenge with our faithfulness to the one who calls us, the one whose service is perfect freedom.