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Sermon ~ Teaching with authority

Mark 1,21-28
Teaching with authority
29 January 2012 (two services)
Klemzig & Windsor Uniting Church SA

Let us Pray:

Creator and maker of us all
bless the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts,
grow you in us and show us your ways,
and inspire us to live by your truth.

Amen

1.

I think I am spoiled. No, not in the way you may think: Unfortunately, I don’t belong to that class of people who got it all. My father had warned me about it when I decided to follow what the Uniting Church in Australia describes as a “Calling”. My father, who passed away on 23 December 1999, aged 75, had a number of serious discussions with me way back in the early 1970s. As a public official, working for the city council of Frankfurt/Main for 40 years, he was concerned about my choice of future vocation. After many years of voluntary youth work as a boy scout and youth group leader; a three-year professional training as a transport agent; and after rejecting the 14-months military service as a conscientious objector and a compulsory two-year social service instead —— after all of this, I decided to follow my sense of calling and study at the Protestant University of my regional home church in Germany to work as a “Christian Community Educator”, or what some churches call a “Parish Deacon”.

My father was worried because he could clearly see that I would hardly ever make enough money to secure a comfortable life as a pensioner. But there was another issue he commented on. While I argued that I was not interested in working for money, and in commerce and competition, he warned me that people in the various offices of the church would just be that — people.

Es menschelt dort genauso wie bei uns in der Behörde oder in jedem anderen Unternehmen!”, he said to me. There is no English translation for this verb, “menscheln”, as it seems to be a typically German popular folk term. For its English language speakers, a German-English dictionary describes this term as

“used to express recognition and acceptance — especially in unexpected situations — of the fact that we are all human beings complete with weaknesses and fallibilities.”[1]

Well, I believe my father was trying to say, do not expect to find any “Saints” in those church offices, and certainly not amongst the church leaders, ministers, teachers, or others in positions of authority.

Today, almost forty years later, I have to admit — he was right. I did, and actually still do even here in Australia, have my share of conflicts, disappointments, and discouragement with such leaders. And sure enough, I never became rich either, unlike, for instance, to some degree my older brother who followed our father’s advice.

Yet, I started this sermon by stating that I was “spoiled”. Yes, I still truly believe it. My first full employment was as what you would call a Deacon, then as a Social Justice teacher with an international Christian missionary agency in Germany. There I had a manager who in my eyes was already an old man. In reality, he was probably younger than I am today. But it was not so much his appearance as an old man, but rather his attitude that has stayed with me as a treasure ever since.

As my manager, he was the one who spoiled me. No, he did not show any preference to me over my other colleagues, half of whom were people from various countries around the world. It was the appreciation, the respect, that he showed to each and every one of us. Managing a team of international crazies like us, with complex life histories and broad experiences of living and working overseas, or even joining us from overseas for some years, must have been a nightmare for him. We were not particularly difficult in our interaction as a team. But I believe, our somewhat “innovative ideas”, and the controversial topics we were promoting in our teaching in German schools and churches, must have caused him some headaches at times. For instance, in those years we were deeply involved as Christians with the strategic campaign of an economic boycott against the South African Apartheid regime and the brutally racist policy against its coloured peoples.

This was in the late 1970s, a time when political awareness of the “power of the people” just began to awake. My church then and later sent me to countries of dictatorship and civil war, and to their peoples, like South Korea in East Asia, El Salvador in Central America, and to South Africa after the end of the Apartheid regime. My boss even picked me up from Frankfurt airport when I returned from an overseas trip in Africa with a Malaria infection, and he kept in touch with my colleagues and me when we were campaigning and teaching all over Europe.

I was spoiled: My boss had not only opened the world to me, but much more importantly he showed me a character that I could trust in, whatever happened around us. He had his own opinions about some of the issues we discussed amongst ourselves, and he certainly let us know! But he respected the experience and knowledge of our team, the wisdom of the people who had joined us from overseas, some of them from places where civil war was still raging, and he accepted the manifold abilities of his staff. He respected us, and we trusted him. This is how he showed us his authority, and in return we held him in high regard.

An interesting side aspect of our relationship is that he liked to invite us into his family home, individually or as a team, to discuss issues of importance. Eventually I came to know his wife well, not least through a number of joint conferences and commitments. I found it interesting that for as long as I had known my boss and his wife, I always used the informal “Du” to address her, but would keep the more formal “Sie” for talking with him. And he never invited me to use the “Du” as an expression of the rather more personal relationship!

I was spoiled, because ever since then, whenever I meet somebody who claims authority, I remember my former manager. He taught me lots about exercising leadership by leading through example rather than command. And he showed me that it was his trust in our competency and judgement, his tolerance of our experiences and opinions, and his respect of wisdom that made him a true example of authority for us.

 

2.

“Authority” is the word that we are looking at today. Our little story in the Gospel of Mark seems to be pretty innocent, but it plays tricks.

In a fashion typical for the author of the gospel, it is told to us in layers — like a sandwich[2]. If you continue reading the Gospel of Mark in the next few weeks, you’ll find that in many stories “people” are mentioned to as being around Jesus, at the beginning and the end of each little event. Some Biblical scholars call them the “Chorus” singers who acclaim the main story.

They do appear in our little story today, too, but only in the vague role of onlookers who are amazed or surprised at what “they” hear and see. It is actually an interesting concept of writing that the Gospel of Mark displays: Jesus is the hero, no doubt, but he is never shown to be the single protagonist of a drama; rather he is always interacting with people around him.

So, here you have it:

  • At the beginning of the text, “they” are amazed about the teaching of Jesus at the local Synagogue of Capernaum,
  • and again at the end — but this time “they” are even more stirred up by what they have just witnessed.

“They”, the people, are also not just people who happened to hang around where ever Jesus showed up. The Gospel of Mark gives them a quite distinct character: Time and again, it refers to the Greek word “ochloi”, the masses of people, those who live on the land and off the land. So, the people you hear speaking — or rather: expressing their amazement — are not the intellectuals of the time, i.e. the Pharisees, the scribes, or the rabbis, and the politicians and other people of influence.

“They” are people like you and me, listening to, and trusting, their teachers at the Synagogue of Capernaum.

 

3.

And then a curious figure enters the stage.

Our English translation of the Bible text, the New International Version, has a problem with this passage. It simply says what is logical to our ears today: “There was a man with an unclean spirit …”. But the Greek source text, indeed, talks about a man “within” such a spirit. Some scholars translate that he was “possessed” by it. And true to form, our next verse confirms how the spirit argues with Jesus: “What do you want from US?”, asks the demon.

When I first looked at this text, I wondered what to make of this passage. It opens up a whole can of worms. For instance, people today (and probably those in Jesus’ time) would find it hard to believe that a spirit, demon, ghost, or only my bad conscience for whatever reason, could literally speak out.

Initially, I had thought to focus on this short piece, around the question of who and what is normal in a society? And in particular in today’s world, where politics has turned almost crazy? Where the art of lying, or deception, has become the norm? Where what we call “Public Language” uses words that sound sweet and nice but betray their murderous intentions? Where people, and especially the young ones, do not know any longer, what to believe and whom to trust?

I decided not to go down this trail, as I felt it was becoming much too depressing.

 

4.

What really caught my eye was the centrepiece of our little sandwich story.

24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are — the Holy One of God!”

I found this to be a remarkable statement by a demon within a man!

We have to remember that according to the Gospel of Mark this is the first public appearance of Jesus in his ministry. He had just called his first few disciples, and this little story more or less finishes his first week in public life.   Not many people would have yet known of, or understood his mission.

But two understand each other quite well — the “unclean spirit” and “the Holy One of God”.

In psychology, we talk about “multiple personalities”, or someone battling with “schizophrenia”. You can meet these people in your own city, indeed, anywhere in the world, apparently talking to themselves or a bystander only he can see. You may even meet this demon in your own soul. It may be the little voice that is annoying you constantly, making you feel uneasy. You know that something is wrong. But you are out of control. This nagging voice keeps telling you where to go and what to do; it seems to know it all.

And here is the confrontation that makes Jesus recognisable as the authority, which the people around saw in him. These two powers, beyond all human control —— they do not fight, rather they acknowledge each other. Jesus simply commands the spirit to leave his host victim, a man who was possibly regarded with contempt by his fellow citizens, or simply misunderstood. As the demon had first acclaimed the God-hood of Jesus, he now obeys his authority — and the man is healed. He is healed “from” a disease, like many other people were later, as the Gospel of Mark relates. He and the others are restored to the fullness of life.

 

5.

As I said earlier, “Authority” is the key phrase in this passage. We could speculate about the “new teachings” of Jesus in the Synagogue, and in the presence of the scribes and rabbis. The Gospel of Mark, however, is careful in placing Jesus as the teacher in contradiction to the teachings of the Tora, the Book of Moses, and the Prophets. He did not come to replace, but he came to fulfil.

I would believe, this is what the people around Jesus may have seen: In their eyes, and by what they had just observed, they had witnessed the “hand-shake” of the words of somebody claiming authority, and the deeds that proved his words.

Indeed, this happened again and again in the life of Jesus, and later with the Apostles, and the old and the modern Saints who gave their lives for what they believed and what they did.

Maybe, in this little story the author of the Gospel of Mark anticipates what was to become the message of Jesus — it was the word and the deed, which made him the authority as a preacher of the Word of God. The “authority” that the people saw in Jesus was the power of healing, not the force of destruction. Healing is liberating. This is the message of Jesus, then and today.

Amen.

 

Footnotes

[1] http://de.pons.eu/deutsch-englisch/menscheln, http://de.wiktionary.org/wiki/menscheln

[2] http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/epiphany4b.htm

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