GSC 14th April 2019
Around St Nicholas’ day, 6th December, or the Holy Innocents, 28th December, there used to be the tradition in this country of appointing “boy bishops.” The idea was that the Bishop would temporarily set aside his power and authority and it would be assumed by a boy. This boy might then preside at Vespers (Evening Prayer) and cathedrals and churches would in medieval times often have a set of liturgical vestments for this occasion, mitres and copes in ‘boy size.’ Apparently in some places it even had a slight quality of trick-or-treat where the boys dressed up like this would go round seeking collection of gifts and, of course, money and sweets. Such feasts as this were sadly lost with the Reformation in England but also because I suspect people started taking themselves a little too seriously.
Power is a curious concept and the main thrust of the Passion we’ve heard read just now, of course, is that Jesus comes up against the supreme earthly power, represented by the person of Pontius Pilate, who was governor or procurator of Judea within the Roman Empire. Power was already a tricky issue around the area, hence the Gospels also record the presence of King Herod. He was a sort of puppet king with not much authority but kept going by the Government as a symbol of listening to the people and in a desire for peace.
When the Bible speaks of power, it is so often about God’s power. Power is therefore essentially a good thing. This might seem slightly odd to us: I suspect we have been subtly trained to think power is generally a bad thing, something that is abused: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord Acton, a nineteenth century British politician said and is often quoted. It leads us to think that power is bad. And yet, the power of Jesus at work in us heals and absolves and rehabilitates and saves. When society makes power a bad thing it is a form of control ironically trying to make us feel powerless, unable to change things, beating us down.
Furthermore, none of us can escape the consequences of power on our life. We have power over others, when we make tea for someone or help someone; when we drive a car; when we have positions of responsibilities in our families or at work or here at the Good Shepherd. In these and many other situations we have power and it’s quite important to be honest with ourselves and others about that. And there will also be people who exercise power over us in those same places.
Just as an aside, I’d like us to start thinking about setting up a Good Shepherd Council as an opportunity for people to meet occasionally to discuss how we can continue to make our life here better. It will hopefully help us make some decisions together, a pooling of power if you like, and draw more of us in on this great project and divine commission for us to grow this Church. I hope to launch this when Fr Rimmer arrives at the end of June, but I hope we can start thinking about what direction the group might take and if you might be interested in supporting it. Let me know any thoughts!
Anyway, power. The first Christians had to work out pretty quickly what the policy was going to be on the main locus of power in their own day: the Roman Empire, this vast vast political, military and cultural entity, which there was no real option of leaving. Moreover, the Empire was executing Christians and began with the Lord Himself, of course. And yet the Church as she broke forth on the world urged peace and prayer and so we find St Paul writing to Timothy: “First of all then, I should urge that supplications prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (I Timothy 2:1-2). There was no rebellion but rather a living out of what the Lord had taught them: to pray for their persecutors and, as Jesus says to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). In other words, even here in the moment of crucifixion, of unjust mob rule, of cowardly, leaderless folly, Jesus is not diminishing the power the earthly authorities have.
In our first reading, the people of God similarly had a foreign power lording it over them, namely the Babylonians in their conquering of Jerusalem. This entailed humiliation and profound unhappiness for God’s people. Their response, as detailed in the first reading: “I made no resistance, neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me.” After all, what power do they really have? As Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body … but … fear Him who, after He has killed, has authority to cast in to hell” (Luke 12:4). It is the power concerning the things of eternity that we are to have regard for; not the other stuff. Bosses at work and heads of families and groups we’re part of should be kind and just and fair, but ultimately they can’t do anything too important to us. They’re not as important as they feel and don’t have actually as much power as they think when it comes to things that really matter.
I want to suggest one patron saint for us as we try to speak truth to power: St Laurence, the deacon and martyr, who was executed because he was a Christian in 258 in Rome. He was commanded by the Roman soldiers to take the treasures of the Church to the authorities and hand them over. Yes, he took the treasures of the church, not the silver and the pretty stuff, but the poor and the sick and he said, ‘These are the treasures of the Church.’ The Roman official was furious with this sarcasm. And so began a long series of tortures, culminating in St Laurence being tied to a big griddle which had been heated to being red hot. By a wonderful miracle, St Laurence felt no pain and so as the wicked soldiers gathered round rejoicing in their power over him, their torturing of him, St Laurence chirped up, “Can you turn me over now, I’m done on that side” (Poem of Prudentius). The rage of his guards flared and eventually St Laurence died.
Notice how humour was used subversively here by St Laurence who would not be bullied or intimidated by those who held earthly power over him. With the hope of Heaven before him, he would not be beaten down by these pathetic men, nor would he seek to have their favour. There’s only one opinion that matters and that’s God’s. With that in mind, let us then have a concern that those in power rule peaceably and in a godly manner, both in our work, in our communities, in the local council and in Her Majesty’s Government. We should then not just be dismissive of these people but be diligent in praying for them, in being involved in creating this better world and in inviting them to bend the knee at the name of Jesus through whom salvation and life comes to the world. And it’s only, only His opinion that matters. Amen.