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Understanding Authority

sermon-1/29/12 Newport Presbyterian Church

Mark 1:21-28


The Gospel of Mark starts out with a bang.  The author of this gospel does not seem very interested in the virgin birth of Jesus.  In fact, there is no birth narrative at all.  Jesus is already an adult when we start reading Mark.  He is baptized by John in the Jordan and then is driven into the wilderness where he is tempted.  Matthew and Luke make a big deal of the temptations in the wilderness.  Not so Mark.  Just the fact that Jesus was tempted seems enough for him. 

The next thing we know Jesus is rounding up disciples by the Sea of Galilee.  He gets four to follow him by leaving their work and family.  All of this happens in the first 20 verses of Mark.  It is truly a whirlwind gospel.

Next Jesus heads into Capernaum with his new buddies.  Some scholars think Capernaum was Jesus’ hometown as an adult.  It is the Sabbath and he goes to the synagogue as any good Jew would do.  While there he teaches, exorcises an unclean demon, and leaves with his fame spreading all around the region.

We could get distracted by the exorcism here.  Presbyterian ministers don’t do exorcisms, at least not any I know.  What does Mark mean by an “unclean spirit”?  We do know folks in that day did not understand mental illness very well.  Some who were bi-polar, schizophrenic, or had some other mental illness frightened people.  It must be some demon in them causing them to act so differently.  Even epilepsy, causing convulsions, was not understood.

Sadly, we have not come all that far in our day understanding mental illness.  While doctors and psychiatrists understand mental illness, many of us are still frightened by it.  We may not think the person is possessed, but we don’t know what to do or how to act around someone with psychological issues.  Fortunately we are having a two session class on mental health issues this week and next here at Newport.  I would encourage you all to come and hear what our guest speakers have to say.

We do know Mark wants us to see that this man with an unclean spirit was causing a disruption in worship.  That is part of what Mark means when he calls the spirit unclean.  Something unclean disrupts relationships.  It could be human relationships, but it could also be our relationship with God.  The fact that this man was in the synagogue lets us know his unclean spirit was disrupting worship.  Mark seems to be saying not even our worship places are safe from unclean spirits causing disruptions!

Mark is getting at something even more profound than just disruptive people.  Mark is saying Jesus took on the powers of evil in his day. While most of us don’t personify evil in a literal devil, we do know how evil can take on a life of its own.  It can cause enormous damage and pain.  Evil can disrupt healthy relationships. It can destroy trust breaking down community.  But, let us not confuse evil with mental illness. Enough said.  Let’s move on.

The real issue of this passage is authority.  “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. . .they 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.’”

They recognized a new kind of authority in Jesus.  What does Mark mean by authority?  Today we are accustomed to giving many things and people authority in our lives.  Some give the media or the internet the authority to interpret what is going on in the world.  Some think those with the most education, or the most money speak with more authority than those less educated or less affluent.  Others think the position one holds in life, one’s job or elected office, gives one authority.  Still others are impressed by those who can speak fluently and are quick on their feet. 

That is not what the Mark is saying about authority.  First off, Jesus was not wealthy.  He did not have a lot of education.  He had no position of power.  And, perhaps the biggest clue Mark is talking about authority in a unique way is how little he says about what Jesus actually taught. Mark seems absolutely uninterested in the content of Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus did not have authority because of what he said or all he knew.

Jesus’ authority was different from that of the scribes.  We are told the scribes liked to quote scripture to give them authority.  They quoted other scholars who interpreted the Torah.  Their authority was second hand, in other words.  It rested on the knowledge of their sacred text and how well they could quote it and other respected scholars. 

We see this today when certain branches of Christianity overwhelm any discussion on various social or theological issues by quoting scripture verses at their opponents.  They think knowing the Bible better than others gives them authority.  If they can proof text their position then their position is the only acceptable Christian position.

Jesus’ authority came out of his intimate relationship with God.  It is not that he ignored the scriptures of his Jewish religion.  I suspect Jesus could quote scripture as well as the scribes.  But when he taught, his authority came from who he was, from his deep and abiding relationship with God. 

His authority also came because of how he treated people.  In this case his actions spoke louder than his words.  That is certainly Mark’s perspective.  Mark seems to say his actions taking on the unclean spirit could be described as teaching with authority.

Some of you may remember Frances Taylor Gench.  She is a seminary professor and a friend of Joan Merritt.  They both served on the Peace, Unity and Purity task force of our denomination several years ago.  I was at a conference this fall where Frances spoke.  Part of her topic was on Biblical authority.

She talked about how some have a propositional understanding of Biblical authority.  The Bible’s authority is in what it says.  Truth is all about propositions, facts, dogma derived from Biblical verses as if the Bible was divinely dictated to the authors. This understanding leads to a more literal approach to Bible interpretation.

But the Bible was not divinely dictated.  It was written by those inspired by God’s Spirit.  It was written by very human authors with all the strengths and weaknesses human beings have.  Gench very cleverly says the Bible is as human as Jesus. She goes on to say the Holy Spirit mediates God’s communication to us in the human words of the Bible.  She calls this a relational understanding of truth. 

That is very much how Jesus has authority in this passage in Mark.  His authority is a relational authority.  His words and being caused his hearers to be driven into a relationship with God, the God revealed in his person.  That is his authority.  It is not a second hand kind of authority.  His ability to quote the scriptures or famous scholars was far less important than the relationship his presence and actions led people into with each other and God.

What does all of this mean for us today?  I’ll start by saying as important as is theology, and I believe theology matters deeply, it is relationships that reveal God’s grace, love and care. It is relationships that drive us to God.  Such relationships are far more important than any elegant theology.  One might even say it is relationships that flesh out God’s deep love for us that saves us.

When one is hurting, quoting Bible verses, or telling someone to hold on to their beliefs, just doesn’t cut it.  There is evil out in the world, and some have been hurt by that evil.  But far more common than evil is just normal human heartache and pain.  All of us have been touched by that heartache to one degree or another. 

What has the authority to heal us and set us free?  It is a relationship with God as God is incarnated in Jesus, and in the community of faith, what we call the body of Christ, that carries the most authority.  It is relational authority, and not propositional authority that touches us on the deepest levels.

When some in the larger church accuse those of us who are more progressive of not believing in the authority of the Bible, we don’t have to accept that.  We can say we do believe in the authority of the Bible, but it is not a propositional authority.  It is a relational authority.  It is the authority of the Holy Spirit to speak to us in the very human words of the Bible and draw us into a deeper relationship with God.  It is the type of authority that, as Frances Taylor Gench says does not let one voice in scripture silence all the other voices in scripture.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority. . .” May we open ourselves ever deeper to the person of Jesus revealed in the scriptures and in our community so that we may be drawn to God.  May we follow Jesus’ example and give priority to a relational understanding of truth and authority.  Amen



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