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St John’s Southgate

06 Feb 2019

The authoritative voice

How many people have authority over you?

How many did you count? Did you use up all your fingers and toes? Or were you stuck on two or three?

We can probably all say that, at the very least, law makers and enforcers have a degree of power over us. We have to accept that if we sign on the dotted line of the social contract. But how many people do you let have authority over you? How many people do you voluntarily allow to impose their will on you, not because you have to, but because you want to?

I imagine that for most of us, the figure we come to is rather limited, and that if there is anyone we submit to, it’s a conditional submission. For instance, if we can’t agree where to go for a holiday, we might surrender to our spouse with the understanding that we’ll get our choice next time.

Surrender is a complicated word. It suggests a loss of autonomy and agency. It is as far from a buzzword of the zeitgeist as you could imagine, and for good reason. And so, surrendering freely, wilfully laying down your own willpower to someone other than your nearest and dearest is almost unthinkable.

Christianity asks the autonomous individual to do the unthinkable. It asks you to release your white-knuckle grip on your personal power maintenance to hear from someone who has the ultimate truth and knows the only way, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.

Genuine Christian theology has always been counter-cultural, but as I write this in the whirlpool of our cultural moment, I’m struck by just how challenging it is to ask someone to let go and defer to an external power.

In a few weeks’ time, Christian churches around the world will celebrate the Transfiguration, which recalls when, atop a mountain, Jesus shone with the glory of God and a voice from heaven commanded, “listen to him!” – announcing that this God-man should be yielded to as the first and final authority.

Christians, whether we are entirely comfortable with it or not, find ourselves, in faith, floating atop an ocean of another’s authority. We find ourselves, with the help of the Holy Spirit, wilfully listening to Jesus’s voice and granting it a power-status that far exceeds any utterance of our own.

It sounds problematic, doesn’t it? Not very 2019 at all! But letting the other – when the other is a supreme being – speak a word of power over you, in a context of safety, love and even mutuality, can be a beautiful and freeing thing.

The bound-freedom of Christianity, as it is experienced in choosing to follow the ways of Jesus, even when they lead to painful extremes of self-giving and self-sacrifice, can give birth to fullness, and even joy, in life.

Donald Trump was recently asked if the buck stopped with him. His response was typically eyebrow-raising. He said, “The buck stops with everybody!” But, in a strange way, maybe he’s just exhaling the present power-and-autonomy-now air that we’re all breathing.

There is pure oxygen to be found, though. With God we can disentangle ourselves from the anxious impossibility of ubiquitous personal power, to be able to say with comfort and confidence, “the buck stops with Jesus”. I believe it does. I believe that in listening to his voice and accepting its authority we can find peace, and even paradoxical power, as we surrender to the love of God.

Tom Hoffmann

Pastor

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