Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 28th September 2014
28 September 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Precentor
The context of this morning's Gospel is one of impending conflict. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem as the crowds acclaim him as Messiah. Immediately he goes into the Temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers – those extortionists who were trying to price-up peoples' salvation – before moving on, the next day, to the scene we have just heard described, full of questions which are ultimately about where power lies, and how power is interrogated and held to account.
The chief priests and other temple authorities use their question to try to trap Jesus – if Jesus claims that his authority comes from God, they will be a step closer to bringing him down. However, Jesus responds with his own question, which they will not and cannot answer. Because to answer Jesus' question would be to resign some of their power, and to admit that the troublesome John the Baptist was genuinely a prophet. So, in an age long-before situation ethics, they shrug their shoulders and opt for the silence which allows them cling on to some vestige of power. But in this strange rhetorical scene, that means that they, too, receive no answer to their question to Jesus. Jesus' interrogation of the religious leaders is more than just an exercise in tit-for-tat, rather it is a subtle shifting of the power dynamic. He metaphorically tunnels under the question in order to preach his Good News, his Gospel, that those who are outside the respectable realm of so-called faithful religion are leading the way – through their faithfulness – into the Kingdom of God. Masterfully, Jesus shows the High Priests and scribes how his authority (which they are supposedly interested in) poses a challenge to their rule.
But what about all those questions? The way we answer questions is a problem for religious people. Answer with bold certainty, and you risk being labelled a fanatic; answer with any kind of nuance or equivocation and you are almost certainly a wooly liberal. When the Archbishop of Canterbury admitted last week to occasional doubts in the existence of God, he was attempting to deal with the genuine difficulty of faith in today's context honestly and openly. Much of the media, of course, caricatured the Archbishop in ways all too reminiscent of how they dealt with his eminent predecessor. It's not easy learning the rules of theological grammar, still harder is it to exercise them, when people actually don't have the patience or the interest to engage. Nevertheless, learning not to be defensive, but also to be precise with language are both profoundly theological imperatives for Christian leaders, however difficult this is in an age saturated by instant mis-communication.
But the problem is not just how we answer questions: today's complicated and confused gospel reminds us that religious people also have a problem in how we ask questions. Adversarial methods are suited to the courtroom, but rarely open the most interesting conversations in either theology or ethics. And perhaps our contemporary questioning – of the cultural status quo, of the so-called traditional received wisdom – is often less nuanced than it should be. Today, Jesus shows us that a question can un-do another question – a question can un-tie a knot, and prompt people to think again.
So, today's Gospel prompts me to think a little bit about Christian engagement – how we engage, on what ground, and to what ends. The tax collectors and prostitutes had their lives changed, and therefore they lead the way into the Kingdom of God. This isn't some simple socialist utopia, instead it is somewhere where human fragility and frailty can be transformed by faith, hope and love. The tax collectors and prostitutes have been enchanted by Jesus; fascinated by him; reassured by his message. So, Christian engagement with culture must firstly be about showing people Jesus. Where the signs of Jesus' drastically re-creating and reconciling power already are, and where they can or could be seen. That will involve a pointing away from ourselves, as John the Baptist himself taught us, and towards the wonder of God's richness and beauty in Christ. Earlier in Matthew's Gospel we are told that Jesus himself taught "with authority", unlike the scribes, and that this astounded the crowd. Interestingly, Matthew uses the same word (exousia) today when the Chief Priests ask him "by what authority" he is teaching and acting. That word holds a rich meaning: by what right, from what source, what power, from which ruling authority?
The use of this word in Matthew's Gospel reminds us that the teaching we hear from and see in Jesus is revelation about who and how God is. Jesus is God's self-communication of absolute love and perfect creativity. So, in some ways Christian communication should surely be rooted in that power, that authority, and therefore exercised without nervousness – including the nervousness which leads to overstatement, or oppression. Remember, it is this authority which reaches out to, loves, forgives, validates, and includes tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus' authoritative teaching clearly made use of metaphor, imagery and imagination.
But even so, what about that vexed question of power? I said earlier that Jesus' teaching shifts the power dynamic in the story. So, how can we say that Christian engagement with the world should be rooted in this "authority"? Part of an answer to this is to remind us that the "authority" and the power is Christ's and not ours. Through our baptism we are under this authority ourselves, spellbound by its glorious liberating creativity, and the presence of the human ego in all its murky forms needs to be kept in constant check. That's why we are encouraged to self-examination and taught not to judge others. But another part of the answer to how we might understand the power which is present in Christian teaching and engagement is found in today's second lesson.
In St Paul's letter to the Phillipians, he teaches his hearers to be of the same mind that was in Jesus, "who humbled himself, taking the form of a slave." Any power that our engagement has is Christ's and must be characterised by humility – not a Uriah Heap-like tugging of the forelock, but a total commitment to wash the feet of the world, to serve those we are set amongst, before we dare open our mouths to teach. Christian communities should be models of this. Care, compassion, welcome, before anything else, because it is this care and compassion which builds us up in Christ.
When I was at theological college, there was lots of helpful advice flying around in the week before we were sent out to be ordained deacon. I remember one thing alone from that week. One of the staff said, very simply, be kind. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus, says St Paul, pointing to the God who serves his people, not oppresses them; who submits himself to them, rather than dominating them. This is, in part, why Jesus spoke with authority, and why the only answer to the High Priest's question had to be another question. Because to speak of the authority or judgement of God in the wrong way, is not only problematic, but is also deeply limiting and profoundly damaging.
In today's Gospel, the High Priests and scribes equivocate. Jesus does not. They see that he stands in authority. The High Priests choose a mediocre answer which just shores up their own power, and the answer Jesus eventually gives is one which exposes their hypocrisy, and roots this authority in the radical love and challenge which allows prostitutes and tax collectors to lead the way into the Kingdom of God. "Let the same mind be in you", teaches St Paul, "that was in Christ Jesus".