Sermon for Holy Communion on the 15th Sunday after Trinity at All Saints’, Ockham, 28th Sept 2014
Ex. 17:1-7, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt. 21:23-32

‘Have you got a licence for that thing?’ I remember, when I was a graduate trainee, having a conversation with another trainee, visiting our office from Germany for a few months, who pointed out that, whereas In England everything is permitted, everything is authorised, unless it is forbidden, in Germany it is safer to assume that things are not allowed unless they are specifically permitted. Incidentally it used to be that way round in the golden age of the railways here too; coaches were designated ‘smoking’ rather than ‘non-smoking’.

I think that Jewish practice in the Temple around 33AD was closer to the German model which my friend described than to what we’re used to. ‘Have you got authority to preach in the way you’re doing? – to carry out miraculous healing, and so on?’ I suppose you might get a similar sort of reaction if a speaker prophesying the end of the world on Speakers’ Corner suddenly popped up in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is he properly authorised?’ people would ask.

Authorised. I’m not sure that the concept of authority hasn’t sometimes brought its own problems. The whole question, to whose authority one defers, can be fraught with difficulty. In the time of the Reformation, Catholics were outlawed because it was feared that they owed allegiance to the Pope rather than to the King or Queen.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are built on the concept of authority, on the apostolic succession, so-called, from Jesus’ Great Commission in Chapter 28 of St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus said to the disciples,

Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciples…

So every ordained person is ordained by a bishop, who in turn is in a line of ordination which, the church says, it can trace back to the disciples, or specifically to St Peter.

People who were against women’s ordination tried to say that the apostolic succession was just from male disciples (although there were female disciples like Dorcas or Lydia very early in the church). The idea of ‘authority’ wasn’t at all helpful.

Authority isn’t all bad, however. There was a very happy event in the Church of England at Evensong in Guildford Cathedral on Friday, when our new Bishop of Guildford, who will actually be installed and will start work officially in February, was introduced to us. He is Bishop Andrew Watson, who is currently the Bishop of Aston – you know, as in Villa – in Birmingham – the suffragan bishop, as it’s called, the number 2 bishop in that diocese.

So very soon we will have a Bishop of Guildford again, and the service, when he is inducted, will use the idea of apostolic succession to confer authority on him, that he is in the tradition of ordination starting with Jesus’ first disciples.

In our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, St Paul gives advice to that very early church in Philippi on how they should conduct themselves as Christians.

They should be modest and look out for each other, selfless in their desire to put others’ interests first. Because, St Paul said, Jesus was ultimately modest in the same way: he ’emptied himself, in the form of a slave’, even though he was ‘in the form of God’, so that, even though demonstrating utter human weakness, Jesus gained the highest status in the Kingdom of God.

Something which, in the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, was supposed to be an attribute of God, that

… at the name of God, every knee should bend (Isaiah 45),

has now been refocused by Paul to be about Jesus: that in heaven at least, Jesus would have authority, would command respect. That is the authority which is said to come down to a new bishop, and indeed in his first words to us, as he anticipated receiving his new authority, Bishop Andrew did seem to show real modesty. We will pray for a continuing welcome for him and his family.

If there was at least one happy authority-event this week, in Bishop Andrew being announced as bishop-designate for Guildford, there was unfortunately also an unhappy one. This is our Parliament’s vote to wage war yet again in Iraq, against the background of the continuing crisis involving Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and perhaps wider in the Arab world.

Yet again we are seeing pictures from aircraft, or from cameras in the noses of UAVs, so-called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, which show a building in black and white, perhaps with a few small stick men outside it, and perhaps with the odd vehicle coming in and out: then the target designator places a cross on the building in the picture, and seconds later, you see cataclysmic explosions, after which the building is obliterated. And, of course, so are the people.

We have heard here, and also in the context of the conflict in Palestine, in Gaza, that what is called ‘collateral damage’ occurs, that when bombing and shelling takes place, you can’t guarantee to hit only combatants, only soldiers. You may risk hitting innocent civilians as well. The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions are clear that you are not supposed to shoot if there is a risk that you will hit non-combatants – even when they are human shields. Sadly, this is a provision of the Geneva Conventions which has been observed in the breach recently.

There is a huge contrast between this military might – ‘shock and awe’ – and the way that Jesus went around, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, not deploying overwhelming force. I’m worried that, by going to war, we are deploying overwhelming force, but we are not persuading anybody, we are not changing hearts and minds.

But I know that there are other arguments along the lines that it is necessary to go to war because there is no other way of preventing genocide, which the IS, the so-called Islamic State, is threatening against anyone who does not subscribe to their version of Islam.

But who has authority in this? The pilot of a Tornado will say that he is acting under orders. His orders come from the military hierarchy, who are in turn ordered by Parliament. Where does Parliament’s authority come from?

‘From the will of the people’, you might say. But as the Scots proved, there is democracy and democracy. They had an 80+ % turnout. I’m not sure what the equivalent at the last General Election was, but it was far less. Instead would anyone seriously say now that he had authority from God to take a particular line? There are no easy answers, but it does seem to me that the same question could be asked today as the Jews asked Jesus all those years ago:

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

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