“By what authority?”
Message preached on
October 1, 2017
When I first pondered this scripture, I thought my sermon was going to be about the authority we have when it comes to doing the things we have been called to do as followers of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I still wonder over this authority. For instance, as an ordained minister, I stand here when two persons speak their vows to one another. “By the authority vested in me,” I then say, “I now proclaim you to be husband and wife.” When I really think about it, that takes my breath away. Why me? What authority do I really have?
Or how about on a Sunday morning like today - why is it that you come and listen to me? I guess I’m assuming that you do listen. Maybe I shouldn’t. But if you do, why? It certainly can’t be because I’m all that great a speaker. If it were just that, now, I might consider giving up the pulpit. Why? Because it’s not about “me.” It’s about the One on whose behalf I try to speak.
As much as I’d like to ponder what authority we have as Christians, using this scripture as a diving board, I can’t. At least not at first. Perhaps we’ll get there later. To be honest with this scripture, though, I have to begin with a basic point - that this scripture is not about “us.” Or, at least, if it does involves “us,” the role we play in it may not be the one we at first think.
You heard the account. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree on when it happened - this questioning of Jesus by the religious authorities of his day. It took place not long after he entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the “hosanna”-shouting crowds. You might recall that soon thereafter he headed straight for the Temple, and one of the first things he did was some house-cleaning. He uprooted the money-changers and scattered their animals because the priorities of God’s people were really a mess. He turned things upside down to reveal how much a mess it really was.
It was this “messing” around in the Temple that drew those religious guys to him to ask their question. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Now, here is where I originally jumped off in the direction of wondering about the authority we have in Christ, assuming that it gets questioned. I placed myself beside Jesus as one of his disciples in this story, or maybe I even was trying on his sandals to see how they fit. When those religious authorities came marching up, I was on one side of the question. Perhaps, however, I should really be on the other side.
After all, I am a modern day “religious authority,” am I not? “By the authority vested in me,” I proclaim at a wedding, and that authority comes not just from the gospel of which I am a minister. That authority also comes from the state of Maryland, which grants me the power to unite two persons in marriage in the eyes of the government.
Maybe I / we should first enter this scripture from the other side of the question. We ask the question, not someone else. And we ask it not of ourselves, but of Jesus. By what authority is Jesus doing the things he is doing in our lives? Do we ask that question when what the Lord is doing is obviously working for our good - when we experience healing, for instance, or when good things happen to us or around us? Probably not.
Of course, those religious authorities back then weren’t just thinking about the “money-changer episode” in the Temple, when they came and questioned Jesus’ authority. The miracles he had performed - the good stuff - these troubled them as well. Those guys weren’t stupid. They realized that the miracles and the Temple cleaning, as well as his teachings, were all woven together into one. It was the package deal they questioned.
When the Lord does good things in our lives, there are often larger purposes involved, aren’t there? When we experience some kind of healing, for instance, it may be for a reason - possibly one that we might not appreciate at first. Now, I’ve heard folks speak about how the bad things that come our way happen for a reason. Well, what about the good stuff? Perhaps it happens to help us face something more difficult in the future. Healing as preparation.
What about forgiveness? That’s good stuff! In Christ, we may come to a deeper awareness of God’s grace and mercy, and know that we have been forgiven a great debt. And then comes Jesus’ call to forgive as we have been forgiven. The other week, didn’t we recall the disciple Peter’s question “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” How did Jesus answer? … “Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21‑22). By that he didn’t mean 490 times and then we can forget about it. Nooo. Forgiveness is a part of a larger song that never ends. It just keeps going on, my friends.
Remember, also, these familiar words of invitation from Jesus, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus calls us to come and lay our burdens at the foot of the cross. His comforting words help us to let go our sins and other heavy stuff, and allow God to restore us.
And then Jesus adds the next line - which should catch us up, if we truly listen. “Take my yoke upon you,” he said, “and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29‑30). Wait a minute, Lord. In one breath you invite me to lay my burden down. In the next, you ask me to carry another. “Easy” and “light” you say, but it’s still a “yoke.” Something good leads to a larger purpose, a calling that may ask of me my very life. When we consider what taking up this yoke truly involves, might we also not question the authority behind this call?
Our walk with Christ involves times of “house-cleaning,” when the Lord turns our lives upside down, flipping over our own inner tables, driving out our ill-conceived notions of what God requires of us. We may think it’s our own little religious rituals that draws us closer to our Creator, when in reality it is God who is drawing us to himself. Or, from a different perspective, we may think of “faith” as a noun not a verb. Really, though, belief is a way of following. When the children of Israel stood at the edge of the sea and God parted the waters for their escape, was “faith” a noun or a verb? To believe, for them, was to step forth and walk into the parted sea.
“Faith” is not a religious ritual, nor is it a theological statement. It’s a sometimes frightening step in a particular direction. “Take up my yoke,” Jesus says. “Seventy times seven,” Jesus says. “My house shall be called a house of prayer..” (Matthew 21:13, cf Isaiah 56:7). His words and actions should give us pause, such that we stand like those religious authorities did back then and ask, “by what authority do you say and do these things?” Not just long ago, but today.
Those religious guys back then knew it boiled down to two options, either his authority was derived from the author of Creation, from God, or else it was something much less. Whenever we hear the word “authority,” by the way, we should break it apart and hear the word “author” within. Are these words and actions “authored” by God or not? When Jesus flipped the question back on them, in good rabbinic fashion (something they should have seen coming a mile away, if you ask me), those were the two options they debated. Either his authority was from God, or it was just his own voice talking.
That’s the issue for you and I. Is this stuff from God or not? If so, what are we going to do about it? Jesus followed up this encounter with a parable. In Matthew’s gospel it is a story of a man who had a vineyard and two sons. He asks each to get to work. I don’t have a vineyard, but I do have two sons. When they lived with me, they sometimes would balk at doing what I asked, but then do it anyway. Other times they said they’d do what I asked, but didn’t actually get to work. Those were the two outcomes in Jesus’ parable. He asked the religious leaders which son did what the father wanted - the one who first said “no,” but went ahead and did it anyway, or the one who said “yes,” but didn’t. Of course, their answer was the first son.
Those religious leaders had heard God’s call through John the Baptist, as they had heard it through the prophets who came before him. They had said their “yes” to God, but they weren’t really doing what God had asked of them - like justice (not just talking about it, but doing it); like extending mercy (forgiveness as a lifestyle, not a ritual), like humbly walking with God (allowing faith to be a verb, not just a noun) [see Micah 6:8]. You know, the difficult stuff. Turning God’s call into more than just a bumper sticker.
When we listen to this story of Jesus as if we are the ones who question him, we become aware of our own inner resistance to the true authority in our lives. Are we really allowing the author of Creation to write his Word (remember “author” / “authority”), not just on our bumper, but on our heart? How do we know it is written upon our hearts? When faith becomes a verb, not just a noun. When our own authority is not something we assert, but something we release, that the author of Creation may write it upon other hearts.
Did I end up answering my original question anyway? You know - by what authority do we do what Jesus has called us to do? A better scripture text for that might be what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, words with which I sang this morning. The song speaks of Jesus’ authority in a different way. According to this view of authority, it says, Jesus was totally equal with God, but he released it all - he let it go - and became like us. In so doing, he did what God wanted. His death upon the cross, then, bore the handwriting of the author of Creation. Because of this, the song says, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:1-11).
His authority was not in any crown he wore, any badge of honor pinned to his chest, any claim to fame he may have made. His authority is ours when we allow this same handwriting to be etched upon our hearts and minds. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The greatest commandment, Jesus said. And right after that: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40). Therein lies whatever authority we have.
(revised from 2002)