Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sunday 1 February 2009 - Power and Authority

This sermon is based on Mark 1:21-28



One of the big news items this week has been on the subject of bonuses that financial institutions on Wall Street have recently paid to their employees.

Collectively, it seems that bonuses of $18.4 billion (about £13 billion) were paid to the employees of Wall Street firms during 2008 by financial institutions which also asked for government assistance during the year.

The American financial company Merrill Lynch - whose parent company was rescued by the Federal government - paid out $4 billion in staff bonuses in 2008. The recently-sacked boss of Merrill Lynch - John Thain - justified the payment of these bonuses on the basis that the company had to give out these bonuses or it would loose it's best people.

The American Comedian Steve Colbert expressed the outrage of the person on the street on one of his recent shows when he said: 'Newsflash! You haven't got any “best people”. They drove the country into a financial crisis. These are not “best people”!'

Comedy can sometimes speak truths more powerfully than any other mode of communication.

So, on the one hand, we have former Merrill Lynch boss John Thain seeking to use the alleged authority of Wall Street to justify the company's actions. And, on the other hand, we have the comedian Steve Colbert, whose observations are humorous (and authoritative) precisely because they go straight to the truth.

The Authority of Jesus

This morning's Gospel reading is actually about the authority of Jesus.

And it's about the quality of his authority rather than about the quantity of his authority. The story is not trying to ask the question 'How much power does Jesus' authority have?' But rather 'What kind of authority is it that Jesus' wields?'

21st century readers might be distracted by the question of whether or not such a healing exorcism took place at all. But Mark's audience would not have found the miracle in today's reading remarkable in any way. Their question would not have been 'Did Jesus have the gifts of healing and exorcism' but rather, 'Why did Jesus have these gifts? How did he use them? What purpose did they serve?'

One of the over-arching themes of Mark's Gospel is Jesus' miracles. This particular miracle is the first one that Jesus performs and so this story sets the scene for all the other miracles that come after it. The story is also a commentary on Jesus' character.

Mark indicates to us that Jesus has his own authority which he uses for the purposes of healing.

The Use of Power

This is an interesting image: Jesus, Messiah. Possessed of his own divine authority and power, using his power for the sake of healing others.

It's even more interesting when you consider the fact that, just a few verses earlier the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has rejected the temptation by Satan to use his power in a more conventional way. Jesus has just rejected the use of his divine authority and power to set himself up in role that we would normally consider to be one of power.

In fact, I'd venture to say that the phrase of 'a person of great power' would more conventionally conjure up the image of the boss of Merrill Lynch or the Prime Minister or perhaps even the members of The House of Lords.

By all conventional definitions, a person with a powerful position holds the welfare, health or happiness of many people in his or her hands simply by virtue of his or her position.

We have had so many examples in the last few weeks of positions of power being used for both good and for evil that there is no shortage of illustrations. I'll leave you to consider all these recent news events so that I'm not seen to be taking sides in one direction or another.

My point is that power can be used in a number of ways.

It can be used selfishly, without taking others into consideration at all. But as I use my power to maximise my own advantage I may unintentionally end up hurting others.
More negatively, power can also be used to take revenge and to actively try to hurt others. Or, we can follow Jesus' example and use power for the purposes of healing - which can include forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration of good relationships.

And before we decide that none of this applies to us personally because we are not powerful enough, we would do well to remember that each one of us probably does in fact hold power over someone in our life, even if we ourselves often feel powerless. Christians are called to follow the example of Jesus and to use the power that we have over others for the purposes of healing and reconciliation rather than for the purposes of selfish gain.


Power and authority go hand in hand and with them come responsibility.

We know to our cost that authority and power can be used in ways that hurt society and that tear it apart. But God's view of the uses of authority and power is very different from this.

God's view of the use of power and author is diametrically opposite to the way that financial institutions have been behaving in recent years.

God's view of the use of power and authority is often different from the way that governments behave.

And God's view of the use of power and authority is different from the way that individuals behave when we act only in our own self-interest.

The good news for this morning is that Jesus used his power and authority for the purposes of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus chose to use his authority for the benefit of humankind and he did not succumb to the temptation to use his power for his own self-promotion.

The good news is that, in Jesus, we know the Father and we know that his intention is for wholeness and restoration. The good news is that God uses his power for the benefit of his creation and for the good of humankind.

My prayer this morning is not only that we may grow in a deeper awareness of God's good purposes for our own lives, but that we may take seriously the challenge that this implies for us as his disciples. As we come to his table I pray that we will find wholeness and spiritual healing for ourselves.

And as we go from this place, I pray that we will employ the power of the Holy Spirit given to us in our baptism in order to touch the lives of others with God's healing and wholeness. Amen

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