Preacher Revd Neil Summers
What compelling words about the impact of Jesus’s life and death in today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians: He has abolished the laws with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity. It seems to me this is a lesson that many religious institutions and systems have yet to learn – including our own Anglican Church – for, historically, the church has had a great tendency to lay down commandments and ordinances around right belief, sound doctrine and correct pastoral practice, to the point where it has erected walls of division which keep people out, and claimed a form of infallibility all its own. By contrast, this one verse from Ephesians points towards Jesus as the figure who breaks down dividing walls, who sets aside the rule book when it is in danger of being given pride of place, and allows basic humanity to have priority instead. This is clearly illustrated in this morning’s Gospel, as Jesus’s compassion for people takes priority even over the need of his tired disciples (and no doubt his own need) for some peace and quiet away from the crowds. Mark’s Gospel tells the reader a number of times that people were astounded at Jesus’s teaching, for he taught as one having authority – but it was a new kind of teaching, and a new slant on authority. This, surely, ought to be the model on which the church bases its own approach to authority. Doctrine may well have its place, but serving people comes first.
In his book ‘What was Jesus’s Message?’ John Fenton identifies two contrasting examples of ‘teaching with authority’. A teacher can say, ‘I’m an authority on this or that. I’ve got more degrees on it than I can count, I’ve written book after book, therefore I’m to be believed in this matter, so you should acknowledge that, take my advice and do what I say’. Or the teacher could say, ‘Look at the matter for yourself. Explore this subject from every angle. Examine what’s known so far: here are some places to look. Find out what you can, then draw out the deeper meanings for yourself’. The first example, Fenton suggests, is a false authority, because it enslaves the learner to the teacher and disengages them from the subject. The second is genuine authority, freeing the learner to be inspired and to discern. It encourages ownership and respects the individual. I would suggest it is this second kind of authority Jesus employed. He never says of himself, ‘I am a great teacher, prophet, Messiah or Son of God, therefore my teaching has authority’. His authority wasn’t based on self-importance or on presenting people with a doctrinal theology they must sign up to. His essential theology is summed up in his own words: loving God means loving each other. You’ve seen me do it, now you go and do the same. No room here for static dogma or assertions of infallibility.
For the authority of Jesus to have included the idea of infallibility would have denied the fact he lived in the context of first century thought and culture. His message, according to Mark’s summary, was grounded in John the Baptist’s preaching on the end of the world: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. But the kingdom of God (at least of the type they were expecting) didn’t come then, and hasn’t come now. Jesus also said that some with him in Palestine wouldn’t die before they’d seen the kingdom of God come with power, but they all died and the new age hadn’t come. He also accepted that the first five books of the Jewish scriptures (our OT) were written by Moses, that David wrote the psalms, that demons are the cause of illness – all of which we now know not to be the case.
Infallibility was never a component of Jesus’s teaching. If it were, he would never have been free to change his mind with regard to the Syro-Phoenician woman. You may remember her intriguing story: when she asks for her daughter to be healed of a demon, Jesus said to her that his mission was only to the Jews. But she persists and challenges him, and he changes his mind and heals the daughter, a non-Jew. Also, that the idea of infallibility was alien to Jesus’s teaching is evident by the way he taught – in parables. Parables convey their meaning by metaphor, allegory and simile. They don’t present the kingdom of God by means of rigid, incontrovertible definition; rather, they invite us to ponder their mystery and draw our conclusions, provoking our imagination and helping us to frame our own insights and responses. This is the example of authority set by Jesus, and I think it is the only appropriate example for the church to follow.
There is, of course, always the temptation for the church to misinterpret the idea of authority, and try to devise clear, unmistakeable and infallible rules. But whenever it tries to do that, as it often does, it runs the risk of ceasing to point to the true God, pointing instead to itself, its own importance, or to a god of its own ideology. Churches can become obsessed by a desire for control, enforced by rules, restrictions and limitations – even to the extent of reducing the Scriptures to the one interpretation that supports a uniform, fundamentalist theology.
Personally, while I understand the human desire for security, for firm ground, I think the idea of infallibility – scriptural, doctrinal, or pastoral – is distinctly unhelpful and too problematic to be of any practical use. (In pastoral encounters, I still sometimes hear people say they feel unable fully to embrace church because they feel they don’t ‘fit’, e.g. ‘But I’m divorced…or a single parent…or whatever’.) Infallibility is contrary to the example of authority given by Jesus. Inflexible and judgemental rules eliminate the opportunity for faith and stifle our exploration into the mystery of God.
But there is a big question lurking in all this. Can a faith which questions infallibility, which sees the shortcomings of fundamentalism, and openly acknowledges the blurred nature of its own vision, command our allegiance? Well, it might be best to turn that question around and say that it is only such a faith, one which does indeed acknowledge the blurred nature of its own vision, that can rightly claim our allegiance. It was Maurice Wiles, a former Professor of Divinity at Oxford, who once wrote: It is only such a faith which is pointing us to the true mystery of God, and not enrolling us in the service of some lesser God of its own invention.
A church ethos – like ours here at St. John’s – which encourages inclusiveness is sometimes caricatured as being merely politically correct, or a celebration of woolly, lukewarm, liberal Anglican compromise and relativity. But for me, at least, it is actually a celebration of the miraculous, life-giving diversity of creation and of God – the God who reaches out across divides, as the Letter to the Ephesians makes clear. Brother Roger of the Taizé community, tragically murdered some years ago, spoke about how God’s community does not allow for us to build frontiers and defences and prejudices for survival. It calls upon us to sit down side by side with difference and, somehow, from the source of the Spirit of God, defeat the fears which divide us, and celebrate the love that should unite us, the same love we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, ‘strangers’ of all races and social classes are invited to be ‘citizens with the saints’ and ‘members of the household of God’. In each generation, the Church is called to be a place of welcome, in which God’s many children can find their home.
One last thought: you might recall that in another Gospel passage, Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. That fulfilment surely refers to the only infallible rule in the Christian Gospel – the rule of love, for God and for neighbour.