The Voice of Authority
‘…I am the least of the Apostles…’ (1 Corinthians 15, 9)
One of the Nine lessons we hear read at Christmas ends with the marvellously profound, ambitious, even inciteful phrase... ’And a little child shall lead them.’ And then I hear my mother’s rather more forceful dictum, ‘children should be seen but not heard.’ Who should we listen to? Who should lead? Paul, it would appear had something of an inferiority complex. In the early years of the emerging Christian faith, the most authoritative statements were those directly attributable to Jesus, and there were those, a small number, who having heard them directly were able to share them with their hearers. ‘Tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear’ – well, at that time there was no more powerful a vehicle for conveying the Christian message than those stories. And who better to tell the stories than those who were there to witness what was actually said and done. And given that the unique ‘selling point’ of Christianity in its earliest days was the claim that Jesus had been seen alive after His crucifixion, those who were eye-witnesses of the resurrection were key to the dissemination of the message. Paul, of course, was not one of these but in order to boost his credentials, so to speak, he equates his experience on the Damascus Road with that of those who were actually ‘eye-witnesses.’ This for Paul, in his mind at least, was sufficient to justify his claim to be an ‘apostle’, a person of authority, someone to be listened to, someone whose words were to be acted on precisely because he was a person invested with the authority necessary for his words to be accepted without questioning. Early in His ministry, Jesus was commended as being one who ‘spoke with authority’, unlike the scribes and the pharisees – those whom it might have been thought would have been listened to because they were who they were – indeed, the sub text to these stories is of Jesus, by what He said and did, was not only confronting those who would oppose Him, He was deconstructing their legitimacy as far as any authority they might claim to possess by virtue of the office to which they had been appointed – a classic case of what today we describe as ‘speaking truth to power’ – ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’…
“All the methods of appointing authorities that have been tried, divine right, and election, and heredity, and balloting, and assemblies and parliaments and senate—all have proved ineffectual. Everyone knows that not one of these methods attains the aim either of entrusting power only to the incorruptible, or of preventing power from being abused. Everyone knows on the contrary that men in authority—be they emperors, ministers, governors, or police officers—are always, simply from the possession of power, more liable to be demoralized, that is, to subordinate public interests to their personal aims than those who have not the power to do so. Indeed, it could not be otherwise.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You)
……And so, we have Jesus exchange with the Centurion, whose servant He has been requested to heal. The Centurion, drawing on his own life experience acknowledges Jesus to be, like him, a person who is ‘under authority.’ Even Jesus could not do just what He chose to do; His was not an absolute authority – indeed He had rejected such when tempted by Satan in the wilderness – His was a delegated authority; that which the Father had entrusted to the Son. And so, even when the risen Christ declares to the disciples immediately prior to the ascension that ‘all’ authority is His, even then it is a delegated authority. And so, back to Paul. He traced any authority he might have back to that experience on the Damascus Road. He told and retold the story as justification for his ministry, even though it had proved to be ‘foolishness’ to Greeks, and a ‘stumbling block’ to Jews. He too, knew himself to be under Divine authority. ‘It is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ Before ever anyone can act in accordance with the authority of God, one has to renounce any claim to act authoritatively in the world’s eyes. ‘He would be the greatest must be the servant of all.’ Humility necessarily precedes authority, because otherwise, pride will inevitably give way to a fall.