Readings Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Ruth Martin and I are now one third of the way through our Street Pastor training. So, if in a few months you find yourself worse for wear in the small hours of a Richmond Saturday morning, it may be one of us who offers you a drink of water or a pair if flip-flops so you don’t have to totter home in your heels. It’s a long course – twelve full Saturdays – but that’s one reason the Home Office and Police are so keen on the scheme: it’s thorough – with the inevitable Criminal Records Bureau check – so they can be confident that it’s only the trained and the authorised who wear the Street Pastor uniform. Yes there’s a uniform, the thing I’m least looking forward to, including a baseball cap, which is just not me. I hope to be allowed to wear the regulation beanie hat instead, on conscientious grounds, as my badge of authority.
Authority is the word for today. British society has never been so ambivalent about it. On the one hand, what we call ‘the authorities’, those institutions and people that have traditionally shaped understanding of what is what’s right and wrong, have seldom been so low in esteem: politicians, journalists, bankers, clergy, all score badly in the polls. And when we come to the things that do have authority for people, those principles they let shape their lives, there is a certain freestyle character to things. Our lecturer yesterday showed a clip from a BBC documentary in which a plaintive Michael Buerk talked about people ‘writing their own rules’ for living, and a bouncy David Starkey talked of us as ‘moral consumers’ who had ‘outgrown’ the need for a single moral code.
But here is a paradox. While you can take a DIY approach to what you allow to have authority in your life, getting authority to do something has never been harder. Try being a school governor or helping at a Scout or Guide unit. Everything has to be scrutinised and formally authorised. I’ve just been asked to be chaplain of our local Sea Cadets, and from the amount of paperwork involved (with another CRB check, of course) you’d think I was about to have my finger on the button in a Trident submarine. But that’s our world: ‘Trust, but verify’, the Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan always used to quote at Mr Gorbachev in the nuclear weapons talks. In fact, not even that: ‘Verify, then trust. Maybe. Up to a point’.
How different for Jesus and John the Baptist in the gospel reading, when the religious leaders see Jesus teaching in the temple and put him on the spot. Now a straight answer to a straight question is sometimes an overrated thing, and this is one of those times. ‘By what authority do you do these things?’ they ask Jesus. Jesus has no authority, in the sense of an official licence: he is a freelance rabbi. So who has given him authority? If he says ‘No-one’, he pulls the rug from under himself. If he says ‘God has’ (which is true), he only claims what any crank would claim. So he throws back at them another unauthorised person, John the Baptist: ‘Let me ask you where his authority came from.’ Now they are in the kind of cleft stick they offered Jesus: if they say John’s authority came from God, why did they not go along with him? If they say it was merely a human thing, then the crowed may not let them get out in one piece.
John and Jesus are what sociologists call ‘charismatic leaders’, people who may have no authority for what they do, but great authority in what they do. Institutions, ‘the authorities’, always struggle with such people. And here is the dilemma for thechurch ofJesus: how to be an institution which follows the one for whom the religious institutions of his day found no room? Take what I’m doing now. Of course it’s right that no-one should regularly s
tand in a CofE pulpit who has not been authorised to do so, it must be so; and yet.
In my last job, interviewing candidates for ordination, at no point was it enough for someone just to say, ‘God has called me’: there were criteria to be applied, tests to be administered, references to be taken up (and, of course, a CRB check at £60 a pop) before a person might be considered for training, and only after that receive the formal authority of ordination, to be and to do certain things in and for the church.
And I believe in all that. One reason why the Church of England has proved a hardy plant in this sometimes rocky soil has been its insistence on due authority: you are welcome to worship in many different ways but not in any way; and those whom you wish to have leadership among you need to be authorised by the wider church. Soon after the July 7th bombs, I heard the impressive MP for Streatham, Sadiq Khan, a practising Muslim, say how he liked dealing with the CofE because he knew that a churchwarden, archdeacon or whatever had some official standing, whereas there was nothing to stop him starting a mosque and becoming its imam.
It can all be frustrating at times, and some other churches do things differently, giving more freedom to the Spirit, as they might say. But the point of this formality and control is – oddly – to secure that very freedom. Its aim is to make the church a sturdy container, a test-tube in which the anarchic chemistry of the Holy Spirit can bubble and even boil over, but not drain harmlessly away. The church is in constant danger of becoming just another human institution, and sometimes it succumbs. But if we its people keep our eyes fixed upon Jesus, our authorised people will see in him the humility of their great high priest, and our unauthorised people will see in him the bold and inconvenient layperson.
But what is that chemical reaction that bubbles away when we come to this test-tube, this laboratory of the Spirit? It has many elements, but one of them I think is to turn each of us into people of authority, not in the sense of having authority for what we do but having authority in what we do. Matthew’s word for authority is exousia, literally: that which comes out of your being. This kind of authority is not about being a natural leader, though you might be. It is about a stable inner core, so that amid all the mess and compromise that fill our lives you and I do not lose our sense of who we are, of our true being. And this is defined not by rank or income or letters after the name, but by knowing that you are a son, a daughter of God, an identity that depends not on moral performance but on God choosing us. When, at the start of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is baptised, we read that a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ That is Jesus’ identity, the inner being from which everything flows. And when we receive the bread and wine of the Holy Communion we take that being into ourselves. It becomes part of us and changes us. It nourishes the inner self.
It’s not a magic cure. We still fail – often there will be a split between the inner being and the outer doing – but sometimes the two will come together, and we shall find ourselves not doing what others do, or risking what others will not. This won’t be because of expediency or company policy or gain (‘not from selfish ambition’, as Paul puts it in Philippians), but because if we do otherwise we shall lose our selves, the self that God has given each of us, that is fed here by the being of Christ, the one who (as again we read in Philippians) walked the path of sacrifice and emptied himself, for God and others.
That, of course, is costly; and, even in the moral supermarket in which we find ourselves, such moments of self-sacrifice have real authority.
Street Pastors: www.streetpastors.co.uk