The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
29 January 2012
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
In today’s collect, we addressed our “Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth,” and asked him to hear our prayers and grant us his peace. It is a very straight-forward prayer that appears first in the Gregorian Sacramentary in the seventh century and has been associated with Epiphanytide in the Anglican tradition since the codification of the Sarum Missal around the twelfth-century.(1) Its petition asks for the most basic things that we might desire of our God: that he hear our prayers, be attentive to our concerns, and grant us his peace, his peace that passeth all understanding and in which we find our reconciliation with him. It is the first part of the collect, however, the address, in which I am most interested today, for indeed, God would be unable to act upon our desires if he were not the God we addressed.
“Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth.” That is the God of Israel who, as I discussed last week, saved Nineveh and who is like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. This God we affirm to be almighty and everlasting, who encompasses all and who both journeys with us in time and yet is not bound by time, this God we say governs “all things in heaven and earth.” This power is not something God took by force, not something he seized or even coveted. This power is with God because he is the source of all that is, the author of all creation. As such, God has true authority over all the cosmos, a dominion that can not be taken away. As God is the author of all, the ultimate authority in heaven and earth, authority is something that can only be given, given by God, and by extension, given by communities acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is why authority is not the same thing as power. People do seize power. A person can never seize authority.
Today’s lessons all speak to the question of authority: who has it, who uses it, and how it is used. In the lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses, in speaking to Israel about the time when they shall enter the land, announces that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” and that this prophet will share God’s word, God’s law with the people and the people should heed his words. Moses becomes for the Deuteronomic author, the paradigmatic prophet, one who was called by God and given by him the words to speak to the people. We hear that “the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.” A prophet does not just decide to speak for God, take it upon himself to prophesy, seize the post of prophet and leader of the people. A true prophet is one who has been raised up by God, taught what to say, who has, in other words been given authority by the author of all creation.
Even the words in First Corinthians about food offered to idols—which simply means buying your meat from, or eating meat bought from, the butchers who handled the animals sacrificed in the pagan temples—even these pronouncements are really about God’s true authority. Paul affirms that the gods to whom the beasts were offered are merely idols, and he reminds us that “an idol has no real existence,” and hence no authority. Therefore eating meat that had been offered to idols really makes no difference, as the rites, and the gods to whom those rites are addressed, have no power in and of themselves. The meat is no more or less special because of how and where it was slaughtered. Paul wants to be very clear that those idols, those other gods have no authority, and therefore have no real power over us. The only real authority is “God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” He only offers the pastoral suggestion that those who might ascribe power to those idols stay away from eating such meat, and that since there are lots of folks in this position, that he and others should also abstain so as to help those others, whom he characterises as “the weak.”
It is with all this in mind that we turn to the passage from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, and which immediately follows last week’s story of Jesus calling the first disciples. In the opening thirty lines of Mark’s story and in rapid succession, Jesus is baptised, “a voice came from heaven [and proclaimed] ‘You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,’” he is driven into the wilderness for forty days, and then begins his ministry, calling his disciples, and performing his first miracle, about which we heard this morning. In rapid succession, Mark affirms in no uncertain terms that Jesus is one with authority.
Jesus seeks the baptism of John, seeks participation in the baptism for the forgiveness of sins and transforms this rite into something more. In and through this extraordinary interaction, that voice from heaven signals Jesus place as God’s son, his Beloved, thereby authorising Jesus to speak and act as one with God. This authority was immediately recognised by Andrew and Simon, and then by James and John, who followed him to Capernaeum. There Jesus taught in the synagogue, and there the men there “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” They, too, recognised that Jesus was one who had not merely seized the podium, as it were, and spoke and taught merely what he pleased, but was one whose words resonated with their knowledge and understanding of the God of Israel.
It was then, that the man possessed by the “unclean spirit” cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
As yet, although people saw that he was one given authority by God, no human had recognised him, acknowledged him as more than a prophet. This spirit, however, this cosmic power that all at that would have unquestioningly accepted as real, shows not merely deference to Jesus, but names him “the Holy One of God.” Indeed, the powers of the cosmos know who Jesus is, and acknowledge his authority. Those who witnessed this scene were “all amazed” and said “‘With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.”
Here, Mark sets the stage for all that Jesus says and does in his Gospel story. Jesus, the one who sought the baptism of John, who was singled out as God’s Beloved, who teaches as one with authority, who exercises power over the powers of the cosmos, this Jesus Christ is the Son of Man, the one who “must suffer many things, and be rejected ... and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This one, who incarnates the authority of God, will be our fellow sufferer and will be the one to triumph over death.
If Jesus’ authority, as the one who suffers and is raised from the dead, comes from God, the author of all things, than any authority we might possess, also comes through God in Christ. Any true power that we may exercise is part of the authority given us by God and affirmed by the community. This is why there is an ordination process in our church, and people can not simply decide to ordain themselves. Indeed, this is why all Christian vocation, lay and ordained, is discerned in community, and this is why in our democratic catholic church, we raise-up and elect our lay leaders at the Annual Parish meeting. We do nothing in this church on the basis of our own authority. It is God’s authority, Jesus’ authority, and the authority of the church that was given by Jesus to his disciple and spread throughout the world in both the apostolic succession and the councils of the church. Our parish meeting today is just that important. Nourished by the holy sacrament and made one in Christ’s body and blood, we will gather shortly in the Undercroft, praying that our “almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth [might] mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace,” and do the business of the church. This is the authority given to this community, to share God’s sacramental presence in this place, to preach the Gospel and offer prayers of supplication and thanksgiving to God, and to raise up leaders who will help guide us and lead us forth into the world as heralds and ministers of the Gospel.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
27 January 2012
1. Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 171-172.
© 2012 Andrew Charles Blume