Is this of God, or not? – Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2011

The chief priests and the elders come to Jesus and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things?” It’s not a real question, of course; it really means “You have no authority, for we did not give it to you – get out!” Jesus moves the conversation on to the real question: Is the hand of God in this, or not? And if it is, what are you going to do about it?

It is in the nature of chief priests and elders – or bishops and synodsmen – to be wary of new movements. They have an interest in preserving the status quo, partly because it secures their position, partly because they want to preserve the people from subversion. Both John the Baptist and Jesus would have appeared to be dangerously subversive of social order: this passage in Matthew’s Gospel follows on from Jesus’ violent attack on the temple and its moneychangers. But God has an uncomfortable habit of being found outside the authorities of church and state.

Jesus’ question is very black and white: “The baptism of John, was it from God, or not?” And maybe the answer we might want to give is “a bit of both”. Think of the Quaker movement in the 17th century. From God, or not? Those of us who know them admire their courage, integrity, peace-making, insistence on personal religion – impossible not to see something of Christ in them. But how dangerous they must have appeared in the beginning, with their radical sense of social equality; their scathing attack on “steeple-houses”, hireling ministers, set prayers and tithes. Or what of the Methodist movement in the 18th century? What a blessing – its insistence on real religion, personal holiness, the bringing of good news to the unchurched masses, the joyful enrichment of worship by magnificent hymns. Of God? yes! But what of John Wesley’s autocratic rule of the Society? What of his presumption in ordaining ministers for the American mission – for he was no bishop. What of the insistence that only those who had experienced evangelical conversion were real Christians? What of the dangerous teaching that one might achieve sinlessness in this life?

At the time, the established Church was fairly hostile to both Quakers and Wesleyans, but the passage of time has allowed for a more measured judgement, and those traditions have enriched our experience. The question perhaps is not “Is this from God?” but “What in this is from God?” For new ideas and new visions continue to arise; and while we may sometimes have to reject them, yet we should be always asking “Is there anything of God in this? What might God being saying to us through this?”

Are there any means of knowing for certain whether something is from God or not? Some point to an infallible Church, with a comprehensive catechism of answers and a magisterium to tell us what is of God, and what not. Others offer an infallible Bible complete with infallible interpretation which will keep us right. Some of us proceed by guess-work, instinct, seeing how things work out. That’s not very helpful, I suppose. But there are some clues in today’s Gospel that might help us.

In his little story of the two sons, Jesus commends those who actually do what God wants rather than merely talking about it. So a question might be, does this new idea make me more ready to do what God wants – does it lead me to prayer and service? Does it make me more loving? more patient? Does it make me want to be with God more? or does it close me in on myself? Does it make me look down on others? Does it make me more Christ-like?

Then there’s that strange little saying that “the tax collectors and harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you”. One of the marks of Jesus’ work was the way the excluded tax-collectors and sinners responded positively to him. To them he was good news, to them he meant inclusion, and a new chance. So: what does this new idea say to outsiders, to people on the fringe? Does it make them more or less welcome? Does it speak to them honestly and lovingly? Does it make me more open, more willing to befriend those who differ, or does it put up the barriers?

I suppose each of us will have to answer these questions for ourselves, and probably they will be different for each of us. There will perhaps be many occasions when Johnny’s sense of what God wants of him will be different to Jimmy’s sense of what God wants of him. We might note that emphasis in today’s Epistle, which extols the humility of Christ. Humility is not often the characteristic note of disagreeing Christians! Neither in the assertion of their own opinion, or their denigration of the opinions of others. But no opinion, however true, was ever made less worthy by being expressed with humility, patience and charitableness. Only with patience, charity and humility will we ever be able to recognise what is of God, and so have the grace to do his will.

 

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