A very significant part in my story was played by Gillian Rose who supervised my doctoral research. During the time she taught me she travelled from critical Marxism through engagement with her Jewish heritage to Christianity. Discussion with her through this journey was enormously important for my own conversion. This influence was enabled by the sense all her students had that her thought and her life were a single thing. What she wrote and how she conducted herself were inseparable.
I bring this experience of what a teacher can be to my reading of today’s gospel passage. A fascinating aspect of Mark’s gospel is that while it gives great emphasis to Jesus’ teaching role it gives much less of the content of that teaching than the other gospels. In today’s passage we are told that it is new and authoritative but nothing is said about what is taught.
A few verses earlier we are given this a summary statement: “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”. What he taught in that synagogue in Capernaum must have been this: the nearness of the kingdom and that it is good news, the necessity for belief and for repentance. This is must be the new teaching; but what does it mean to say that he “teaches as one with authority, not as the scribes”? And why do an exorcism during the lesson?
Let’s assume that at least some of the scribes were good at teaching, that they knew what they were talking about and how to explain it. The difference between Jesus them isn’t that between a good teacher and a bad teacher but between teachers of two fundamentally different kinds. Jesus has an authority not even the best of teachers, the most brilliant, most authentic, the most committed can have.
Nor is this authority really about the content of hat he taught. His proclamation of God’s coming rule, of the necessity of repentance, of the fulfilment of the time, was not unique. In many ways it was the same as the teaching of John the Baptist, from whose ministry in the desert Jesus had just returned. His wonderful moral teaching, too, has been shown to be mostly compatible with that of the best of the Pharisees.
What was really special about Jesus’ teaching was him, was Jesus himself and his unique relationship with God. This is what the unclean spirit recognises when it calls him the Holy One of God.
It would be quite possible to preach a whole month of sermons on this phrase and its meaning and I can’t possibly do it justice here but it’s worth pausing over it for just a moment. The Holy One of God. The word “holy” means, at root, something set apart, something dedicated to God. Jesus is the One set apart, the one dedicated to God. Jesus authority has to do with his holiness, his being the person in whom God can and does dwell.
In coming face-to-face with Jesus the worshippers in the synagogue met God.
This was what was new about his teaching. God was no longer speaking to us from beyond our human existence or even inspiring a human being to speak God’s word. God was there, with them in the room. God’s kingdom, God’s rule, had come very near, it had stepped into their space and touched them. And in doing so it healed those possessed of unclean spirits; of fear, hatred, greed and despair.
Jesus could speak with authority about God because Jesus was God.
This doesn’t mean that anyone in recognised why Jesus was special that day. Even the first four disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, local men who were with him in their own synagogue, would take time to understand his nature. This is one of the central themes of Mark’s gospel, the difficulty people had with understanding who Jesus really was. But they could still sense that something special was going on. A new teaching with authority.
It might seem that this causes a problem for us contemporary Christians. If you have to meet Jesus to understand Christianity then where does that leave us? The resurrection appearances, after all, end with Christ’s ascension.
“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them”, Jesus said. He is here. We have the chance to hear his teaching and see his healing action, just like they did, because as we come together and hear the story it becomes more than a story, it becomes the way Jesus teaches us, it is how he exercises the authority he has been given.
The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Christian trinity, is vital, literally, it gives life. In the reading and interpretation of the Bible and in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper the Spirit works in the community gathered together to bring each of us into the very presence of Jesus.
The resurrected Christ lives on and in the Spirit each and every one of us can meet him and feel the authority of his teaching.
The kingdom of God has come near. God rules and the devil is vanquished, sin and death are overthrown and love and life have conquered. He brings good news; we have nothing to fear, God’s gracious mercy and justice reign! This teaching was hard to believe 2000 years ago in Palestine and it’s no easier in Britain today. We look around us and the world doesn’t look like one where the kingdom of God is near.
But if we have faith, if we trust that God loves us and rules, our lives are transformed. We go through our days with hope and joy in our hearts and become agents of God’s rule. The only way to come to that faith is through our experience of Christ’s authority and the only way to that is through encounter with him.
That encounter is what this thing we do, this Church, is. It is Christ who authorises us, Christ who enlivens us, Christ who calls us here and meets us when we come. The Spirit brings us into his presence and enables us to hear his good news. He drives out uncleanliness and heals us so that we can live in his glorious kingdom.
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’.
In the name of the risen Christ, our Lord and Saviour