The Fourth Sunday of the Year
1 February 2015
St Joseph’s Church, 8.30am
My dear friends,
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the great literary figures of nineteenth century America. He was a most influential lecturer, poet, essayist and became one of the most vital of his country’s voices. In one of his essays he wrote: “Only so much do I know as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has lived. One person speaks from within or from experience, as a possessor of the fact; another speaks from without, as a spectator, or as acquainted with the facts on the evidence of a third person. It is no use to preach to me from without. I can do that myself.”
In today’s Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus’ teaching made a deep impression on the people because, unlike the scribes, he taught them with authority. In the words of Emerson; “Jesus spoke always from within and in a degree that transcended all others. But this is the way it should always be. All people stand continually in the expectation of the appearance of such a teacher.” He is saying that the only person who speaks with authority is the one who has experienced what is being talked about. There is no authority like the authority of one who has lived what he is saying.
What most impressed Jesus’ listeners was the authority with which he taught. He did not hold any official position. Jesus spoke with his own voice, with his own authority. His hearers could intuit that here was someone whose words and actions were in harmony. We do not know what Jesus actually said in the synagogue in Capernaum but it obviously resounded deeply with the life and experience of the locals. If we don’t know what Jesus taught there, we do know what he did. He healed a man possessed by an unclean spirit. He did this by the authority of his word. The people looking on were astonished. Who is this? They don’t know what to make of it all. Jesus had not been with them long enough yet for one of them to be able to declare, in answer to a question, “You are Christ, the Son of the living God.”
It takes us a long time to move from astonishment to belief. Today’s psalm response expresses the wish; “O that today you would listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts.” Opening our hearts to his word moves us from a tired and distant profession of faith to an energetic, real and living confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is no longer lip service; it is authentic. If our minds and hearts are deeply impressed by his word, we all, in a real sense, become teachers and healers through the coherence of our lives. Our lives can then become an expression of love which lifts it to a new level of enrichment.
The Rev Martin Luther King came to Memphis in April 1968. What brought him there was a strike by the city’s sanitation workers. Two black Memphis garbage collectors had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. These deaths led to a strike by the city’s 1300 sanitation workers who were angry and frustrated by the pattern of neglect and abuse of city employees that led to the deaths. Dr King came to Memphis to rally the support of the Memphis religious community for the sanitation workers’ cause. At the height of the strike, two young black leaders of a group known as the ‘Invaders’, asked to meet with Dr King. The Invaders were tough, angry and ready to fight. They wanted drastic action.
But as soon as Dr King appeared, the atmosphere changed. One of the Invaders later said: “When Dr King came into the room, it seemed like all of a sudden there was a real rush of wind and everything went out and peace and calm settled over everything. You could feel peace around that man. I have never seen anyone that looked like peace, and that man looked like peace. I was kind of shocked.”
Today’s Gospel portrays Jesus as a teacher who possess an “authority” which is immediately perceived by his hearers, an authority that is centred in the example of his own compassion and empathy for those he has been called to serve. Such authority comes not from the power to coerce but from the ability to inspire. The black leaders of Memphis perceive the same authority in Martin Luther King: authority with peace at its core. The authority of Jesus lifts up rather than controls. Jesus sees his call to lead as a responsibility to serve others by revealing, not a God of judgement and vengeance, but the God who calls us to compassion and mercy for the sake of the kingdom of peace.
+Liam S. MacDaid
1 February 2015