Tuesday, 7 June 2016

By whose authority?

For me, there are two main strands working through the three readings today.
The first one is the universality of the gospel. This means that the Good News of the God of Israel is for all people at all times and not for a particular people at a particular time. Both the people of Israel – the Jews – and the modern church are and always were instruments through which God would reveal His Love to the whole world.
The second strand is really one of authority. By whose authority does Elijah, Paul and Jesus speak and act. Why should we pay any mind to them?
In terms of universality and authority, Elijah raises a widow’s son to life. The widow was both a foreigner and as a widow perhaps the most vulnerable people in their societies in their day. There would be scant opportunity to provide for herself so her son was her sole provider now her husband had died.
Elijah’s authority came from the fact that God worked through him to raise this woman’s son to life so demonstrating his care and healing love to people way outside the confines of the chosen people. And it was God working; for no man can raise another to life. This is the work of God alone. Elijah was being used as an instrument of God who was showing his concern to the world beyond Israel’s borders and being able to demonstrate this gave him his authority at the same time – because God saw fit to use him.
In an almost carbon copy of the raising of the widow’s son in 1 Kings, we read of Jesus raising a Widows son. In Jesus' day widows were still the most vulnerable of people (just as in the days of Elijah) and her life support system would be her son. In this extract, nobody asks Jesus to act, and nobody is said to have "faith". Jesus simply responds to great need, and his presence is enough and the power of God is given freely. The same validation that was given to Elijah is here given to Jesus through whom God acts in the way that only God can act.    
And where did Paul get his authority from? Well his defence of his authority as we heard last week is that his gospel (the good news) is the only true gospel because it was communicated to him direct by a personal encounter with the risen Jesus Christ Himself.
So Paul’s defence of his authority is that Jesus has personally sought Him and is working through him and has appointed Him as the apostle to the gentiles (i.e. foreigners). It is quite telling that it was through a direct intervention of Christ in his life that the gospel was revealed to him. He didn’t need to be taught it by any other of the disciples.
In fact it wasn’t until three years after his experience on the road to Damascus that Paul eventually travelled to Jerusalem to speak to Peter and James, and then not in order to be taught anything, though obviously Peter and James would have filled Paul in on some of the details of Jesus’ life and ministry but the gospel itself had already been deeply imprinted on Paul’s life.
In fact it was less about learning from Peter and James than engaging with them and explaining to them the full ramifications of the gospel of Christ.
Paul could be quite confrontational and in fact in one of his letters basically calls Peter a hypocrite for refusing to eat with foreigners when other conservative Jews were around (Galatians 2: 11 -14).
Authority is a still a hot issue today. On whose authority do we speak and preach? The Pope, church councils, Bishops, experience, the Bible, church tradition?
This is a very tricky area but evangelicals at least are clear. The final authority is the Bible, as the record of the dealings of God with mankind culminating in his revealing of himself and the fulfilling of God’s promises through Jesus Christ.
The Bible is therefore our final authority.
Doctrines may be developed by the church, so long as they don’t contradict the Bible, like the Holy Trinity, but quite often the church has corrupted and contradicted the truth of scripture which resulted in false religion which led to the reformation and through the reformation to the Church of England.
The Book of Common Prayer, seen by many as a safe and warm retreat from modernism is actually a radical Protestant response to the perversions of the Church of Rome. Just take a look at the 39 articles in the back of the prayer book!
In terms of authority the C of E has traditionally said that our authority is derived from an interplay between Scripture, reason and tradition.
I would agree with that so long as it is scripture that always has the last word, enlightened by the guidance and light of God’s own Spirit.
But in the end, by whose authority should preachers preach? Well if you believe that the Bible is the God breathed word of God, it is not a little scary.
On nothing less than the authority of God, as revealed in Christ, as recorded in the Bible and brought to life by the Holy Spirit through a preacher.

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