Reflection (4th Sunday after Epiphany)


1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Who’s the last person that told you what to do? Did you listen to them? What gave them, or didn’t give them, this authority?

My mom is what I’d call an armchair Covid-19 expert. I can guarantee that when I enter the same room as her, TV humming in the background, she has some new information to report to me. Part of me wants to bury my head in the sand, block out all the statistics. But I know I’m in this whether I like it or not.

We sit down regularly to watch Boris give us an update: a figure of authority fumbling his way through challenging circumstances. But does he have authority? If you’d have asked me last March when we went into the first lockdown, I’d have said, yes. People seemed to heed his call to action, they stayed at home, morale seemed to be high as people responded with a warlike spirit, encouraged by Johnson using warlike imagery and language to rally the nation.

Do I see the same now? I don’t. That’s not to say there aren’t a good number of people doing what they can to protect others: wearing all sorts of artistic masks, social distancing, staying at home, juggling their job and teaching children who’d rather be playing with their friends. But I don’t think it’s the authority of politicians that’s making this happen.

There’s more questions about what’s the right way forward. Some people even deny that there’s anything to be concerned about. And statistics about the number of people who don’t want to take the vaccine is alarming. Do we label these people idiots? Are they plotting some sort of intentional harm to others? I don’t think so.

So what’s happened to this authority: the authority of a government leading a nation in a time of crisis? I suppose we have to ask what’s important for authority: trust, credibility, motives all have a part to play.

Key members of government breaking rules doesn’t help: one rule for them, another for us. Finance moving from the public pot to private companies: companies and individuals who happen to be connected to those in power.

And of course, for many people, that trust and credibility – that authority – was already weak at the start of the pandemic, held by a thread. We only have to think of communities that have felt neglected for years, particularly those disadvantaged communities who have watched the rich get richer and the poor get poorer… increasing statistics around numbers of people in poverty show us this.

The problem is, when you need authority, when you need people to get on board, because it really matters, if you haven’t looked after them or developed their trust, they’re not suddenly going to trust you and toe the line.

Some of this distrust is deeply ingrained in our communities from years ago. I think particularly of the Thatcher years and how mining and industrial communities lost their main sources of income and felt dropped, leading to generations of unemployment: and the distrust from northern working class communities still echoes strong.

Authority isn’t just about people in positions of power. Being in power doesn’t mean you automatically have authority: revolutions have shown this time and time again. And if this is true, then it’s also possible that people who aren’t in positions of power can have authority. So where does this authority come from?

Jesus was a prime example of this. In our reading from Mark, he enters the synagogue, the place of religious teaching, where people wait in anticipation to hear about their faith and to grow closer to God. Then here’s this unknown teacher, someone new without a badge giving him a role and yet his teaching is recognised as having great authority. The people are amazed. They’ve been used to the scribes, the main leaders in matters of law and faith complicating things, putting their own interests first… the people’s trust has grown weak. Then here is this teacher, what he says captivates them: we have no information about what Jesus says to the people, but we can assume it’s about the kingdom of God and how that’s good news for them.

We can assume here that the scribes are furious: who is this jumped up teacher? How dare he enter our space? No doubt this starts their plots against Jesus. Then as he finishes, this unknown teacher, finds someone shouting and recognising his authority: I know who you are, the Holy One of God. What even was this unclean person doing in the synagogue? This outsider? This unknown teacher’s authority is recognised by an outsider. They affirm each other: Jesus affirms God’s love; the man affirms Jesus’ authority.

The years of traditions and the puffed up knowledge of the scribes were no competition for true wisdom and love: God’s wisdom and love. Jesus, without control, coercion or ceremony, reveals this to the crowd gathered and his authority is affirmed.

Where does our authority lie as churches and individuals? Do we rely on our own puffed up knowledge or traditions or do we seeks God’s wisdom and love in knowing how to act and speak?

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, plays down the traditions of avoiding eating food sacrificed to idols. In and of itself it doesn’t matter. It’s just food. But what he does play up is how you act and how it affects other people. If it’s going to cause someone else harm, then think again.

It’s not about what we know, how we’ve done things, or power of positions, it’s about how we embrace God’s wisdom and love in our relationships with each other. When we recognise that someone truly has our best interests at heart, we trust them and allow them to have authority in our lives. This is living in God’s Kingdom as Jesus followers. It is our task through prayerful seeking and worship to hear and learn this wisdom and love, so that together we might reflect it into the world… and then maybe we’ll hear the voice of the outsider recognise the authority of Jesus in us.