During my training, one of the tutors asked us whether it was God or the Church who was giving us authority to preach and teach and lead worship once we were licensed. Some people said the Church, others God. As God’s calling to this service was discerned by the Church, who then trained and admitted us, it’s surely both?
Authority is bound by obedience. Paul says in his letter to the people in Philippi, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Jesus who ... being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.’
Obedience is tied in with humility. We bow to those who give us authority. It has to be that way. To quote from Malcolm Nicholas’s book ‘Journey into Spiritual Spaciousness’:
“Any group in which member behaviour majorly contradicts the group’s shared beliefs and values will give an unclear message at best and completely destroy itself at worst. Obedience then is important.” Malcolm goes on to make a distinction between obedience and compliance. When we can see that those we love will benefit from it if people follow the rules, we will not only obey them but go beyond what is required of us. We may be compliant if there is no such loving relationship involved, especially if there’s a penalty if we don’t comply, but we don’t have the same motivation.
Our gospel reading this week comes after Jesus has caused a turmoil in Jerusalem. He rode in on a donkey acclaimed by the crowds, drove the swindlers out from the temple, overturned their tables, and then healed those who came to him.
The children had his name on their lips. He spent the night in safety with his friends in Bethany, but the next day he returned to the temple. He was teaching the people when the chief priests and elders came and challenged him: ‘Who gave you authority to do these things?’ Jesus wasn’t being compliant to their rules. They wanted him to pay the penalty. But he was being obedient to God.
What religious leaders ask of people, of course, should be in alignment with what God asks of us. Jesus illustrated with a parable that in his day there was a gulf between the two. The tax collectors and prostitutes, who hadn’t said they would serve God, had changed their minds and were doing so - while they, the chief priests and elders, who claimed to be doing God’s will, were not only failing to do so, but were not ready to listen to John the Baptist or to anyone God sent to them.
Jesus told us that the two great commandments were to love God and to love one another. On these two commandments all of the others hang. So we can know that if anyone in authority over us asks us to do something harmful, or neglectful, to ourselves or to other people it’s not what God is asking of us.
Paul said ‘... in humility regard others as better than yourselves’ and ‘Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’. This is good advice - but we need to remember that we’re not asked to be compliant to their will, but always in humility to be obedient to God’s will. I’ll let Malcolm have the last word: “He (Jesus) invited his followers to move from compliance with a set of external rules, to obedience to the indwelling rule of love born of relationship. From this flow attitudes and actions of care and blessing, which are not only perceived by the individual who chooses to live this way, but flow in blessing upon the individuals and communities among whom they live, move, and have their being.”