I once got into trouble as a 14-year-old for challenging the authority of a teacher.
The school I attended had a junior cadet force. This involved dressing up in army uniform and learning how to parade and handle rather antiquated rifles. One weekend we had to attend a training camp, and at 11.00pm on the Saturday night I was instructed to take my turn on guard at the entrance for an hour's "sentry duty" in the dark.
Rain began to fall – torrentially. So, ignoring what the teacher in charge had told me to do, I abandoned my post, and started to head to my tent. After all, I reasoned to myself, any Soviet invasion of Europe was unlikely to begin with the Red Army attacking a small unit of adolescent schoolboys in rural England.
The teacher was, needless to say, suitably unimpressed – but I will spare you the precise form of words with which he rightly reprimanded me and reasserted his authority.
No-one likes having their authority challenged or subverted. Yet Jesus does just that all the time. Here's how:
(1) Jesus challenges religious authority. In Mark 11v27-33, a group of religious leaders demand to know "by what authority" Jesus has been doing things such as overturning the tables of money-changers in the temple.
Jesus throws back a question of his own to them. Was the ministry of John the Baptist, he asks, a human one – or one with God's backing? The religious elders are trapped, and they know it. If they say it had a heavenly basis, he will ask why they didn't accept it. But if they say it was simply human, they know the listening crowd will turn against them (v31-32). When they decline to answer, Jesus in turns refuse to answer them. Masterful!
Again and again in the gospels, Christ challenges religious authority. And you have to wonder what he would say to many church leaders – including me – today. Have our churches (like the temple) become such "neat and tidy" religious organisations that they are missing the central point of what God's plan for human salvation is all about?
When I visit a church or cathedral, I always look with interest at the literature and displays. Is the information simply about the building – or does it point people clearly to Jesus? Have those in charge remembered what they are there for? Or do they need a reminder – a challenge even – about who is supposed to be central?
(2) Jesus challenges secular authority. A little later on, in Mark 12, we read about Jesus teaching how God's authority can trump even Caesar's (12v17) and that by implication he – Jesus – is greater than even the great Jewish King David (12v35-37). There may be times, therefore, when following Christ results in breaking national law.
It's still a live issue today. Justin Welby spoke recently about how a politician had expressed incredulity to him that anyone could regard what their faith said as somehow more important than what the state decided. The Archbishop told him: "Well, you've got a real problem here, because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law, so you've got an extremist sitting in here with you."
(3) Jesus challenges our authority. Ultimately, Jesus' words and actions challenge all of us. The Baptist pastor Geoff Thomas, a professor of historical theology, has commented on this section of Mark's gospel: "The challenge of God's gospel is the challenge of the authority of Jesus Christ, his claim to be God, to be the one who made the universe, to uphold the universe, to judge it and consummate it. That is the Lord's claim. His authority over you as the one who made you, the one who is your Lord, and the one who is your God."
Most of us, like the religious leaders here, would like Jesus to answer all our questions. But more often than not, when we truly encounter Christ, we will find – as they did – that it is he who has challenging questions for us. And no question is more important than that of Jesus' authority. As he puts it earlier in Mark: "Who do you say I am?"
Ruth Bell Graham, Billy Graham's wife, wrote this short verse which helps place our own questions in the context of Christ's unique authority: "I lay my 'Why's' before your throne, in worship kneeling; My heart too numb for any thought, beyond all feeling; But worshipping, can see that I, In knowing you, don't need a Why". Amen.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly series. He is on Twitter @David_Baker_A.