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Authority and Obedience (sermon)

September 27, 2014

Matt 12:23-32  Phil 2:1-13

 

By what authority are you doing these things? When challenged like this Jesus doesn’t answer directly… Instead he ends up offering them a parable about authority… about the nature of authority.

 

“A man had two sons” we are told. He gave both of them the same command. As a Jewish father he has authority over his sons. His culture, tradition, society all give him authority to command his sons.

 

The first son acknowledges that authority and says Yes… but does nothing. The second son rejects that authority, rebels, but later does what the father asks.

 

For the first Son, although the authority of the Father is acknowledged, although he says Yes, this authority is not internalised. It may be that he never intends to act, and is deceptive… or it may be that he simply never gets round to it. The command exists somewhere out there on the periphery of who he is and what he is doing with his life… so for all it’s external authority it has no internal authority for him.

 

Authority is not merely something someone has by virtue of the way society works, by virtue of being the boss, by virtue, or, in this case, being a Jewish Father – external authority. Deepest authority is given from below by those who follow… its internal.

 

Interestingly, the one who ends up demonstrating that the Father’s command is truly and internally authoritative… the one who ends up doing the will of the Father, is the one who initially says No (the Rebel), but does get round to it. … he is the obedient one.

 

Here is where the challenge of the religious leaders gets thrown back in their teeth. Jesus compares them to the first son… for whom doing the will of the Father is a duty… but not a passion, something they say yes to… but ultimately don’t get around to actually doing.

 

Crooks and Whores,… says Jesus will get into the kingdom of heaven before the religious leaders. They may say No at first. They may appear to be the nay sayers… but there will be crooks and whores who will do the will of the Father because its their passion, because it has internal authority for them.

 

Let’s turn our attention now to the other readings. This little bit of Philippians, scholars think, is a very ancient Christian hymn, older than any of the writings of the NT, any of the gospels or any of Paul’s letter. It is a little hymn which tells us more than anything else what lay at the heart of Paul’s new faith in Jesus and how the very first Christians understood it.

Let me read just the hymn part:

[Jesus] was in the form of God. He didn’t think it was robbery to be equal with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, listening to God to the point of death — even the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee would bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every language would fully agree that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In a nutshell it tells us that Jesus was a man under the authority of his Father. He was in the form of God his Father. Not in any way seeking a higher status, but equal with God, completely lacking any sense of rivalry with God and yet… at the same time under the authority of God his Father. How does that work if someone is equal, yet under authority? It works if the authority is not some external system. It works if the authority is totally freely given by the one under authority. It is about internal authority.

 

The hymn envisions Jesus as obedient to God… And the word itself is worth noting. Obedience comes from two old english words meaning ‘listening towards’. The Greek is the same. It says Jesus ‘listened to God all the way to his death’. Jesus and the Father were on the same wavelength… all the way down.

 

And how did he express this equality with God… Philippians says, because he was in the form of God, he expressed that divine form, by pouring himself out as a servant of others… listening to God in a way that led directly to his crucifixion. For this according to Christians is what God is like. This is the form of God in our world.

 

This is the Christian revolution… humility, self-giving, servanthood, the cross … is the very form of God. This is the life of God that the resurrection of Jesus celebrates and announces. This is the form of God that, according to the hymn, will be acknowledged by every language group. Not Caesar, nor his army, not his athletes, nor his array of heroic deities, but Jesus… is the Lord… the Lord Servant of all.

 

Which all sounds very grand and orthodox, doesn’t it… but for Paul it is intensely practical.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ [Paul writes] If his love provides any relief, any partnership with the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by thinking along these same lines, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Have the same frame of mind that was in Jesus, the Anointed One.

For Paul, to be a Christian is to be caught up into the obedience of Jesus… we can he says “work out our own salvation”. We too can share in this amazing life of servanthood in relation to one another and obedience to God.

 

How? Paul says, because ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both in what you intend to do and in what you actually do’.

 

To my mind this brings us back to the two sons… This business of getting intentions and actions together… like the Son who said No but in the end acted… this business is God’s work. Internal authority.

 

I wonder which son you tend to identify with. Are you more like the ‘good’ son, whose first instinct is to say Yes? Or are you the rebel, whose first instinct it to say No?

 

Either way the good news is that God changes human nature… changes people and communities … so that they they pour themselves out for others, rather than contain themselves safely under their own control. God changes people and communities so that they no longer aspire to be like Caesar … on top of the world… but to be like Jesus, under the world, bearing the world in love. God changes people into the form of God.

 

This is the Gospel of Christ.

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