Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – January 29, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Deuteronomy 18:15-20Psalm 1111 Corinthians 8:1-3Mark 1:21-28

By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s lectionary readings reflect on the nature of authority and the impact of our actions on the wellbeing of others. The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many places and ways God reveals Godself to humankind. With the mystic Meister Eckhardt, Epiphany is grounded in the affirmation that all things are words of God. Anyone of us – and also the non-human world – can be a vehicle of divine revelation. Yet, revelation is always contextual, concrete, and variable.

In the historical matrix of life, some persons and places are more transparent to the divine than others. This is a matter of call and response – God’s call and our responses as individuals and communities. Still, even though all of us turn away from God at times, some more than others, all persons have something of the divine within them. As John’s Gospel proclaims, the light of God enlightens all, even when we pursue darkness rather than light.

The words of Deuteronomy are both promising and threatening. God will raise up a prophet – another spiritual leader or group of leaders – to succeed Moses. According to the text, God will put words in the prophet’s mouth. Those who don’t follow the prophet’s words will be punished. Any prophet who extemporizes or deviates from God’s revelation will be destroyed.

The good news is that “God is still speaking” and we can find enlightenment for our path. Still, these words are ambiguous and raise a number of questions:

  • Can finite, time bound, and imperfect human beings speak God’s words “perfectly?”
  • Can prophets and spiritual leaders ever escape their historical, ethnic, and religious perspective?
  • Can we directly speak for God or are our words, by nature, indirect and opaque despite their insight and inspiration?
  • How do we know which words come from God and which are self-promoting and manipulative? That is, in a pluralistic environment, how can we discern the difference between “true” and “false” prophecy?

In the course of more than thirty years as a pastor and professor, I have encountered a number of authoritarian leaders and high pressure religious groups. They assumed a one-to-one correspondence between the leader’s words and God’s inspiration. They saw all questions as threatening and signs of pride, self-will, and apostasy. They shunned and silenced any alternative visions.

In the Christian tradition, revelation always implies a receiver, living in a certain time and place and with certain biases. Everyone – even the mystic – who speaks for good must balance the kataphatic and apophatic ways, what Paul Tillich calls the tension between the sacramental and prophetic. All things reveal God, but nothing fully reveals God. Every word can point to the holy, but no word encompasses the holy. What this means is that authority is always relative, relational, historic, and imperfect, whether religious, political, or biblical. Humble affirmation is the appropriate approach to speaking about God.

Psalm 111 speaks of divine authority as a blend of love, power, and justice, again, to cite Paul Tillich. Creation itself reflects divine authority, the ability of God to shape our world, cosmologically as well as ethically. We don’t need to abandon the theory of evolution to assert that there is a force moving toward justice and beauty in the universe. There is plenty of free play and competition in the universe – each event emerges from many causes ranging from environment, personal choice, and divine direction – but within this intricate matrix of causation, there is a consistent force aiming at novelty, justice, fairness, and beauty. Authority figures must be judged by their adherence to the “moral arc” of divine intentionality.

We must always ask the following questions: Does an authority figure promote justice, creativity, and beauty? Does an authority figure seek what is truly best for the community, including honoring diverse opinions and lifestyles? Does an authority figure enable people to be more creative, more adventurous, and more compassionate?

I Corinthians 8:1-13 explores the nature of personal authority and our responsibility for the way our actions – even matters of personal preference – shape the lives of others. I have discovered the power of personal authority as the grandparent of a toddler: this lively and creative child is constantly looking at the adults around him – he laughs at the things that are humorous to us; he wants to play with our toys and act out our hobbies (by “toys,” I mean tennis rackets and golf clubs, but also computers, cell phones, and kindles/nooks); and our words and interests shape his words and interests.

I like detective shows but choose to refrain from watching violent or sexually implicit or explicit programs in his presence. I am not a prude but I realize that we are responsible for the vulnerable in our midst – and that is all of us at one time or another – in terms of their moral lives, spiritual growth, and physical well-being. This may require us to speak out on issues that don’t directly affect us, but are harmful to others. The recent allegations of child sexual abuse are a reminder that we are our brother and sister’s keeper and protector.

Paul notes that even though some of our behaviors or words are in and of themselves innocuous, we need to take heed for their impact on others – especially less mature members of our community. This is not a matter of co-dependence or over-functioning, but the recognition that our acts radiate across the universe and shape the lives of those nearest and dearest to us. For example, although I enjoy a good cocktail or glass of wine, I choose to abstain from alcohol around people who are recovering alcoholics. During my years as a university chaplain, I met many first year students who thought they knew all the answers in terms of what it meant to be a Christian. While I kept company with these students, I chose not to deconstruct their faith, but subtly suggested alternatives, knowing that hanging onto certain positions was a matter of survival in an unfamiliar environment.

Ethics, Paul recognizes, is not a matter of absolutes or unbending principles, but the impact on the people right in front of us. If our abstractions harm our neighbors, then our principles are of little value to the communities in which we live.

The reading from the Gospel of Mark (1:21-28) sees Jesus’ authority as joining words and action. Jesus walked the talk, and spoke words that transformed people’s lives and reflected God’s vision for humankind. In today’s reading, Jesus’ sermon leads to action. He confronts a man, possessed by a destructive spirit. While we don’t know the nature of this spirit, it destroyed his personality, rendered him an outcast, unclean, and unable to live with his family. Jesus confronts this unclean spirit with the simple words: “Be still. Come out from him.”

Jesus’ authority leads to healing and wholeness, inclusion and hospitality. Jesus’ power was for good. His words and actions promoted creativity, agency, growth, and interdependence.

Today’s readings promote spiritual practices that enable us to attentive to God’s “whispered word.” Discovering our personal authority involves a commitment to prayer, devotional reading, communities of support and accountability, and concern for others. They also challenge us to embody the values we affirm as we seek the wellbeing of our companions and communities. Contemplation and action are one dynamic reality: our insights lead to healing and affirming actions that shape people and communities.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.