193 people died in Zeebrugge harbour on 6 March 1987 when the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized because the bow doors had been left open. The water began to pour in; the boat began to sink, and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere of the ship turned in minutes into something worse than a horror movie.
All at once one man – not a member of the crew – took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do. Relief mixed with the panic as people realized someone at least was in charge, and many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed in the dark and the rush. The man himself made his way down to the people trapped lower down the ship. There he formed a human bridge: holding on with one hand to a ladder and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed – the authority by which many had been saved. His name was Andrew Parker, and he was posthumously awarded the George Medal.
I invite you to take that picture with you to a very different sea coast, that of Galilee. A hundred yards inland, in the little town of Capernaum (the Bible sometimes calls these places ‘cities’, but we would think of them more as villages), was the synagogue. Here is a man, not one of the recognized teachers, who begins on his own authority to tell people what God’s will is, how the kingdom is coming. The usual teachers – priests and scribes, the literate ones, with in some places Pharisees as well, the self-appointed scrupulous guardians of Jewish ancestral traditions – didn’t teach like that. They always said ‘as Moses said’, or ‘as Rabbi so-and-so said’. Jesus spoke with a quiet but compelling authority all of his own.
And with the same authority Jesus spoke words of healing. Sometimes people for whom life had become a total nightmare, whose personalities seemed taken over by alien powers, confronted Jesus. Indeed, they seem to have had a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he’d come to do. The good news was that Jesus had come to stop the nightmare, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them. So whether it was shrieking demons, a woman with a fever, or simply whatever diseases people happened to suffer from, Jesus dealt with them, all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority.
This is how Mark begins to tell us both about how Jesus became so popular so quickly, and of how the course of his public ministry pointed inexorably to its dramatic conclusion. There is no doubt that Jesus quickly attracted huge crowds, and that his authoritative healings were the main reason. That in itself would have been threatening to the authorities; but, as we shall discover soon, there was more.
Jesus had joined in a struggle against the forces of evil and destruction, forces that, like the dark, cruel sea pouring in on top of frightened and helpless travellers, seemed sometimes to be carrying all before them. Jesus came to be the human bridge across which people could climb to safety. And if, in the process, he himself paid with his own life the price of this saving authority, a human bridge with outstretched arms carrying people from death to life, that was simply part of the integrity of his action.
The demons had their final shriek at him as he hung on the cross, challenging and mocking for the last time the validity of his authority. On the cross he completed the healing work he begun that day in the synagogue. The demons can still shriek, but they no longer have authority.
And so, as we reflect on the authority of Jesus, and what it means for us and our lives, and our world, I’m going to end with a reflection:
Who are you Jesus, that you speak with such authority?
Not like scholars and teachers, simply repeating each other, you speak the Word of God to us and all who will listen.
The power of God living within you shines through everything you say.
Lord Jesus, help us
to hear what you are saying.
to understand what you are teaching
to know God’s power in our lives
and in the words we speak of you.
Who are you Jesus, that you act with such authority?
Never allowing evil to go unchallenged, you release the possessed, healing in the Father’s name.
The power of God living within you shines through everything you do.
Lord Jesus, help us
to see what you are doing,
to understand where evil exists,
to know God’s power living in us
as we seek to bring your healing.
Jesus, recognised by the spirits, allow us to recognise who you really are, allow us always to be amazed at your power, your goodness, your mercy and your grace, for you truly are the Son of God.